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When Paula got a phone call just after New Year’s from her family doctor in Boston, the news wasn’t good. After a routine mammogram 6 months earlier led to another mammogram and then a biopsy, her doctor was calling with the results: She had breast cancer.

With no family history of the disease, Paula was shocked by the diagnosis. Today, after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor followed by radiation therapy, she’s on the road to recovery. In this edited interview, Paula shares how she coped with the diagnosis and treatment.

ACOG: First, tell us about how you were diagnosed.

Paula: I went in for a routine mammogram in June 2018. The technician told me that she wanted to talk with the radiologist about what she saw and that it was probably nothing. I have no history of breast cancer, so I wasn’t worried.

Paula
Paula was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019. Photo courtesy of Paula.

They called me back into the room and said they thought there was something that might be abnormal – something looked a little thicker than it should be. I figured it was scar tissue from breast reduction surgery, but the radiologist said no – this was something else. Still, they weren’t sure it was abnormal, so they wanted to wait a few months for more follow-up.

Six months later, in December 2018, I had a 3D mammogram and then an ultrasound. Ten days later I had an incisional biopsy. Then in early January 2019, my primary care physician left me a message and said, “We need to talk about your breast exam.”

ACOG: How did you react to the news?

Paula: I was devastated, upset, and crying. She said, “I’m going to prescribe an antianxiety medication for you,” and I said okay. It did help.

ACOG: What were your next steps – what treatment was recommended?

Paula: They recommended surgery to remove the tumor, then radiation therapy. I had surgery in mid-January. Before that, I set up an interview with two surgeons, but the meeting with the first surgeon was so good that I went with her. I really liked her – it was instant rapport. So the surgery was scheduled for a few weeks later.

Before surgery, I had an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] to see the tumor more closely, and it turned out to be the most common kind: invasive ductal carcinoma. The part that had become a tumor was stage 2A, meaning the cancer was growing, but it was still only in my breast.

They did a test after surgery that shows how likely the cancer is to return and whether more treatment might be helpful. My results took a month to come back. They give you a “recurrence score” between 0 and 100, and mine was low, a 13, which means that the chance of my cancer coming back is low.

I started 6 weeks of radiation treatment shortly after surgery, and I started an estrogen suppressant that I’ll take for 5 years. [These treatments help prevent the disease from returning.] I finished radiation treatment that spring, and I had my final visit with the radiation oncologist and my surgeon in fall 2019.

I also had my first post-surgery mammogram on the left side that fall, and it was clear. This year, I went back for another mammogram on both sides – and the left and right sides were perfectly clear.

ACOG: What follow-up treatment will you need in the future?

Paula: I will need a 3D or enhanced mammogram screening every 6 months to a year. I will also need to have a DEXA scan [bone density scan] every 2 years, partly because of menopause and partly because of the estrogen suppressant I am on now.

ACOG: How did treatment affect you physically? And how are you feeling now?

Paula: I got through it pretty well, but you have to reserve your energy. I started going to bed at 9 pm. I kept jogging and seeing my personal trainer. I just tried to do things as normally as I could. I read so much about radiation treatment online, about exhaustion and fatigue, but I was able to keep a regular schedule. The side effects didn’t happen to me.

Now, I feel pretty good physically, except that my hot flashes are back from time to time. Emotionally, it’s hard not to worry, but I try to maintain a healthy awareness.

ACOG: What surprised you about this experience?

Paula: The whole experience took me by surprise! And it surprised me to be hit in the face with my own mortality. My mom died at age 95 and I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with this for a long time.

ACOG: How have you found emotional support?

Paula: I talked with family and friends who had different types of cancer. They were kind and great resources. They talked with me about what I could expect. I also talked with a couple of high school friends who are nurses.

ACOG: What advice do you have for women going through this experience?

Paula: Don’t go on the internet too much. One of the things my husband said was that a lot of people who are writing about their experiences are in a worst-case scenario, so you see a lot of the worst possibilities. Also, there are a number of diseases all classified as breast cancer but they have different characteristics. My suggestion is to instead search out a couple of people who can be resources for you.

ACOG: What advice do you have for people whose friends or loved ones are diagnosed with breast cancer?

Paula: Ask the person what they really need from you and provide it. Let them know they are not alone under any circumstances. It’s easy to feel like you’re in it by yourself, if someone doesn’t tell you that you’re not. What really helped was taking my husband to all the appointments with the oncologist and surgeon, because sometimes he asked questions I didn’t think of, or I’d forgotten. Enlist a friend. It’s very hard to go through this alone.

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Published: October 2020

Last reviewed: October 2020

Copyright 2020 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Read copyright and permissions information.

This information is designed as an educational aid to patients and sets forth current information and opinions related to women’s health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care, nor does it comprise all proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for a treating clinician’s independent professional judgment. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.