Continuing with the October mission to raise awareness about beast cancer, I’m going to briefly touch on the various treatments used. Not specifics, partly because it’s not my area of expertise, and also because there are many different options out there.
In Alberta, the first step after diagnosis is to talk to a surgeon. Cutout the cancer, find out how bad it is, then go from there. There are different types of surgery, in some cases one may be better than another. Breast conserving surgery or lumpectomy is when they do the best they can to save as much breast as possible and only cut out the lump and a margin of healthy tissue.
In some cases, the wait is too long for surgery, or the cancer is too aggressive, too large, then they may begin neoadjuvant therapy. That’s when they administer chemo prior to surgery.
Surgery may be a ‘simple’ lumpectomy. Or a more altering mastectomy, full removal of all the breast tissue. A Radical Mastectomy, full breast plus lymph nodes. Bilateral mastectomy, or bilateral radical mastectomy, same as before, but both sides.
Reconstruction may be possible, but in Alberta that doesn’t happen for several years and you don’t get nipples until later. Then you only get the basic shape of a nipple, but in order for it to look like a nipple and areola, you need to find a tattoo artist to to it.
Adjuvant therapy – therapy that happens after surgery or neo-adjuvant therapy – therapy that happens before surgery, is chemotherapy. A drug cocktail designed to kill cells. A central line is used so the medications can be injected into larger veins that can better tolerate the drug. Side effects can be nasty and could require other medications to balance those out. Course of treatment is typically 6 months – give or take for specific case scenarios. During that entire time there is an IV line hanging out of the person’s chest – a constant reminder.
Radiation – directed at the site to kill any remaining cancer cells. Not everyone needs radiation.
After all of that is done, there is usually another round of drugs used for 2-10 years depending on specific lab results and age. These drugs have fewer side effects than the chemo – but can still do a number on a body.
Time from diagnosis until end of aggressive treatment is roughly 10 months. Obviously give or take for length of chemo, if there is radiation, type of surgery. Time may be shorter, time may be longer.
At the end of that time period the person is left reeling from everything that’s happened. And recovery begins. Trying to regain full use of their arms, trying to figure out how to wear clothes when everything hurts their now different chest. And trying to wear clothes when basic body shape no longer meets the base requirements for women’s clothing.
Trying to sleep. And wanting to want to eat again. Hoping to be able to walk even half the distance you used to. It is a long road to recovery and it looks different for everyone.