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By Branwyn Lee
I have always been attentive to my health through regular checkups. When I went to my annual exam with my gynecologist last year, we talked about mammograms. I was 39 years old. I mentioned that I had an aunt who had breast cancer. I decided to do genetic testing, and later found out, thankfully, that there were no genetic markers for cancer.
Then one morning months later, when I got out of bed, I moved my hand to pick up the strap on my tank top and felt a lump. Calm down, I told myself.
I went to see my doctor, who scheduled me for a diagnostic mammogram. Seeing fear on my face, he reminded me that it could be a benign cyst. But I had this weird feeling that it wasn’t good.
After the mammogram, I was escorted to a dark room where radiographic images of my breast lit up the screens. The radiologist pointed to a spot and said, “This looks suspicious.” I sat there staring, paralyzed, but Sarah Butler, my nurse navigator, was with me, which brought so much comfort.
A few days later I had a biopsy. Fairly quickly, I received a phone call from the doctor with results that were straightforward and shattering: “I just got the results back from your biopsy and it is cancer,” the doctor said.
I couldn’t form a thought or words, except to repeat, “What do you mean? What do you mean? It can’t be.” Phil, my husband, walked into the room, looked at me, and cried.
My breast surgeon, Dr. Katherine Hansen, explained that I would need a full mastectomy on the left side because they saw a lot more cancer than they had thought. It made me sick every time I had to say the word cancer. It’s just such a horrible thing.
Phil and I knew we needed to tell our children so we gathered everyone for a family meeting. My 11-year-old daughter cried and said in disbelief, “No, please, this can’t happen.” My middle guy, who is super sensitive, kept saying he was really scared. And my little guy, who is only 4, was trying to laugh, you know. Thank God for his innocence.
I decided to have a double mastectomy because I didn’t want to worry that something could happen to my other breast. But it was during COVID, so Phil had to literally drop me off at the door to the hospital on the day of surgery.
“I hate that you’re alone,” he told me as we embraced.
So I’m waving goodbye to him while walking into the hospital by myself and there was Sarah, waiting for me.
“I’m going to be your family right now,” she assured me. “I will be with you this entire time and I will not leave you alone.”
After surgery, I found out that cancer had spread to seven lymph nodes, which were removed.
I started chemotherapy in February and went every two weeks until May 25 and it was horrible. I get why the chemo is nicknamed “red devil”. I also had 33 rounds of radiation. I got to ring the bell after radiation was finished, with my family present, and said proudly, “I did this!”
But I had my moments of crying, crumbling apart in the shower. A few days later after finishing radiation, I awoke in the middle of the night because my bones and joints hurt all the time. I started stretching and suddenly started sobbing uncontrollably, trying so hard to cry quietly so I wouldn’t wake anybody up.
I was crying for everything, for losing my breasts, for getting through chemo, sobbing because I was so proud of myself.
In that crystal-clear moment, I thought, I am going to be more present in my life. I’m going to do more things that bring me joy. There’s nothing more important than what is in front of me.
That was the first night that I actually slept through the night. I woke up the next morning and felt like a new person with a renewed perspective.
The Northwest Community Healthcare team around me, from Sarah to Dr. Hansen to every single nurse, the people at the registrar, literally every person I have met on this journey have been very lovely. It’s so comforting to know there are good people in the world who really care.
It couldn’t have gone more smoothly for a journey that I didn’t want to be on.
Katherine Hansen, DO, is a breast surgeon with Northwest Community Healthcare, Part of NorthShore. Sarah Butler, RN, is a nurse navigator for NCH breast cancer patients. To learn more about NorthShore’s Kellogg Cancer Center, please click here.