My Fierce Fight Against Breast Cancer

By Phyllis “Rusti” Stover

Back in December of 2016, I was taking a shower, and felt a tiny, hard lump on the left side of my left breast. I kept palpating the lump, which felt like it was about the size of a marble or smaller, and wondered if it might be another cyst. I have fibrocystic breast disease, which runs in my family. All the other cysts over the years had been soft and big, but this felt like a hard lump. I was happy that  I had my yearly mammogram coming up in January, only a few weeks later. Otherwise, I would have called my doctor and moved the date up, if possible.

When I went for my mammogram at MD Anderson Breast Care with Memorial Hermann – at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, I pointed out the lump and mentioned that I was fibrocystic; they completed extra scans to check this out.

The Need for Additional Testing

Sitting worriedly in the waiting room was not fun and I was getting pretty nervous. The technician came and explained that they would need to perform an ultrasound. Two days later, I had the ultrasound and the technician then told me they would need to complete a needle biopsy. They inserted a long hollow needle in my breast and ran a little “clipper” up through it. As I waited to find out what that would bring, I began to think about, or not think about, the dreaded “C” word.

Near the end of that week, my primary care physician called and asked me to drive to the office right then to talk in person. That’s when it dawned on me that I was facing a grim reality. I grabbed my purse and keys, jumped in the car, took three deep breaths and calmed down enough to drive carefully. My doctor told me the biopsy showed I had invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast, which apparently had been growing undetected in one of the three breast ducts on that side for a while, at least since my last mammogram a year earlier. The tiny lump I felt was where it had broken through and escaped the duct.

I wanted it out immediately, scared of any loose cancer cells traveling and wreaking havoc inside my body!  Since I knew this area of my breast was close to a cluster of lymph nodes on my left side, that was another reason I did not want to waste any time having this removed.  I visualized little troops of cancer cells like Roman soldiers rapidly marching toward the bean-shaped lymph nodes, then poking at them with their little spears, making holes and getting inside.

I sagged into my car feeling so very, very overwhelmed. Hands shaking, I picked up my cell phone and called Andrea, my daughter. I sat in the parking lot talking to her for a long time, explaining everything I was told as she calmed me down enough so I, again, could safely drive home. Now, I was just very, very anxious! “No tears, girl, get fierce,” I told myself.

Navigating My Cancer Journey

I was connected with the Nurse Navigator for the Breast Care Center, Lillian Sweeney, who was an awesome help to me in getting things done as quickly as possible. Lillian was such a blessing through all this, doing exactly the job she was born to do, I believe, as she takes great care of everyone she assists. Her follow-up and follow-through attitude of care makes everyone feel she is a loving part of their family. As a matter of fact, we still keep in touch, and I try to attend all the monthly breast cancer survivor lunches at the hospital to share my story, hear other women’s stories, and keep this encouraging network going.

With Lillian’s help, I got an appointment with another great lady, Dr. Arlene Ricardo, who would be my cancer surgeon. When my daughter and I went to the appointment on the Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital campus, we were greeted by Dr. Ricardo, who had the greatest, widest smile and beautiful sparkling eyes and who put us at ease the minute we saw her!

Dr. Ricardo explained the biopsy results in depth with diagrams and said that a large lumpectomy, including the removal of the duct, surrounding tissue and a few lymph nodes for testing, would be the way to go as this appeared to be a very early stage breast cancer. No need to do a full mastectomy!

I was 72 at the time and was concerned with how I would appear after surgery. Dr. Ricardo explained that she works in conjunction with a plastic surgeon who would do a breast reduction on both of my breasts after she did the excision, so I would be balanced and even on both sides, preventing future complications like back and neck pain. This was great news to me. I met with Dr. David Altamira, a plastic surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southwest, who told me he would be able to do the reconstruction immediately following the lumpectomy.

In March 2017, I had the surgery. Test results on the lymph nodes taken out showed no cancer cell penetration.  I was again thankful I didn’t waste any time getting screened and treated. I would not need chemotherapy, just a few weeks of radiation treatments after my stitches healed up.

So here I am, a little over one year and two mammograms later, with no sign of any cancer! I will turn 74 this month, still living a full, happy and healthy life because I  did not waste any time waiting, fretting, worrying or ignoring this health problem.  Instead, I attacked it immediately – FIERCELY! With the great help of everyone involved, I am sure I will be around for a lot more years working on my bucket list and enjoying life, travel, family, friends and hobbies. And doing so with my health fully restored!

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