15 years ago, a mammogram saved my life

By VIRGINIA WELCH,

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a subject close to my own heart.

In 2002, by what I consider divine intervention, I became aware of the cancerous tumor in my left breast. I was at my gynecologist’s office for my annual wellness check-up, but chose to by-pass the usual hour-long wait in radiology for a mammogram. I promised myself and the receptionist that I would come in for it another day. A few minutes later, my name was called.

“Mrs. Welch, if you could go ahead and have a mammogram before you see Dr. North, would you want to have it now?” 

Of course, I did. Someone had cancelled an appointment for that exact time, leaving an open spot. I had the mammogram and saw the doctor a while later. His thorough exam revealed no problems.

The call that came a couple of days later rocked my world. Something on the mammogram needed a closer look. I went for a spot compress mammogram and an ultrasound of my left breast which confirmed the presence of a tumor. I was referred to a surgeon. His unproductive needle biopsy required a surgical biopsy, scheduled for the next day.

The next few days, waiting for the results felt like an eternity. The day I called for the results, I learned from the nurse that they were in, but only Dr. Scanlon could give them to me, and he was in surgery. He would call me. The call didn’t come until very late in the evening. The tumor was malignant. He told me to come to his office the next morning and we would go over available options.

The first thing he checked was my meds list. Post-menopausal, I had been taking hormones for only a short time. He immediately told me to stop taking them. My cancer was adeno carcinoma, a hormone receptive cancer. The tumor was very deep, almost to my rib, and the cancer had barely spread beyond the tumor into just the cells surrounding it. There was a possibility that I might could get by with a lumpectomy, but Dr. Scanlon preferred a mastectomy of the breast to be safe. I did not feel comfortable with just the lumpectomy either.

He explained that I could also have reconstructive surgery to rebuild the breast, and the government required that insurance pay for surgery on the non-cancerous breast for the sake of uniformity, because of the deep emotional trauma a woman experiences through losing her breast. I was already realizing that and I hadn’t even lost it yet. I cried through my whole visit with him. It is amazing I remembered all he said. He found a good plastic surgeon in the same building, Dr. Wegner, who was able to see me right then.

I wept through that appointment, too. He explained the process of reconstruction. I had hoped to have the tissue in the abdomen transferred for the breast. That could not work because of a long scar from gall bladder surgery in 1984. They would take from my side and back instead. I was not to be exposed to cigarette smoke, because it can kill the grafted tissue. I did not smoke and others would not be able to smoke around me.

I had the first surgery on Sept. 16, which was supposed to be my wedding day, an event that never took place. In addition to the emotional upheaval of losing my breast and hoping that would be enough to free me of this cancer, the rest of my plans went up in ashes. It was a lot to deal with at once. The physical pain was not nearly as intense as I expected. Two draining tubes and bottles were the worst of it, because they made sleep difficu

lt. After I went home, I had to wear them for a few days, draining them when they were full. After the surgery, at the advice of a friend who was a nurse, I requested an oncologist to determine and oversee my treatment. I chose Dr. Graham of the Cancer Center in Jackson. He looked over all the records sent to him by the other doctors and prescribed a pill, anastrozole, which I would take daily for five years. I believe it kept my liver, spleen and pancreas from converting nutrients into estrogen.

When my breast was removed, an empty implant was put in its place. Twice a week I went to Dr. Wegner, who added a saline solution to it each time via a syringe. The stretching process took several weeks. After the implant was very full, and had stretched enough, the stretcher was replaced with a saline implant. Surgery was also done on the right breast to make the two sides symmetrical.

Three weeks after my breast was removed, a friend started to take me fishing. We fished most of the day every day. Dr. Wegner said since I cast with the right side, it should be alright. But if I felt any strain at all, not to overdo. It was the best medicine possible.

What you don’t realize about a mastectomy until you have one: you mourn. Your grief is great over this loss. Fishing was a favorite activity I had not done in years. It kept my mind relaxed and occupied with thoughts other than cancer and gave my body a chance to heal and get strong.

Recently an old friend from elementary school was diagnosed with breast cancer. I spoke with her yesterday about her experience. Her scenario was almost like mine, except she found the tumor herself, and she has not yet decided whether she will go back for the reconstructive surgery. She is married, with a supportive husband who has assured her that he is fine with whatever she decides. I will see her this weekend in Louisiana and share my experience in case it helps with her decision.

I encourage every woman to have mammograms as her doctor suggests. If I had skipped the mammogram that day, I am sure I would not have gone back for one until the cancer was making itself evident, probably too late to stop it. If you are diagnosed, ask every question you have on your mind. In my case, another woman might choose a lumpectomy and radiation, which might have been one of the options for me.

I have no regrets. I have been cancer-free for 15 years and I thank God every day.

Email me at gingersnapwelch@gmail.com or leave a voicemail at 769-222-7055. May the Lord be with you until we meet here again next week.