Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where I've been

So a couple of you have asked if I stopped blogging. The answer to that is no...but hold on to your hats.

The initial part of my hiatus was because I decided to write 4 grants in 2 months. we have several grants expiring next year and I wanted to ensure continuity. Well, G-d blew a hole in that plan. The day that I turned in the first grant I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am 35 years old with no family history. I had my children young, I nursed them, I was on birth control for nearly 20 years. I am practically a vegetarian. I work out 5 days a week. Sometimes there just are no answers.

It all started a few months ago when I noticed the shape of my breast had changed. My nipple became inverted. I really didn't think anything of it because that breast has always been a little odd, especially after I finished nursing my son about 5 years ago. I started doing more frequent self-exams, but didn't notice the lump until January. It was very subtle, but large. Since I do a lot of research on cancer cell mechanics I knew that it was a really bad sign.

My ob-gyn saw me the next day and said it was probably nothing, but that I should get a mammogram and ultrasound. He wasn't in a hurry so it took nearly three weeks to get in. That was the second worst day of my life. I showed up thinking that I would be there for an hour and was there for 6. The mammo showed a suspicious area so they had to do follow-ups. Then I sat there for two hours while the radiologist looked at my scans. Then I went for ultrasound and even I could see the lump on the scan. At this point, I was still hoping that it was a cyst. They told me that I needed a biopsy and 30 minutes later, I was getting not one but two (apparently there were two "suspicious areas").

Five days later they called to tell me that I have infiltrating ductal carcinoma (IDC). My pathology was a slow growing grade 1 (good news) and hormone positive (er+ pr+ ner2/neu-) which is the best possible combination. They said the tumor was about 2 cm and the second biopsy was negative. I started preparing myself for a lupectomy with maybe chemo and radiation. They said I would be fine. That I would need treatment, but would be fine.

After pulling numerous strings, I was able to get in to the chief of surgical oncology a week after my diagnosis. He dropped the first bomb on me which is that he thought the second spot was cancer too and wanted to do another biopsy on that spot. I said there are two possible outcomes: it comes back + or -. If it is positive, he said we would have to do a mastectomy. If it was -, I told him that after what he said neither he nor I would believe it. I opted to skip the second biopsy and scheduled a mastectomy.

Two weeks later, I had a mastectomy of my right breast with temporary reconstruction using tissue expanders. These hold the skin out so that I can later have a more natural tissue reconstruction, but this will have to wait until after all my other treatments, possibly a year or more. I was shocked at how good I felt after surgery and how good the reconstruction looked. Apart from the fact that I have a scar extending horizontally from my breast bone to under my armpit and no nipple, it looks almost the same size as the breast I started with. The scar will heal and a nipple can be added later.

The pathology report, which I got a week later, was the second bomb dropped on me so far. My tumor was not just two spots but three! for a ginormous total of 7 cm!!!!. A lumpectomy would not have been possible. In addition, my sentinal node biopsy was positive so they removed all the lymph nodes under my arm. A total of 2 of 35 lymph nodes are positive, which isn't many considering my large tumor size. I will definitely need radiation and chemo is very, very likely, but I am waiting to meet with medical oncology next week to confirm. Everyone is convinced that I will be totally fine, including me, but this wasn't exactly the year that I was planning to be having.

I am so grateful that I had the lump checked out, that people paid attention to my concerns, and that I have so many friends and family that support me. The day after my diagnosis four faculty in my department offered to take over my classes. I am off teaching until all my treatments are over. I am trying to work on research and have so far managed to get out 1 paper and 1 proposal. I can't just sit at home and do nothing. A lot of my personal relationships have become much deeper very quickly, and I am constantly surprised by how much I am loved.

What's in my future?

Well, I will probably have chemo for 6 months or so. I will probably lose my hair. I have found a place that can make a wig from my own hair, which is comforting, but I also plan to get a pink Lady Gaga wig, because hey, why not? And this is my chance to try all those hairstyles that I would be too nervous to try for "real". I will then have to wait a month or so and then will have radiation for 6 weeks. I will then wait another 2-4 months and have reconstructive surgery. This consists of a tummy tuck coupled with a boob job and is MAJOR surgery, requiring a 4-5 day hospital stay with a 2-4 month recovery. The tissue from the tummy is used to construct the new breast. My breasts are large so I may need tissue + implant to get to where I was before. I will then have a second surgery to add a nipple, probably using skin from my thigh. Then a final third surgery (fourth if you count the mastectomy) to even up the other side to match the new breast. This will probably take a year and a half.

What else?

Well, thank G-d I went up for tenure early. My case is nearly complete receiving unanimous votes at every step so pretty much a done deal. My lab is being run by my research scientist, which I fortuitously promoted from postdoc just before my diagnosis. I am working slowly on grants and papers. I plant to go back to work in about a week, but will be in and out depending on the treatments that I am receiving etc.

The most important thing is that I will be okay. I decided that I would be, and as far as I'm concerned that's good enough for me.


At 7:06 PM , Blogger Becca said...

*hugs* and waves of support; I'm afraid that's all I've got to offer but it's heartfelt

At 8:00 PM , Blogger Rebecca said...

Holy smokes! Glad you're okay! I'll be thinking positive thoughts in your general direction as you continue on your journey to recovery!

At 10:39 PM , Blogger Ewan said...

Holy cow.

From a sample of, um, way too many blog posts read, this is easily in the top 5. The combination of frank appraisal, detail and determined honesty is just remarkable - thanks, and naked admiration.

No cancer in the family - and male, so reduced risk there too - but large amounts of dementia and heart disease. Don't imagine I'd be able to be anything close to this coherent.

At 4:08 AM , Anonymous ml said...

Wow. Best of luck. I'm thoroughly impressed by your stamina and resolve, and glad for your excellent medical treatment.

At 4:32 AM , Blogger Elena said...

I'm sorry to hear your news. A very brave posting! My heartfelt best wishes to you.

At 9:33 AM , Blogger KBHC said...

Thanks for sharing all your news Dr. Mom (delurking though I'd read you for a while). My heart goes out to you and your family. I'm sorry to hear you are going through all this. Hugs, warm wishes, support, all in your direction.

At 9:42 AM , Blogger Super Babe said...

Sending many hugs and healing / happy / healthy thoughts your way.

As someone with a history of cysts and fibercysts and extra breast tissue, and family history (my Mom is a breast cancer survivor, 8 years counting now, thankfully), I have been slowly getting it into my head that I may have to deal with this one day... and I have to say, your frank and honest account of this makes me feel more at peace with my own thoughts...

I'm so glad to know that you're staying positive and wish you the best for a speedy recovery.

At 2:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for this news. I'm sending good thoughts, prayers, and strength your way.

At 4:25 PM , Blogger ScientistMother said...

lots of thoughts and good vibes are being sent your way.

At 12:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm 2.5 years post chemo for stage 2b breast cancer. I did chemo but no radiation -- I had only one positive lymph node, the one they took out to look at in the sentinel node biopsy..

If you want to read the details on my old blog you'll have to go back to about June or so of 2008 when it all began... but, really my story isn't all that interesting or unique ;).

Concerning chemo, I was scared to death of it and it really wasn't all that bad for me. Loosing the hair sucked ass, but once it was gone it was kind of ok. I didn't wear wigs or hats all that often because I have a huge head, I figured the least of my worries was my hair and my students just accepted it.

I kept working, but I did have a rather nice T/Th schedule for it -- and I'm very glad I had work to distract me from myself.

In general, don't be afraid to play the C card to get deals etc... I got a couple of hotel room deals that way.... Also, October will now kind of suck for you, as it's Breast Cancer Awareness month -- gag -- all the stuff with pink ribbons makes me want to hide for the whole month.

My best advice about food and chemo is that if you like avocados, eat lots of them! My taste got much more sensitive and they tasted amazing. That, and being able to go out of the house without worrying about my hair are the two things I miss about chemo.

I'd be happy to e-mail or whatever if you want to chat in private... hit me up at patty dot steck at the mail starting with a g and ending with a mail... etc...

At 5:56 AM , Anonymous lupusmamma said...

Sending you lots of hugs and waves for support. Glad you got i exmined when you did! Please let us know how you are doing!!

At 6:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be sending lots of good thoughts your way. It sounds like you've got a plan and support in place, which is crucial.

At 5:12 PM , Blogger NJS said...

Positive thoughts and hugs on the way. Sounds like you are handling the situation as well as possible. I'm glad you have lots of support.

At 5:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thinking of you and your family.

At 8:46 AM , Anonymous Candid Engineer said...

Best of luck as you deal with all of this. You have a great attitude.

At 1:15 AM , Blogger GMP said...

Best of luck! And congrats on your tenure!

At 11:47 PM , Blogger PUI prof said...

Prayers and support coming your way from over here!!

At 12:37 AM , Blogger Quyên Phạm said...

Best of luck as you deal with all of this. You have a great attitude.

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