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Share your story - S. Sternstein

My mother passed away from breast cancer when I was 15. Her sister was diagnosed as well. I always felt that one day I too may get a breast cancer diagnosis. What I didn’t know was that I would be diagnosed when I had a young child and would get the actual diagnosis on my 40th birthday.

My mother found a lump when I was 9; she was too scared to tell anyone so she waited. By the time she did something about it, it was too late. It had metastasized to her bones and then her brain.

I was so mad at her for not doing anything about it, but I learned a lot from her actions. When I found a lump, I knew I had to do something. My gynecologist told me it was nothing, and not to worry about it. Even though he knew my family history, he refused to give me a mammogram script. He instructed me to wait for my annual appointment, which was months away. I wanted to do the BRCA test, which was fine with him. He told me to come back in 2 weeks.

After hearing the great news, I felt much relief. A licensed MD was telling me not to worry. But the lump was causing a lot of discomfort and it was really hard not to think about. I told myself that if the lump was still bothering me at the time of my BRCA test, I would need to pursue it. I was afraid -- not afraid of cancer, I didn’t want my doctor to get mad at me for not listening to him.

When my BRCA appointment came up, the lump was still bothering me. I told my gynecologist again, but he didn’t care. I got annoyed and told him I would not leave his office until I got a mammo prescription. Finally, he agreed.

My persistence paid off. The mammo, sono, MRI, and biopsy showed that I had Stage 2, Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) that had infiltrated my lymph nodes.

I was just turning 40, had a 4-year-old and a mother who died of the dreaded disease. Could I catch a break? Yes I could. I found great doctors, became educated, and had amazing support behind me.

My surgeon suggested neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, which meant chemo would be given before surgery, making it easy to tell if the lump was shrinking. Markers were placed in the lump and lymph nodes so if the lump disappeared entirely, the area could still be removed during surgery. My oncologist treated me aggressively. The chemo cocktail was standard for breast cancer -- 3 chemo drugs. Instead of the normal, 2 for 4 cycles and then 1 for 4 more cycles, I was given all 3 at the same time for 6 cycles. It worked. After the first treatment, the lump could not be found by touch. Losing my hair to chemo was nothing compared to the nausea and stomach pains. Ten days of each cycle, I was useless; I couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and cry. I would have 4 days where I could function semi-normally, but then I would need to go back in for another treatment, which was all cumulative. It was like being punched in the same arm over and over, never getting an opportunity to heal.

When the chemo stopped, I went through the agonizing decision whether to have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. With a lot of research and the opinions of 2 breast surgeons and 2 oncologists, the end result was a lumpectomy. Even though I was willing to do anything, I chose this for several reasons. A lumpectomy with radiation after surgery would give me the same survival rate as a mastectomy. I tested negative for the BRCA gene. About a year’s worth of surgeries would be necessary with a mastectomy. The location of the lump was by my armpit. If I had the breast removed years before I was diagnosed, I would still have gotten breast cancer. When your breasts are removed, breast tissue still remains, so breast cancer can come back.

I was happy with my decision. All that was removed (area of lump & 21 lymph nodes) came out negative. After surgery, I was prescribed a chemo pill to take for 6 months and 33 radiation treatments. The pills made me nauseous, but I could function. The radiation treatments made my skin raw. I didn’t care, I was going to live. I had a chance to watch my baby grow up and spend many happy years with my husband.

It’s been almost 3 years since my initial diagnosis and my PET/CT scans, mammos, sonos, and MRIs all come back negative. Unfortunately, there aren’t any additional after treatments for TNBC. But with TNBC if I can make it 3 years out, then the chances of a reoccurrence is really low, which means my future outcome is great.

The diagnosis and treatment of breast caner was hell. I had a doctor who didn’t care, but I trusted myself over him and didn’t let history repeat. I survived, but I could not have done it by myself. Finding great doctors, great treatments, supportive friends, family and people I hardly knew, got me through it. My outlook on life couldn’t be better. It’s unbelievable how we don’t really live until we know we can die.

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