In 2010, an estimated 23,200 women in Canada will be diagnosed with breast cancer. That is an increase of 500 from 2009. On average 445 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer every week. One in nine Canadian women are expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
Mercedez Quinlan was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2009. Sudbury Living asked her keep a diary of her experiences.
May 12: I am visiting Dr. Fredette who, while examining one of my breasts, says: “Here, feel this.” I feel the “LUMP.”
May 22: I have a mammogram. I feel uncomfortable when the technician returns with an attachment to the machine to take even more pictures.
May 23: The ultrasound is quick and painless…I mention painless because mammograms attempt to squeeze your breast into a flat crepe and can be painful. I decide not to cancel my trip to Newfoundland, my favourite place in the world. This takes my mind off things.
June 2: I return home and I have phone calls from doctors asking me to call asap. Dr. Roy is my family physician and Dr. Fredette is the doctor taking care of my hormones. Both are great people and great doctors. I am told two suspicious lumps have been found.
I go through 10 days of “death and dying.” I try and do one thing a day. I do not cry.
Dr. Roy schedules a biopsy for June 12. I get a call a couple of days later telling me I need another ultrasound at the hospital. A later phone call tells me the biopsy is set for July 3.
June 9: I visit Dr. Roy I tell her the biopsy has been rescheduled. She suggests I may want to focus on one stressor at a time and suggests I not return to work immediately.
June 11: Day 10, I wake up and all seems resolved. There is no more room for mourning. All is good and I return to work.
All four books I have read on breast cancer so far address the stress of not knowing and the endless waiting.
The gal from the breast health centre calls to tell me the earliest opening for a biopsy is still July 3. She tells me she will put my name on a wait list. The next day, I get a call about a cancellation and Dr. Brule will see me the next day.
June 12: I see Dr. Brule for my biopsy. I like her immediately. She inserts a needle into my right breast to withdraw some tiny tissue samples. It was painful. After the biopsy, she asks if I want to have my right breast removed or to just get the lumps out and have radiation. I tell her I am kind of attached to my boobies and wish to keep them. She tells me the surgery will take place the following week. If the lumps are not cancerous, then the surgery will take place Tuesday, and if they are cancerous, then Thursday will be the date. She places a rush on the results and tells me to assume it is cancer.
June 19: I get a phone call with results, but I miss the call. So early on Monday, June 22, I call and am told the operation is scheduled for Friday, June 26. Not good news.
July 22: We have a gang over at our place to celebrate life. Only a brief time is spent talking about cancer, and it is all positive.
June 23: I am at the hospital getting an assortment of pre-op tests including blood work and an ECG and X-rays. The process takes approximately four hours.
June 26: I am at the hospital, St. Joseph’s site, at 8:30 am. Prior to the operation, I go to nuclear medicine. The needle used to insert dye into my breast really hurt. The process is repeated as the technician wasn’t sure if the first time was good enough.
At 8:45 am, I am off to day surgery. A nurse suggests it would be a good idea to take a lorazepam to help calm me. They do an assortment of tests…none of which register since I am half asleep. Later I return to nuclear medicine where they take pictures of where the dye has ventured.
Then it’s back to day surgery. I am prepped for surgery which is scheduled for 2:30 pm. It has taken six hours so far. I sleep during the two hour surgery.
Eventually I am wheeled to the recovery room where my hubby, Gerry, and his parents come for a visit. Gerry has spent the day with me, although I told him it wasn’t necessary. At around 6 pm, we head home, I immediately fall asleep in the vehicle.
I take a week off work to allow my body to heal properly. I visit with friends, go for a walk and ride my bike and take a couple of naps every day. I get the idea the “ole bod” isn’t that fussy about being cut and stitched. Life is still good.
July 8: Dr. Brule has good news. The cancer is in-situ, non-invasive, there is no cancer in the lymph nodes; oh, and the cancer was a very aggressive and rapid growing type so I was extremely blessed/lucky that “it” was caught in time.
I discover there will be another minor operation removing the skin which was close to where the lumps were.
July 14: The second operation can best describe as one of my most horrible experiences ever. The needles for the freezing hurt. And this is a comment from someone who doesn’t take freezing when I get work done on my teeth.
The operation is one of cutting and a lot of pulling. I can’t feel any pain from the cutting but the body feels like toffee being pulled. Dr. Brule shows me the piece of skin and fat that she has removed. It looks enormous; it is about half the size of my palm. When the freezing comes out I can really feel the pain. Tynenol 3 with codeine is a wonder. I leave the hospital and go to Bell Park to picnic with friends.
July 16: It is around 4 am, and I have taken two pain killers and two sleeping pills, and I am still awake. I only took two days off work this time, a week would have been better. Gerry explains the first operation allowed my body to get rid of unwanted stuff. The second surgery removed body parts that my body actually wanted to keep. That makes sense.
I get a call telling me I have an appointment with Dr. Bowen, an oncologist, from the Cancer Treatment Centre.
July 27: Dr. Bowen explains even though the lumps appear to have had the cancer contained, and even though the skin and fat that were removed showed no evidence of cancer, they cannot guarantee a cancer-free state since they cannot examine every single cell.
She recommends radiation to ensure any remaining cancer cells in the area are eliminated. She recommends 16 treatments one every day Monday to Friday over three weeks.
I have permanent small circles tattooed on my chest. This will allow for proper positioning during radiation.. The needle proves to be painful.
July 29: I read in the newspaper that Janis Foligno succumbs to cancer. A friend tells me it was breast cancer. Another friend has recently lost a neighbour to breast cancer too.
July 31: I attend Janis Foligno’s funeral. This is too close to home, it is an emotional experience.
Aug. 4: It is my first time at the Circle of Strength Support Group. Everyone there has had chemo, I feel so lucky I will only have radiation.
Aug. 7: It is my first radiation treatment. I have blood work, go for a walk, and then see a radiation therapist regarding my treatment. I realize I have been sweating all day, but I am told deodorant is a no-no. The corn starch isn’t doing that great a job, so I will be replacing that with baby powder. I later discover neither are effective.
A short wait turns into a couple of hours. I am an impatient person. I am tempted to go home; however, I am writing this article, so I wait. Finally at 3:45, I go for my treatment. I am not happy and I think if this is the way the future treatments go, I will not participate.
My tattoos are retouched with dye to accentuate them for an easier read on the machine. I am told to lie very still while my arms are cradled in my cushion.
At about 7 pm, during Gerry and my (CKLU) radio show, I get very weak and nauseous. I throw up. On the way home, I am more sick than I ever remember being. When I get home, I throw up again even though there is nothing left in my stomach. Two hours later I feel better.
Aug. 12: I have my first weekly consult with my oncologist, Dr. Bowen, a gentle, mild and kind soul. She says I may be the one in 200 who is affected in this manner. I find out later my mom’s friend felt nauseated all the time when she had radiation for breast cancer, and another friend, who had breast cancer at 12 years old, was also sick with her radiation.
Aug. 14: My sixth treatment and I am pleased my scheduled appointments are on time. I have worked for four nights without any problem and don’t even feel tired (the normal side effect). Mind you, the next day I am tired. (The power of suggestion possibly.)
I help out at Theatre Cambrian’s dinner theatre production. I see an acquaintance. She is without her partner who has passed away three months ago from cancer. A few months before his sister passed on from the same disease. Cancer is starting to have an ugly taste to it.
Sometimes I start crying and I have no idea why.
Aug. 17: It’s treatment day No. 7. I get home at 11:30 am and sleep until 1 pm. Go for a dip, have another rest, and then it’s off to work I go. The shift is a good one.
Aug. 18: Only eight more treatments to go. I go for a long walk and have a normal day. I am reading a really neat book, Cancer I Am Going To Kick Your Butt. It is a comic book depicting the cancer journey of a New York cartoonist. I live in a most incredible country where I do not have to worry about paying for my treatments.
Aug. 19: I am impressed how quickly I am taken in for treatment. I have drawn a smile and an eye beside my nipple to represent a smiley face, and then I have written hi above it. My two radiation therapist had a good laugh. I later ask Dr. Bowen about reconstructive surgery. She suggests I wait a bit. (She obviously doesn’t know me.)
Aug. 20: I have a (volunteer) driver pick me up, and once a week I have my weight taken and visit my oncologist. I then sleep for three hours, and then go to work. I am still tired, but the adrenal glands are helpful.
Aug. 21: Something in Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul book inspired me to decorate my right boobie, it is worth the laughs. I now plan a different design every day.
Aug. 22: I spend a bit of time in bed, still just a little tired.
Aug. 23: I am at a get together at a friend’s house. I notice someone with a suspicious scarf on her head. She now has her second cancer; stage three ovarian cancer, and she is just having chemo because they are unsure where to target for radiation. I cry while she is telling me her story.
Aug. 24: I have glued a bow on my breast with the message “open me first,” again a laugh. Maybe I can use this for my comedy routine. That night, I have major stomach upset and don’t feel so good, however I work my shift anyway.
Aug. 25: I have a bull’s eye drawn on my boobie, Tomorrow it will be a tic tac toe, and then Thursday a flower. I need something special for Friday. I start reading my eighth book called After Breast Cancer. I experience major stomach upsets, occasional faintness, nausea and, of course, the pain. I survive another shift at work.
Aug. 28: Today I have drawn two flowers on my breast. When Dr. Brule asks to see my breast, I hesitate but she smiles at the joke. Suzanne, my primary nurse is very helpful and a real sweetie.
Aug. 29: Today after radiation I go to a staff team building function which I am co-ordinating. The manager suggests taking some Gravol so I can eat some food. I fall asleep in my chair for a while; however, I didn’t have any tummy upset. Too bad I hadn’t thought about Gravol earlier.
Aug. 30: It is time to celebrate. I have a whole mess of hearts drawn on and around my breast. I don’t feel quite as bad today, but still get chills which go along with the nausea. I feel so free.
I have not eaten or drunk anything for a few hours and my tummy is giving me problems. I am not feeling so hot, but I tell myself I can handle it. When I do eat the tummy belches and burps and hiccups. Too bad I have to feed my hunger.
My nipple is still almost black, and the boob itself is quite red and sensitive, I wear my bra for comfort.
The term cure is no longer used since cancer always lurks about and can return at any time. I am now dancing and singing with NED (No Evidence of Disease). I don’t call myself a survivor, just somebody who had cancer.
When I arrive home my volunteer driver gives me a gift of a butter cream with a note saying she and her husband enjoyed the time they spent with me. I was so fortunate to have them drive me.
Sept 1: I have one week off work. I am feeling better, so I deliver a package of chocolates and thank-you cards to my radiation team, Dr. Bowen and Dr. Fredette. I have already given Dr. Roy a plant. All special people whom I wish to thank dearly.
Sept. 3: I go fishing today and catch nine fish in one hour. I believe that is my record. I later have fish and fries, yum. At this point, I don’t really care if I have tummy after effects; it’s just part of regular life now.
Sept .4: I bring Charlotte, my little pot bellied pig, with me to meet a friend at Bell Park. She looks so cool riding in my Smart car. This is what I will focus on: the good stuff. Later that night we eat a fabulous meal at Tommy’s Not Here to celebrate the end of my radiation treatments.
Sept. 5: I have picked the best week to be off work. Every day is beautiful. I go for a long walk every morning and sometimes a nice bike ride in the afternoon. I even manage to go for a swim and do some cartooning. Still more stomach upsets. I try Alka Seltzer. The situation clears up almost immediately. However, a couple of days later I take some again and I am ghastly ill.
I still cry out in pain periodically. The pain is the last reminder that my boobie is still not happy.
Gerry bought me a beautiful gift: a crystal deodorant. I can use this since it does not have the metals other deodorants have. It has the breast cancer logo on it.
Sept 7: I go back to work for a week; I find it tough. I have a chat with the doctor, and we decide to allow my body the luxury of going to sleep when it wants to, being sick when it wants to, and belching and burping to its hearts delight and even yelling out in pain in my own company. I will return to work in a month’s time. I did try.
As I am editing this piece, there is a message on TV advising women to get their breasts checked. Please do so.
I have a great life ahead, living on the lake, playing with my piggies and baby foxes, and having adventures with Gerry, friends and family.
As I write this in the fall of 2009, my life is still a series of appointments, one in October with Dr. Bowen another with Dr. Brule in December and another one with a plastic surgeon in Toronto.
I have an even greater appointment, and that is my appointment with enjoying my life every day.
Editor’s note: On Valentine’s Day 2010 Mercedez Quinlan ticked off one of her “bucket list” entries. She did a stand-up comedy routine at an event to raise money for Angels in PINK and the Breast Cancer Equipment Fund. This September, she is encouraging men and women to dye their hair pink to create awareness of breast cancer and to raise money for the Northern Cancer Research Foundation and the Breast Cancer Equipment Fund.