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Marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month — Suzanne's story: My breast cancer journey

October 24, 2016

By Suzanne

Suzanne Lima
Women’s College Hospital patient Suzanne is sharing her personal breast cancer journey.

When I turned 40 I started having regular mammograms, which is a lot earlier than most women (due to my personal risk factors). While I was clear for a number of years, in December 2008 I had a feeling that something might be wrong during my routine physical, when my family doctor recommended a right breast ultrasound in addition to my regular mammogram.

Following a number of screening tests, an MRI and a biopsy of my right breast, it appeared I had developed stage 1 breast cancer. The mammogram did not show anything on my left breast. Needless to say, I went into shock – but more bad news was ahead.

As I prepared myself for a lumpectomy and radiation, two weeks before surgery I received a call informing me that the MRI detected a spot on my left breast as well. A second biopsy confirmed cancer. I was now facing lumpectomy and radiation on both breasts. But that wasn’t the end.

A few days before my surgery, another spot was found on my left breast. A third biopsy confirmed that it was also cancerous. The news came just one day before my scheduled surgery. I also learned that because of the distance between the two areas, it was impossible to treat the left breast with a lumpectomy and radiation – I would have to have a left breast mastectomy. So my initial surgery included a mastectomy on one side and a lumpectomy on the other.

As a single woman and an only child with aging parents, the hardest thing for me was to go home and tell my mom and dad about my cancer diagnosis.  I waited until two weeks before my surgery, and told them with the help of my aunt and a cousin. It was in telling them that I finally grasped the severity of my diagnosis. The one thing I am most grateful for is the solid group of friends that I have. My friends were there for me every step of the way, and I never had to go to an appointment alone. One of them was always there to absorb the information that I was incapable of digesting at the time. Just as important in dealing with my physical situation was my spiritual side, which gave me the inner strength to function and the belief that someday all would be well again. 

I wanted to obtain more information to help me decide whether to have my remaining breast removed so I sought advice from my good friend Aletta Poll, a genetic counsellor at WCH. In the end, although I didn’t have the BRCA1/2 genetic mutations, I felt that the right choice for me was to have a prophylactic mastectomy on my right breast. Dr. Tulin Cil performed my mastectomies at Women’s College Hospital (WCH). Later, on the advice of my medical oncologist, I also had an oophorectomy. While I understand that the choices I made are not necessarily what others in my position would do, they felt like the right ones for me.

Following all my surgeries, I had a negative body image. During recovery, I sought counselling at WCH and participated in an exercise program at Wellspring, both of which helped tremendously with my recovery – physically as well as psychologically. Finally, at the end of 2009, I had breast reconstruction performed by Dr. John Semple. This final surgery really helped in improving my self-image.

What struck me throughout my cancer journey were the people that helped me, and the information and resources available to me. Starting with my family physician, Dr. Ruth Heisey, at each step I had a wonderful team of healthcare professionals who are truly blessed with the gift of healing. I also had supportive friends and family that helped me to take control of my life and ultimately allowed me to make the right decisions for my recovery and maintain a positive attitude through everything I experienced. 

I realized that, as part of my healing it was important for me to help others through their journey. So I took a volunteer training course at Wellspring and I currently volunteer at WCH. Over the last few years, I’ve had many opportunities to give back, share and support other women through their journey.

My advice to women going through their own breast cancer journey is this: listen to and trust your doctor, but while you’re waiting – for test results or surgeries, sometimes weeks at a time – surround yourself with positive distractions. Go for walks, attend classes or support groups. Some of the things that helped me were meeting with a nutritionist, and attending exercise classes for breast cancer patients. When it comes to attending the many medical appointments that you may be faced with, often at different hospitals, remember to bring copies of all medical records and tests with you, just in case. It’s also very important that you bring someone else with you, like a friend or relative, for support and to help you digest all the information you will be receiving from your healthcare provider.

I know that every breast cancer journey is different, and that my story and my choices may not necessarily be what others may experience. All I can hope is that in sharing my story and insights, I can offer support to other women who might be going through this, or know someone who is.

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