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I Survived Cancer Once—Then I Was Diagnosed Again

Lisa Iannucci

Staring at my ever-growing to-do list, I contemplated canceling—or at least postponing—the appointment for my annual mammogram. Next month, I reasoned, things would be a little less hectic. Why not save myself some stress?

Like most, I have a fear of cancer. In 1999 I lost my 37-year-old husband in a fast battle with Hodgkin’s disease, leaving me to raise our three young children—six, four, and two years old at the time—alone. A year later I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer after my doctor found a small nodule in my neck during a routine visit for a sore throat. I endured several years of tests and treatments before the doctor declared me cancer-free.

I’d tried not to think about cancer in the 16 years after that, always trying to push it from the corners of my brain. But when my annual mammogram rolled around, cancer seemed to be all around me: Several close friends were being treated for breast cancer, and a close neighbor was battling leukemia. Cancer seemed to be closing in—again.

A year earlier I had started having what felt like small electrical charges in my left breast. Zippy little jolts that felt like a nerve misfiring all day long, setting me on edge with each zap. Test results showed that there was nothing to worry about, and within a few weeks the “charges” had subsided. I figured things were fine and went back to trying not to think about cancer. But a few months before my scheduled mammogram, they came back.

As I sat in front of my calendar, debating whether or not to put off my mammogram, I couldn’t get the thought of cancer out of my mind. I thought about my kids, now adults, and everything they’d already been through. They’d watched both of their parents battle cancer, and mourned the loss of their dad. I was eager to tell them I had a clean bill of health again, so I kept my appointment on the books.

“This is your mass,” the radiologist said, drawing an imaginary circle around a black spot on my X-ray as I sat in his office after my appointment. “My mass?” I kept asking over and over again, as if repeating the question would make the answer change. It didn’t. There was a mass in my left breast.

My mass was tiny—it was possible it was only Stage 0, if it was cancerous at all. I needed to have a biopsy to confirm, but somehow I already knew what was coming. A biopsy, a partial lumpectomy, a CAT scan, and several blood tests later, I learned that I had triple-negative breast cancer. It had already spread to some lymph nodes in my armpit, kicking my cancer diagnosis up to Stage 2.

As far as cancer diagnoses go, triple-negative breast cancer is a particularly bad one to get: It’s aggressive, more likely to spread and more likely to recur. TNBC is less common—about 10% to 20% of breast cancers are triple-negative, according to breastcancer.org—and gets its name from the fact that it tests negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and excess HER2 protein. Translation: Triple-negative breast cancer doesn’t respond to hormonal therapy medicines or medicines that target HER2 protein receptors.

It does respond well to four rounds of what’s known as Red Devil chemotherapy, followed by 16 weekly treatments of Taxol chemotherapy and then 33 rounds of radiation.

While it might sound silly, my first question to the breast surgeon was “Is this lose-your-hair chemo?” I had read about some chemotherapy treatments that didn’t cause hair loss, but this unfortunately wasn’t one of them. After finally growing my hair to the longest it had ever been—a feat I’ve been trying to accomplish for years—I was going to lose it all. I started bawling in the doctor’s office, bitter over the symbolic loss and the thought of battling cancer yet again.

My to-do list was suddenly obliterated by numerous “-ologist” appointments: a visit to my oncologist; a visit to the cardiologist to make sure my heart was strong enough to endure chemo; a visit to the radiologist to discuss creating a kind of cast that I would lie in each time I received a treatment so they knew exactly where to target the radiation.

As I threw myself into treatment, one question weighed heavily on me: Was the reason behind my cancer genetic? I have two daughters and one son, and arming them with all the information they need to reduce their own risks of cancer became my sole focus as I watched the chemo cocktail drip into my IV port during treatments.

Experts recommend that all people with triple-negative breast cancer younger than 60 be tested for BRCA gene mutations. Interestingly, TNBC is more likely to be diagnosed in people younger than age 50—I was 52—and it typically affects African American women and Hispanic women. I am neither, so I wondered whether a BRCA1 mutation might be to blame. That thought terrified me.

After what seemed like a million questions and a blood test later, I cried again. I was not BRCA positive, which meant even with all the cancer running through the family—my own and some relatives who had battled breast cancer—my children’s risks likely were not elevated. This was the best news I had gotten through this entire journey.

I made it through chemotherapy and radiation with “flying colors,” as my oncologist put it. At my two-year checkup this spring, I was told I had “no evidence of disease.” The five-year survival rate for TNBC is around 77% (versus 93% for other breast cancer types). I think about that a lot. I might have no evidence of disease right now, but every bump, every weird feeling, makes me wonder if it’s come back. It’s hard not to think that a fever or that, well, pretty much anything is cancer. If I make it to five years with no recurrence, I’ll be considered out of the woods. I wish I had a crystal ball.

I thought about cancer a lot before but didn’t want to. I think about cancer a lot now and have to. I want to get past that five-year mark, which will make me a two-time cancer survivor—a mother and a woman with a lot of life to live.

Lisa Iannucci is a writer in the Hudson Valley, New York, area, covering health, travel, and entertainment. Follow her @thevirgintraveler.

Originally Appeared on Glamour