WITNESS: Living with breast cancer: Diagnosis

Tue Jun 5, 2007 6:47am EDT

1 of 17. Cancer patient Deborah Charles lies inside the tube of a magnetic resonance imaging scanner during an MRI examination of her breasts at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington May 23, 2007. Like many cancer patients, Charles now spends many of her days going for many medical appointments, treatments and examinations.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Bourg

Deborah Charles has worked for Reuters as a correspondent around the world since 1990 with postings in Argentina, Canada, Thailand and Spain. She was appointed to cover the White House in 1999 and switched to the security and justice beat in Washington after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. An active cyclist and outdoor enthusiast, Charles, 42, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November last year. She has just finished treatment.

In the following story, she describes how the discovery that she had breast cancer and treatment has affected her life and those around her. Her husband tells his side of the story in "Living with breast cancer: the husband".

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - "Has anyone talked to you about your results?" the doctor asked me. And that's when I knew I had breast cancer.

A week earlier, I'd had a biopsy after my physician found a slight abnormality in my right breast.

The disease had killed my mother Dawn and my grandmother Raisa. But I had had negative biopsies before and I wasn't really worried about the results, I'd told myself.

I asked the doctor if my husband, Todd, could come in from the waiting room. Since we had agreed he would stay outside unless there was bad news, Todd knew it wasn't good when the nurse called his name.

When he joined me, Todd had tears in his eyes. We both knew I was going to hear that I had cancer, but we didn't know how bad it was. In those nervous minutes of waiting, we didn't dare talk about it; maybe we hoped it would go away.

The doctor returned, sat down, opened my pathology report and said, "You have infiltrating ductal carcinoma". It was a scientific way of saying those three life-changing words: "You have cancer."

I had a cancerous tumor in my breast and would need surgery to remove it. The surgeon would also have take out lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread.

But though the tumor was growing fast, early detection had greatly improved my chances of recovery.

I didn't cry immediately. Instead, I felt numb and went into journalist mode, quizzing the doctor for the next 45 minutes about the results and the alternatives for treatment.

The enormity of the diagnosis hit me only as we left the Georgetown University Hospital on that chilly afternoon on November 6 last year.

We went home, opened a good bottle of red wine and sat in front of a roaring fire as we tried to digest the earth-shattering news.

I was 41, young and fit, after all. I'd climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I exercise regularly and am an avid cyclist. I did not want to die.

But the fear that the cancer might have spread was overshadowed by a more pressing worry. How would I break the news to my two brothers and sister?

NO DEATH SENTENCE

Fifteen years ago the four of us had watched my mom suffer through chemotherapy and die in March 1992, four months after doctors discovered advanced breast cancer. She was just 51.

My grandmother, who had both breasts removed when I was six, had a recurrence of her cancer and died two months after my mom.

I had been extra vigilant since then, especially after one of my mom's nurses made me and my sister promise to get regular mammograms.

About 180,510 men and women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year in the United States and 40,900 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. In men, the disease is often found at a more advanced stage since men rarely do self-exams or have mammograms.

Women with a family history have a greater chance of getting breast cancer but, with early detection and advances in treatment, it is no longer the death sentence it was when my mother had it.

A positive attitude, taking control, also helps.

I would be as open as possible about my cancer, I soon decided. I spoke about it at work, with my friends and with my family.

I have now had three operations: last December, in January and in February when I had a mastectomy after the earlier surgeries failed to remove all the cancer.

In the same seven-hour operation as the mastectomy, a plastic surgeon cut open my stomach to take tissue and skin which he used to rebuild my breast.

I have had four rounds of chemotherapy as well. I've lost all of my hair, I'm exhausted, my taste buds are gone and I have about a dozen bottles of medicine on a bedroom table.

But I am alive. And I plan to be that way for a long time.

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