Susan Byrum Rountree
The Aging Well Issue

Navigating the Unexpected Turns of My Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Finding a lump in your breast isn’t something anyone wants to experience, but in May of 2019, when I was 62, that happened to me.

I was lying awake in bed one night when I happened to put my hand on my upper chest, and I felt something under my skin. I wasn’t sure how long it had been there, but I immediately knew it wasn’t normal. I called my gynecologist the next day and scheduled an exam, just to be safe.

Surprised by My Diagnosis

I have fibrocystic breast tissue, which causes a lumpy or ropelike texture in my breast tissue, so I’m familiar with discovering various lumps. However, this lump felt different, which prompted my doctor to urge me to get a mammogram right away.

I also have dense breasts that can make it difficult to detect breast cancer on a mammogram. I had benign fibroadenomas in both breasts when I was 17, but when I turned 40, I began having mammograms on a regular basis. Luckily, my mammogram and later an MRI were able to capture two suspicious areas that required a biopsy that confirmed I, in fact, had breast cancer.

This is when my battle began. I had been diagnosed with two different types of breast cancer:

  • Estrogen-positive: The cells of this type of breast cancer have receptors that allow them to use the hormone estrogen to grow. 
  • Triple-negative: These types of cancer cells do not have receptors for estrogen, progesterone, and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).

My Treatment Plan

My gynecologist referred me to a surgical oncologist, who came up with a treatment plan: a lumpectomy to remove the tumors, along with several weeks of radiation therapy. Before that, though, I was going to need chemotherapy, which would target the more aggressive triple-negative growths.

In June 2019, I started chemo to shrink the tumors. Getting a cancer diagnosis is scary for anyone, but facing treatment is scary in a different way. I was given Taxol (paclitaxel), a broad-spectrum chemotherapy drug, and Adriamycin (doxorubicin, also known as the “red devil”), a drug so toxic to your body that you can only take it a certain number of times in your life.

The treatment was debilitating, and despite my best efforts, it took over my world. I had to put my plans on hold while I fought this disease. My daughter was pregnant then, and I couldn’t even travel to New York to see her while I was undergoing chemotherapy. In some ways, that was the worst part.

An Unexpected Turn

As November approached, I thought I was nearing the end of my treatment. I’d finished my chemo and radiation, and I’d had my lumpectomy. My hair started growing back, and I could finally visit my daughter to help her prepare for the baby. But I was about to learn that when it comes to cancer, you can never make assumptions.

The day I was supposed to fly to New York, I went in for what I thought was a routine check-in with my oncologist. Instead, she looked at me and said, “You’re probably not prepared for what I have to tell you.”

I froze as I listened to her update: Tests had been done on one of the larger tumors I’d had removed. It turned out that part of the cancer was estrogen-positive, as the doctors had initially thought. The other part of it was the much more aggressive HER2-positive kind. In an instant, I went from thinking I was almost done with treatment to finding out I would need another year of chemotherapy.

When you have cancer, your life feels like it’s no longer in your control. Everything revolves around your treatment, and you can no longer do the things you once took for granted. That experience can be very isolating, so having people in your corner is critical.

I found support in so many places: my church friends, my colleagues, my family, and other survivors. I started a blog documenting my experience, and I developed a following of people who were all rooting for me. Having that sense of community was one of the major factors that helped me get through my treatment.

Finally Cancer Free

The second round of chemo was a lot easier on my body. I was able to keep working on my blog, go on daily walks with my friend, and help raise close to $3,000 for breast cancer research. By November of 2020, after my grandchild was born, I was finally finished with treatment—for real this time. 

I’ve been cancer-free ever since, although I still see my doctor for follow-up visits every six months.

I often hear cancer compared to a “journey,” but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a kidnapping. Cancer hijacks your life. It takes you by surprise and derails your plans, and you’re not sure where you’re going or how you’ll make it through. That’s why it’s so important to take care of your health and have regular mammograms as you get older. If something doesn’t feel right, contact your doctor and have it checked. I did, and that’s why I’m here to tell my story today.

By Susan Byrum Rountree
Susan Byrum Rountree has been a writer, editor, and writing teacher for over 40 years.