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Battling breast cancer
A reporter's perspective. Part 2.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 182,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year. But early detection and a variety of treatment options are improving the outlook for many women.
CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty knows first hand about the illness -- she was recently diagnosed and is currently undergoing treatment. Here's her story in her own words.
MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- There's no easy way to learn you have cancer. Being a journalist, I initially tried to treat it objectively, like doing a report on someone else.
In the doctor's office, two days after the surgical biopsy, I took notes...but my hand was shaking.
The next day I went to the bookstores and bought anything I find about breast cancer. I also checked out the Internet. I had a lot of decisions to make and I had to get educated - fast.
The first thing I had to decide: should I have a mastectomy, in which the entire breast is removed, or a lumpectomy, where the tumor is removed and the breast is preserved.
I consulted with four different surgeons. Two advised doing a mastectomy. The other two suggested lumpectomy. I chose lumpectomy -- my tumor was small enough to make it possible and, if lumpectomy is followed up by radiation, it has the same survival rate as the more radical procedure.
Each woman has to decide for herself. Five years ago, my mother, diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer, made her decision this way: "My surgeon wanted me to have a lumpectomy and radiation and I said, why am I going to do that? I already have a radical mastectomy. I would rather have a modified radical, and pop my two falsies in every day and go merrily on my way!"
Today, most women who have mastectomies have reconstructive surgery done at the same time.
I had another issue to resolve. We still didn't know whether my cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. To find out, I underwent a relatively new surgical procedure, a less-invasive way of determining whether the cancer has spread. It's call "sentinel node biopsy".
Dr. Patrick Borgen, head of breast surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York noted, "It is absolutely establishing itself as the gold standard and five years from now virtually all surgeons will be doing it because it's less surgery, less trauma to the patient, less chance of swelling in the arm, and actually more accurate than the old operation was."
The surgery revealed it had spread to three lymph nodes and that led me to the next stage in treatment: chemotherapy.
Chemo is no picnic but my doctor explained it reduces the risk of recurrence by a third. So, every three weeks, for six months, I went for infusions on an outpatient basis. Each session lasted three to four hours.
I did feel somewhat fatigued and nauseated. But, thanks to new drugs to counteract that, it wasn't as bad as I expected. My immune system suffered the most; the chemo knocked out my defense against infection.
There were days I couldn't even go to the supermarket to buy groceries, for fear someone would sneeze on me. But here too, there was new medicine to re-build my defenses.
Chemo was followed by seven weeks of daily radiation, with weekends off. I chose the best radiation facility I could find; it's a delicate and precise procedure. For the next five years I'm taking a new daily oral drug with few side effects called tamoxifen. I think of it as my "insurance policy."
A lot of women can live almost a normal life while going through treatment. As my oncologist, Dr. Elisabeth McKeen, of the Helen and Harry Gray Cancer Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, said, "The image of a woman in the closet vomiting like they've had in the TV shows is probably really a thing of the past."
I flew back to Moscow twice to cover the news while undergoing chemo. I did it in a wig -- like most people, I lost my hair. But it does come back, although sometimes looking a little different!
Life goes on, even with breast cancer
American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Resource Center
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