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Having breast cancer THREE times is enough!

Having breast cancer THREE times is enough!

It was 1985 and I was working at BroMenn when I found a lump. I called my internist to get a mammogram order; radiology agreed to work me in. I stood by the radiologist while he read it. “What advice would you have if I were your sister?” He replied, “I’d say get it checked now!”

The biopsy came back positive. It was Christmas week. I worked with my surgeon to get a mastectomy scheduled for Monday. On Friday afternoon I decided to talk with a surgical floor nurse about what to expect. She mentioned immediate reconstruction which I hadn’t considered. I called the plastic surgeon to learn more. He had me come right over to his office to evaluate if I was a good candidate for the procedure.

After determining I was realistic in my expectations, he invited me and my husband to meet him at his office on Sunday afternoon (yes, Sunday) to discuss the reconstruction. He knows these procedures go better if the spouse understands what to expect.

I had the surgery and reconstruction the next day. While there, surgeon biopsied the other side. The following day he brought “good news and bad news”. Good news: No cancer in 31 lymph nodes. (Today surgeons only test the sentinel node.) Bad news: Breast cancer starting in other breast.

I told him I “wasn’t doing anything the rest of the week” so let’s go do the second mastectomy. He agreed. I jokingly told the plastic surgeon, “With my luck you won’t have another prosthesis that is the same size.” They are sized by the cc of fluid they contain. He assured me that no one would notice the difference if one side was 25 cc smaller than the other. He was right.

The second mastectomy with reconstruction was done and I spent New Year’s in the hospital. Our son came in to watch a movie with us and brought popcorn. Two days later the surgeon un-wrapped my ace-bandaged chest and discovered a piece of popcorn had fallen in my “new” cleavage. We laughed as he declared that was a first!

Since both breasts were gone and lymph nodes were all clean, the oncologists didn’t see the need for any post-op treatment. Even with all those lymph nodes removed, I didn’t get edema in my arms. That was the end of the story….for twenty-three years.

The story resumes in 2008. I was facing new issues: Cholesterol too high. Hair getting thin. Brown spots in various places. One of those spots saved my life. I pulled back my prosthetic breast to examine a brown spot and felt a nodule. Small, the size of a grain of corn. Could my prosthesis be leaking?? A call to my internist sent me back to radiology, this time for an MRI. The results indicated I had another breast cancer tumor growing between my skin and prosthesis.

How could that be? I didn’t have any breasts. I was told it is impossible to remove all the breast tissue, and breast cancer can grow anytime it finds a few cells. Yikes!

A quick lumpectomy was done but the edges were not clean of cancer tissue so back to surgery to remove the prosthesis.

What was new this time: A PET scan, which looks for rapidly growing cells “from your eyes to your thighs.” My results were clean.

What’s also new: Today they can test the tumor for the number of abnormal genes as an indicator of the likelihood the cancer will come back. Not surprising…I had a high likelihood so needed to be aggressive with treatment.

Also new this time: Oncologist referred me to a research center to get another opinion. Both agreed on type of chemo and radiation. Amazingly, I didn’t lose my hair. I had 33 radiation treatments. I got so efficient I could pull in the parking lot, get my radiation, and be back in my car in 19 minutes!

It’s now 2013 and I’m still working at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. I’ve just finished my five years of meds. Without good insurance the meds would have cost $411/month.

I feel so blessed to be fine today. Even so, I will keep watching. My message is, if you find something, don’t ignore it. When you treat it, don’t assume it won’t come back. This story is true for men, too. Breast cancer is a relentless disease. You must be relentless, too.

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  1. Thanks for sharing, Sonja! Your story along with others has encouraged me to be more diligent about doing my monthly self breast exams.

  2. We all need to be advocates for our own good health and well-being. Also,it is critcally important to have an ongoing partnership with your physician to ensure that you stay that way. Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. I have known Sonja for years. She is one of the most honest and transparent people I know. I am not at all suprised she shared her story in such an open manor. She is one of the bravest people I know and certainly someone I admire and look up to.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story…you are one wonderful lady. I enjoyed reading about your journey and it is certainly a reminder to get our regular check ups. I’m calling Monday!!!

  5. Thanks for sharing your journey….you are one wonderful gal! This is a reminder for us all to get regular check ups. I’m calling Monday!

  6. Sonja is one brave and strong and persistent lady! I am proud to be her friend and admire all she does. She sets an example for all of us – men and women to be vigilant about our bodies and our health. Thank you, Sonja. Love, Mary

  7. What a testament to courage and persistence! I feel fortunate and proud to be a friend of Sonja’s and admire ALL she does. Keep up the good work, Sonja. Love, Mary

  8. Thank you for the article. I was looking up “breast cancer 3 times” and found your article.
    I had breast cancer on the same side twice in 10 months. 2012 and 2013 The second time was after a mastectomy. I found a lump in my arm pit near the rib cage. Then had radiation. My Onco DX test for whether or not I needed chemo came back at 25 and had it been 26 I would have had to have chemo. But they didn’t consider my second breast cancer a recurrence but rather a secondary cancer. Now I have another lump in my arm pit, same side, that I will be getting checked. All 3 times I pointed these areas out to the doctor. They weren’t found on mammograms. Mammograms can’t view your armpit so there you go. The second time, the nurse practitioner said it was a swollen lymph node and that’s all. I said to her, “why take the risk and not get it checked?” I had an ultrasound and biopsy and it was aggressive breast cancer. It was only the size of a pinto bean.
    You have to take your health into your own hands, like Linda stated. Don’t let them turn you away.

    • Thanks to another “Sonya” for sharing your story. So glad you were persistent to get this checked. Now keep it up.

      And share your story with everyone including the men you know. I have 3 male friends who have had breast cancer. After one man was treated, his daughter also developed this diagnosis. They are a strong family that stayed on top of this. Staying alert is important.

  9. I shamelessly googled 3x breast cancer and found your article I am on round three of breast cancer 2 lumpectomy and now I have to get another biopsy went for my check up and they found a new lump. This is three years of being cleared and just going for routine check ups. In this crazy I learned to research and be revolved.Thank you for your bluntness and sharing your story.

  10. Andrea Zwicker July 19, 2018 at 5:24 pm · Reply

    I was diagnosed in 1992, had a lumpectomy, 12 chemo treatments, 35 radiation treatments…. I was cancer free for 23 years. I was diagnosed a second time in 2015, same cancer, same breast..mastectomy, not a candidate for reconstruction…thank you gorgeous sharing your story. I continue your take med school, have follow-upsome, mammograms…

About the Author

Sonja Reece
Sonja Reece