Breast Cancer: A Forty-Seven Year Journey

breast cancer treatment the 1970s
An interesting example of how breast cancer treatment has changed over the past fifty years.
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I could very well be the longest survivor of breast cancer in the United States, or for that matter, the entire world. My story dates back to my first diagnosis in 1972—forty-seven years ago. Perhaps I’m one for the medical records, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m just an ordinary woman who has been extremely blessed. Maybe extraordinary would be a better term.

Let’s go back to 1972 when I was a thirty-four-year-old busy homemaker in a small northwestern Montana town. That year will always be remembered as the crossroads of my life. I discovered a lump in my right breast but didn’t pay much attention to it. Just a cyst, I thought, and wasn’t at first concerned. When it failed to go away I had my general practitioner look at it. He really couldn’t determine what it was either and sent me for mammograms.

Forty-seven years ago mammograms were not routine screening for women like they are today. In fact, screening equipment for them was non-existent. Imaging was done using standard X-Ray machines which bombarded the patient in a variety of positions with high-dose radiation. I shudder even now to think of the exposure to the vital organs of my body at that time and the few follow-up mammograms that ensued.

My doctor couldn’t determine by these pictures the nature of the tumor, so the next step was a surgical hospital biopsy. Believe me when I say my world turned upside down when the results came back cancer! I thought being hit by a lightning bolt would have been easier to deal with than the uncertainty that then lay before me. My immediate concern was getting things ready for the trip to Spokane, WA, where my doctor had scheduled a reputable surgeon to operate on me in only a few days. Fortunately, word spread fast of this diagnosis and the resulting need to go to Spokane in our small town, and friends quickly stepped up to take in the children for the week or more that I needed to be hospitalized.

My husband and I made the trip of 250 miles. The nonchalance of the admitting clerk filling out the paperwork wasn’t at all helpful to me when we checked into the large hospital. Don’t you realize that “CA Breast” is more than a diagnosis? My life hangs in the balance. You’d act differently if you were involved and not someone who is just a number on your entry form! Indeed, my survival depended upon the outcome of this surgery.

Later, when a moment presented itself for reflection, I naturally thought of my own mortality. Let’s face it, thirty-four is young! How many more years could I count on? One, five, or hopefully a few more? Then too were the three children. Would I see them graduate from high school?  The youngest had just finished kindergarten.

Unlike breast cancer today with its various treatment options, back in 1972 deviations were more or less non-existent. My surgery, which was standard, was the “Halsted Radical.” It removed not only the entire breast but also all the underlying lymph nodes well into the armpit, and the chest pectoral muscles. A skin graft from my right leg was taken to cover the gaping hole where once the breast had been. The most pain I felt after the entire procedure was from the donor skin graft site, which caused me to walk with a limp for a few days. (The “Halsted Radical” became obsolete as breast cancer treatment before the ‘70s were over.)

Fortunate for me, my pathology report revealed only Stage I cancer, Stage 0 being the lowest. Stage II or higher would have meant radiation treatments, the ultimate being with cobalt which turned the skin black. Breast reconstruction wasn’t available back then; if it had existed, the Halsted Radical would have made it extremely difficult.

Full recovery from this surgery took nearly a year. Of course, I wondered if a recurrence would happen. I wouldn’t allow myself to dwell long on this thought, however, and to move forward, I became a “Reach to Recovery” volunteer for the American Cancer Society. I enjoyed visiting with my bosom buddies who were undergoing what I had just gone through. I hoped at that time to be an inspiration for these women and to offer answers to the many questions that invariably came up. Breast cancer is a terrifying and lonely road to travel alone.

I would like to end my story here with “living happily ever after.” Unfortunately, my life took some twists and turns in a few years with a divorce, moving to another state, having to find employment, and dealing with sinus-related migraines. I didn’t give much thought to a cancer recurrence during this period of trials, but in 1999, after a twenty-seven-year hiatus, BINGO!

“No hormones.” This advice doctors gave all breast cancer patients following their treatments for many years. This was adamant advice; women had to endure menopausal symptoms as their forebears had. However, in the 1990s the medical profession had a complete reversal of thought because in their opinion, the benefits of hormonal therapy outweighed the risks. Those of us with small thin frames were candidates for osteoporosis, which made three doctors, including my very own daughter, recommend I get on the hormone replacement bandwagon.

I should have questioned this reasoning against my better judgment, but I didn’t. In less than three years of being on hormone therapy, I had a suspicious mammogram. Well, the result was a foregone conclusion in my estimation even before having the biopsy. My primary care physician said that it wouldn’t necessarily be breast cancer, but I had seen the X-Ray myself and compared it to the samples on the wall—a perfect match!

Receiving breast cancer news these many years after my first episode didn’t really make the shock any easier to accept. My years of dreading a recurrence had now come to fruition. There were many unanswered questions again. How far had it spread? How much work would this cause me to miss? Would I need chemo? If so, would I even be able to work while undergoing it?

My surgery, the modified radical, was much easier this time around, with only an overnight hospital stay. Good news was that again the tumor was Stage I. However, to be on the safe side, I underwent chemo, leaving me weak and bald. I was able to work with minimal downtime, and for six months I wore a wig.

A support group was offered to me at this time, which I looked forward to participating in.

This group of women shared their experiences, most of them in tears. Understandable, but when these same women sat crying through subsequent sessions, refusing to move on but stuck in the “poor me, why?” mode, I quit the group. I tried with to avail to lift them out of this mood to one of thankfulness for our modern-day surgery techniques and adjuvant treatments that aren’t available to less fortunate women facing breast cancer in other parts of the world. I was too upbeat for them I’m sure!

Forty-seven years ago I worried about seeing my children graduate from high school. I never dreamed at that time I would be around to see my grandchildren do the same. In fact, my doctor daughter mentioned once that having breast cancer at the age of thirty-four back in 1972 came with anything but a long-term survival prognosis.

I feel that living with gratefulness each day, rain or shine (and in the Willamette Valley of Oregon where I live we get plenty of rain) has helped me put things in perspective. I also received some sage advice I back in 1972 from a cancer survivor when she told me, “Honey, don’t you worry about it. Now just don’t you worry.”  Great advice that worked and continues to work for me!                


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