From the category archives:

Chemo Therapy


Dr. Guru calls me at work with the pathology report.  “I just got it,” he stresses.

(So he did read my  blistering email after my first surgery. Then I complained about him not sharing the pathology results until two weeks after he himself received them.)

“Everything completely clear, just as we knew it would be. Margin a bit larger than 2 mm.”

“Good job then, “I say.

Dr. Guru asks if I have decided to fore go chemo and when I say yes, he tells me it would have been of  little or no benefit in my case.

“Why add all those toxins to your body?” .

“Why did you not say so right away? I ask. “You knew I was terrified.”

“I wanted you to make up your own mind,” he says. “Some people will agree to chemo for a one percent better chance of survival.”

This is nonsense. How can a patient, a lay person,  “make up her own mind?” Even someone like me, someone who has cruised the interned “ad nauseam” cannot really decide. A lay person will often misread statistics and project wishful thinking into her readings. This is natural. This is why a doctor will see another doctor when she is sick. A lawyer will not represent himself. You need a professional, someone with experience and perspective.  Preferably a professional with no skin in the game.

But I say nothing

Dr. Guru tells me I may start radiation “any time.” “Your choice of hospital is fine,” he assures me. “Alpha is excellent. Many of my patients go to him.”

(Suddenly, he no longer refers to Dr. Alpha as “that radiation oncologist.”

Dr. Guru sounds upbeat. And I am amused. Now that the icy patches between us have been salted and sanded, everything is on the up and up.

That night, I go to bed relaxed and content.  For the first time since I received my breast cancer diagnosis,  I do not wake up in the middle of the night. Not even briefly.



The sign “Magnolia Cancer Center” does not look as surreal as it has during my previous visits. After all, I do have breast cancer and this center is for me. Although I do not yet have the hollow eyes, the waxy complexion, the bloated body, or the shuffling gate of so many of the other cancer patients I see here. I suppose it is because I have yet to start my treatments.

A large black woman with a gap between her teeth greets me. Her look is that of kindness and concern, but not pity. I must have “new patient” written all over me. Eventually, I ,too, will be ground down by all the chemicals and look like the others: a shadow of former self.

The oncology department’s reception is as spacious as a hotel lobby, and lit by large windows. Someone has obviously dumped a serious amount of capital into this interior. (Although not enough money to allow the purchase of scanners to allow the doctors to email reports to patients.) Yet, the setting is remarkably different from Dr. Weary’s crowded, and a bit shabby, office.

The first person to check me is not Professor Oncology. It is a short, slightly round faced man in a white coat. I assume he is a student at first. Then I notice his  name tag.  He is already a doctor,  a  fellow in oncology, he explains. He seems kind, serious, and gentle. He weighs me in fully dressed and I wish I had kicked off my shoes to reduce my chart by a pound.

Professor Oncology looks Indian and seems too young to be a full Professor and Cancer specialist . Had I met her in a hospital corridor I would have taken her, too,  for a  medical student. Her black straight hair hangs down below her shoulders as does her drab navy skirt which goes inches below her knees and her white coat.  Her face is completely devoid of makeup. Her hands have a pianist’s sinewy, long fingers. Carefully, she feels about my neck, looking for signs of swollen nodes. She feels my breasts, and my armpits. She asks for permission for Dr. Fellow to examine me also.

Dr. Fellow stops with both hands around my neck and looks over at the Professor. He must think that he found something. I tense up, but she shakes her head. I immediately relax as does he.

The professor does not print out an adjuvant online graph like both Dr. Guru and Dr. Weary did. Instead, she  scribbles a few things on the back of a piece of paper. She tells me what I already know: stage 1, node negative, ER/PR + strongly so, HER/2 neg. grade 1 tumor. Like Dr. Weary, she is a bit baffled by my relatively high oncodx score.  It is 23. But she is still convinced that chemo would only improve my odds by 2%.  The professor, more than any of the others, stress the toxicity of chemo therapy: Leukemia, heart problems, bone marrow loss, risk for other infections.

Unlike, Dr. Weary, she does not agonize even a bit about skipping chemo. To my immense relief, she seems to have no doubts. She does not wring her hands, does not stand up only to abruptly sit down.

She draws up a five-year plan for hormone therapy: five years on Tamoxifen.  Or, she suggest,  we can do 21/2 years  and then switch to Arimidex, an aromatase inhibitor. I look aghast. “Oh well, Tamoxifen then,”  she shrugs. She does not ask what I have against Arimidex. She gives me an appointment for two months later when radiation will, supposedly, be over. She does not explain why I can not be on hormone blockers while on radiation. She does not bring up insufficient margins. I do not tell her about Dr. Alpha other than to mention that I will have radiation at a hospital closer to home.


Breast Cancer Tends to Sneak Up on You

December 2, 2009

Dr. Weary piles on the good news about his chemo regimen: “You will not suffer for five months straight. Only for six week-ends. You may have your treatments on Fridays so you can recover over the week-end and be at work by Monday. Maybe by Tuesday.” “Great.” “We give you medication to control nausea. You […]

Read the full article →

Chemo After All?

November 24, 2009

Dr. Weary’s office is crowded and a bit shabby. His nurse weighs me, takes my blood pressure and draws several vials of blood. The work area is cramped and cluttered. Staff bumps into each other as they reach for needles, gauze, and other paraphernalia. I walk towards my meeting with Dr. Weary himself  through a […]

Read the full article →

Onward to the Oncologist(s)

November 15, 2009

The Breast Consultants at Vanderbilt University confirm the previous findings in my pathology report. And Dr. Guru assures me that “he would not do a re-excision on his own wife.”  That does it for me. I cancel the appointment  with the second surgeon, the one set by my sister-in-law. After all, the second surgeon has […]

Read the full article →

OncoDX Test Results

November 1, 2009

Although no cancer cells may have been found in a patient’s lymph nodes during surgery, 20 percent of these “node negative” patients still have cancer cells somewhere outside the breast area. Not surprising perhaps, since once a tumor reaches  1 cm, you have one billion cancer cells, like this one below, in your body. In […]

Read the full article →

Dr. Guru’s Game Plan

July 7, 2009

Dr. Guru’s game plan is simple enough, provided there are no complications revealed by further tests and procedures. Lumpectomy followed by radiation, followed by five years on Tamoxifen. (I don’t argue with him about  Tamoxifen. I don’t bring up  Astra Zeneca’s conflict as a maker of both cancer drugs and potent carcinogens. ) Dr. Guru […]

Read the full article →