After the initial shock, I waited to be referred to a surgeon. Apparently, my doctor didn't know one, for a week went by, then two, then three, and my calls to his office were fended away by the receptionist. I waited one more week, then did the only thing I could think of--I called the American Cancer Society and allowed myself to have a Good Cry, sobbing out my predicament and fear. Within a day, I had been referred to a local representative, who took care of the paperwork to get me on Medi-Cal. Three days after that, I had an appointment with a surgeon and two days later, found myself on a gurney, at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, California, draped and prepped and waiting to be wheeled into the operating room for a lumpectomy.

I was going to be in no condition to drive myself home, I'd been told, so one of my sorority sisters volunteered to be chauffeur. She was there to hold my hand as we waited, making inconsequential conversation the way people do, skirting around the fear that sat on the gurney with me.

Afterward--after I was awake and lucid enough to speak two consecutive sentences, she drove me home. No sooner had I walked into the apartment, still groggy from the anesthetic, than the phone rang. It was the surgeon's nurse. I needed to return to the hospital. They had to do a second lumpectomy, to "get the perimeter."

My driver good-naturedly agreed to take me back. This time, they got it all, the surgeon told me at my next visit, and he felt confident it wouldn't return, but I wasn't out of the woods yet. Now, my regimen of Tamoxifen chemotherapy began, coordinated with six weeks of radiation.

First, I had to meet with the radiologist and get my "tattoos." Nothing that said "Mother" or a big red heart with a dagger embedded in it, but three marks looking like nothing more than lead pencil periods; each under the skin, connected to the others to form a triangle with the area to be treated in the center.

Every morning at 7:00 AM, I drove myself to the radiology department where I lay on a table while the x-ray equipment hissed and rattled and boomed above me, reminding me of every mad scientist movie I'd ever seen--only this time, I was the Bride of Frankenstein who would rise from the slab, announcing triumphantly, "I'm alive! Alive!"
Alive--maybe--but not looking in any mirror that would allow a view of anything below my neck.

The following year, I began the first of my surgeries for breast reconstruction.

It was April 1. When my plastic surgeon and her nurse arrived, I greeted them enthusiastically. I was ready to meet this surgery head on--let's get this show on the road! When she said, "There's a problem. The company didn't send your implants." I waited for everyone to start laughing and shout, "April Fool!"

They didn't.

The company had forgotten to send the implants! A phone call was in to them rescheduling the delivery. Two days later, I returned for Step One of a breast reconstruction.

After the surgery, I was given a card to carry in my wallet, identifying me as a member of the McGhan Medical Corporation's Implant Registry. If I happen to get killed and can't be identified, they can remove my implants and the Registry will be able to tell them that #PL7716 belongs to Toni V. Sweeney. Isn't that a comforting thought?

As a member of the Registry, I will be also be monitored for the rest of my life, and notified if any problems arise concerning the implants.

Now that I had two breasts again, there were several adjustments I had to make--some of them hilarious, some of them painful--I found I couldn't roll over in bed without pain because my breasts bumped against each other and had to sleep with a pillow between each one. More accustomed to being a 32A, I kept dropping crackers and peanuts down my now 38C cleavage. My breasts were numb and wearing a tube top became embarrassing when it slid down around my waist and I didn't realize that because I couldn't feel it....

In 2002, my surgeon dropped out of the program and I was referred to UCI Medical Center in Orange, California. In 2003, I underwent a Z-plasty to release my lumpectomy scar and my next surgery--the skin flap transplant--was scheduled for Christmas, 2004.

The next surgery never happened. MY surgeon was too swamped for me to get an appointment for a follow-up. As a Welfare patient, I was unable to find another doctor to take his place. After three tries, I was told to wait a while and try again. Eventually, I gave up hope of completing my surgery, consoling myself that I had enough up top to be able to wear a low-cut neckline.

I had graduated from monthly visits with my oncologist to check-ups every six months with a mammogram and accompanying blood work. I did monthly self-exams, took vitamins, and followed my doctor's orders.

In 2006, I was dismissed from treatment--feeling like a Work in Progress...slightly unfinished...with 1 2/3 breasts...with 60 extra pounds from my chemo...and a nearly complete lack of bodyhair... but I'm alive.

Recently, I read a newspaper article stating that research has shown self-exams don't aid in preventing death by breast cancer. All I have to say is: Ignore that! See your doctor, have a yearly mammogram--and do those monthly self-exams!

Newspaper stories notwithstanding--the life you save will be your own!

7 comments

  1. Arkansas Cyndi // August 24, 2008 at 5:28 PM  

    Your whole experience sounds awful from the get-go! I CANNOT believe your doctor "ignored" you for 4 weeks AFTER they knew you had cancer. That's malpractice! Thank goodness you took matters into your own hands. I don't know anything about Cal-Med, but it sounds like a system that could use an overhaul!

    I did laugh at your boob knocking together when you sleep. as someone who is a 40DD, (and hopefully soon down to a 38C), I cannot remember a time when the twins didn't snuggle up together! Honestly, I don't remember being an "A" in my life, but I probably was someone in 6th or 7th grade!

    Glad you make it through that nightmare AND keep a level head on your shoulders. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Nightingale // August 24, 2008 at 7:57 PM  

    As others may or may not know, I work at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. I am in Legal Services and not involved with the patients but I do visit the hospital. There is such a spirit of hope that I feel quite humbled. Thanks Toni for a moving article.

  3. Mary Marvella // August 24, 2008 at 9:31 PM  

    Toni, your story is a testament to your strength! Sometimes we need reminding what we can so when we must!

  4. Anonymous // August 24, 2008 at 10:07 PM  

    Toni,
    Your experience serves to remind the rest of us just how blessed we are. God Bless.

    The Scarlet Pumpernickel

  5. Toni V.S. // August 25, 2008 at 12:33 PM  

    Thanx everyone. I still lose peanuts and potato chips from time to time. But I always know where to look. It reminds me of the scene in "Hello Dolly" when Dolly Levi drops a dumpling down her cleavage and hunts for it!

  6. Jianne Carlo // August 25, 2008 at 5:18 PM  

    What a moving story, Toni. The experience certainly wasn't helped by a lack of professionalism or any kind of humanitarism on your doctor's part.

    But, you're here, you're living life!

  7. Mary Marvella // August 26, 2008 at 2:47 AM  

    And she's still funny.