“When you are in bed tonight, I want you to exam your breast,” said our Home Economics teacher, Ms. Wyckoff.
We, girls in the class, looked at each other. No one talked about breasts. No one talked about examining your breasts. Polite conversation did not allow parts of a woman’s body to be discussed.
Our teacher went on to say, “If you feel any lumps, you should have your parents take you to the doctor. The lumps could be benign or they could be malignant. Every woman should examine her breast for cancer.”
Breast cancer must have been around for many years, but it was taboo to talk about. I had never heard my parents say anything about breast cancer. Breasts were a taboo subject. There were many taboo subjects. A man came to our home one day and asked if my dad had a male cow. To say bull was taboo. Pregnant women wore flowing dresses to hide their baby bump. Women’s sanitary products came all wrapped up in brown paper and they were not on the shelves for display. A woman had to ask her druggist for what she needed, and that was usually by writing a note. No one talked about breast cancer. What a surprise it was to have our teacher tell us to examine our breasts.
That night in bed, I did just as our teacher had told us to do.
“Mom!” “Dad!” “I have cancer!” I yelled.
They must have taken one giant step.
“What’s wrong? What are you talking about?” they both asked at once.
After they examined my right breast, they came to the conclusion there was a lump.
The next day the doctor confirmed there was a lump. The breast would have to be removed. This was before the days of biopsies. Doctors just feared the worst and removed the breast.
In St. Joseph, Missouri there was Dr. Nickels Cancer Sanitarium. It was highly rated. My parents wanted the best for me. I had never heard of it before, but that was where my parents took me for treatment.
As I was leaving school to go to St. Joseph and Dr. Nickels Cancer Sanitarium, my teacher took me aside.
“When I was your age, I also had a lump in my breast,” said Ms. Smock. “I was tied to the kitchen table, so the doctor could remove my breasts.”
“The kitchen table?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes,” she said. “Then the doctor removed both my breasts just to be safe.”
In horror I envisioned my teacher tied to the kitchen table with a stick in her mouth to bite off the pain. In reality, the doctor had used ether, so she was completely unconscious as the doctor butchered on her.
Then we were at Dr. Nickels in St. Joseph.
“Yes, it’s cancer,” said the doctor.
The date was October 20, 1950. I turned sixteen on October 1. I was sixteen and I had breast cancer.
“You are the youngest patient we’ve ever had,” said the doctor.
This was before biopsies, so the doctor made an educated guess if the lump was malignant or not.
I shared a room with a lady who was back at the hospital to have her second breast removed. She assured me everything would be fine.
For four days I was semi-conscious as the doctor monitored acid eating away at my breast. Acid eating medicine was the procedure Dr. Nickels Sanitarium used to combat cancer. I was not allowed out of bed and remember little of what happened. I assume the pain was so severe that I has kept heavy medicated. The doctor came in daily to remove the bandages holding the acid eating medicine in place. He then replaced the used acid patch with a new acid patch to continue eating away at my breast.
After four days and with the lower half of my right breast eaten away, the doctor said, “We have good news. It isn’t cancer.”
The next day it was, “Okay, it’s time to get up. We have to build up your strength.”
When I stood up the upper half of my breast fell on nothing. The pain was so intense, I passed out. Two weeks later I was on my way home.
About fifteen years later my friend, Maxine, told me, “My biopsy came back positive.”
“Oh, Maxine. I’m so sorry,” was all I could say.
We both knew she would have a radical mastectomy.
Radical mastectomies are a procedure not used today, but at that time, all women with breast cancer had a radical mastectomy. With a radical mastectomy the complete breast and surrounding tissues are removed. All of the lymph nodes on the side of the body with the cancer along with all the muscle in the general area are removed. Even the skin of the affected area was nearly all removed. The only skin that remained was just enough to cover the eight inch scar that ran across the ribs and up under the arm where the lymph nodes had been removed.
Maxine had to stay in the hospital for ten days. After she was home and when she first saw herself, she passed out from shook. A radical mastectomy disfigured the breast radically. Her one side was completely flat with a scar where her breast had been. The scar ran up under her arm.
In 2009 my sister, Margie, called me. We are very close, so when I saw her name on my caller I.D., I did not think anything about it. I was not prepared for what she told me.
“I’m going to have breast surgery next Tuesday.”
“Oh, Marg. No!” was all I could say as I remembered the radical mastectomy Maxine had.
“It won’t be bad,” Margie went on. “The reconstruction surgeon will be in the operating room, too.”
For Margie’s surgery, the doctor only removed the tissues of the breast. The lymph nodes and muscles were not removed. All the skin that could be left was available to cover the first stage of her breast reconstruction which consisted of an inflated balloon. Margie had a three inch scar and the start of her reconstruction when she left the hospital. She only had to stay overnight.
In 2010 my friend, Jan, who was president of our Red Hat group, said, “I saw the doctor yesterday and I have breast cancer.”
I was really concerned. Jan has large breasts. “Jan, really?” I just did not want to believe another of my friends would develop breast cancer. To remove that much tissue was really a major operation.
“Jan,” I said. “Don’t you think you should get a second opinion? You have a lot of tissue to remove.”
Breast removal was not the method doctors used on Jan. She had lumpectomy surgery. Only one lump was found in Jan’s breast, but they did take the lymph nodes from under her arm. The doctor went in with an inch incision and removed the lump and the lymph nodes. Her breast suffered minor disfiguration. Jan’s surgery was one day surgery as an outpatient. However, it was surgery. Jan was given an anesthetic and relaxing medication in an intravenous infusion (IV) before she went into surgery. Jan felt that her lumpectomy was very successful and she would recommend the surgery.
In 2011 I called my friend Janet. I had not talked with her for a while.
“Joyce, I was just thinking of calling you. I wanted to tell you that I went to Cyberknife for breast surgery,” said Janet.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. I had seen Cyberknife advertised on television, but I knew nothing about it. “I didn’t know you had breast cancer.”
“Yes, I found a lump. I went to Colorado Cyberknife because they are supposed to be non-invasive,” Janet said.
“You mean they don’t do any surgery?” I asked.
“Well, for breast cancer, the lump had to be removed first because of all the breast tissue. Then I went to Colorado Cyberknife for my radiation.”
“Why did you go there?” I asked.
“When I talked to my surgeon, he said I would have a lumpectomy and then I would have to have forty days of radiation. I couldn’t do that. It was an hour drive one way,” she continued. “So I talked with Dr. Kelly Simpson at Colorado Cyberknife. He told me I would only have radiation for five days with two treatments a day.”
“Ten treatments total?” I asked.
Janet went to Colorado Cyberknife as an out-patient. She had to have ten different treatments of radiation over a five day period. Jane lay in a comfortable molded bed, which did restrict her movement, and listened to music. The radiation machine was so precise that it even adjusted itself to her breathing. Each treatment lasted for about fifteen minutes as the robotic arm moved around looking for the gold beads that had been inserted to mark the place for a beam of radiation to be directed.
The Cyberknife VSI unit had a very advanced robot arm with sixty different angles it could assume to issue radiation. The robotic arm beams a high-dose of radiation at the cancerous tissue while the surrounding area receives only a small dose of radiation. Each treatment lasted about fifteen minutes. When each treatment was over, Janet could do anything that she felt like doing. However, the procedure did make her very tired.
For Ms. Smock, Maxine, and I, we did not have chemotherapy or radiation. There was no such thing as chemotherapy or radiation as it had not yet been developed. The procedure the three of us went through was to remove the breast or both breast and all the surrounding tissue just to be certain the cancer was gone. For Ms. Smock the surgery was having both breasts remove. Maxine lost one breast and all the surrounding muscle, lymph nodes, and skin in the cancerous area. I just lost half of one breast with the acid eating procedure.
Margie and Jan had chemotherapy as a follow up treatment. Margie had two treatments of chemotherapy and had a heart attack with both treatments. She stopped taking chemotherapy treatments. Margie did not have any radiation treatments.
Jan had sixteen chemotherapy treatments. She lost her hair, but she also lost her sense of taste. Both have returned. Jan then had twenty-five radiation treatments of one a day for five minute. Jan did sunburn and peel, but it was not painful. Both the chemotherapy and radiation made Jan very tired.
Janet only had the radiation as used with the Cyberknife. She had ten radiation treatments in a five day period. Because the robotic arm was so precise, she did not burn or even have a sunburn through there were high doses of radiation. Janet could do anything she wanted after her treatments, but she was generally tired.
Ms. Smock is the only one that has passed on and that was because of her age.
Breast cancer treatment has taken giant steps in the last seventy years. My teacher was tied to a kitchen table to have her cancer removed. My friend, Janet, lay on a comfortable bed, wide awake as the Cyberknife removed her cancer.
Breast cancer has not been erased, and one in eight women will develop breast cancer. The survival rate varies with the different stages of breast cancer. The earlier breast cancer is detected the greater the chance of survival. It is recommended that all women forty years old and older have yearly mammograms.
Every day new discovers are being made in the treatment of breast cancer. Advanced technology has improved the type of treatment a woman receives and it has improved her chance of survival.
“When you are in bed tonight, I want you to exam your breast,” said our Home Economics teacher, Ms. Wyckoff.