Following our initial consultation with Dr. Burns, Libby and I were almost to the elevator when he asked us to come back into his office for a biopsy and then it was nearly 7 o’clock when we finally went through the waiting area for the second time on our way home (deciding not to go to Longhorn, as we had been planning).
The biopsy report indicated the presence of a 2.5 to 5 cm cancerous lump. Within the next few weeks, meetings were scheduled with our surgeon and our oncologist to discuss a mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiation and a port to administer the drugs. Libby and I sat in stunned silence most of the time trying to understand this new reality and with things happening so quickly there was little time to process our emotions as we were presented with a new set of facts, a course of treatment and all of the potential side effects.
My memory is fuzzy leading up to the morning of the mastectomy on Thursday, October 9, 2008, but I remember distinctly when Dr. Burns came walking into the waiting room following the surgery still wearing his green surgical scrubs. The waiting room had more people than chairs and it was buzzing with multiple conversations as Libby’s surgeon stepped into the room casually untying the upper strings of his surgical mask and looking from face to face until I caught his eye from across the room; he held out his hand for me to shake and someone offered him a chair as he leaned in to give me the news.
As Dr. Burns began to tell me about Libby’s surgery in a whisper, trying, I am sure, to adhere to HIPPA laws, everyone else in the waiting room stopped their conversations, moved closer and leaned in, straining to hear our conversation. I said, “Dr. Burns, you might as well speak up and tell everyone in the waiting room what you are telling me because when you leave I will just have to repeat everything you have said.” He looked around the packed waiting room and asked, “You mean all of these people are waiting on news about your wife?” “No,” I said,” this only some of them, but this is all that we could get in this room, the others are scattered around in other waiting rooms.”
“Wow, she must be some special lady. ” Dr. Burns said. I thought to myself, “You have no idea”. “I guess that will be OK,” Dr. Burns continued, “as long as you don’t mind everyone knowing,” I told him,” Actually, this is just the tip of the iceberg because everything you say will soon be sent via text, email, Facebook, Caring Bridge and about a dozen church prayer chains within the hour.”
Dr. Burns then began telling the gathered crowd about how well Libby had done during the surgery and how the only complication was due to her complete absence of fat, making some of his work more tedious. Then, although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, he delivered the coup de grâce as he put his hand on my shoulder, “Barry”, he said, “I dissected the sentinel node to see if I could find an early indication as to whether or not the cancer has spread; I’m sorry to say that it does show signs of cancer.” He then went on the explain to me that the lymph nodes “cleaned” the area and if any cancer had left the tumor en route to other parts of the body, the lymph nodes would tell the tale. “The cancer was not fully contained within the lump or the tissue that we removed. It has spread.” he said redundantly, “I’m very sorry”.
My brain was still on a high from the surgeon’s comment that Libby had come through the surgery well and I could take her home tomorrow, I was having trouble understanding why he kept saying he was sorry. Several days later we would get the results back from the pathologist and discover that a total of thirteen lymph nodes were taken for testing and all thirteen were positive for cancer. The tumor which was removed that day measured 5.5 cm and its large size combined with the positive lymph nodes now classified Libby as a stage 3B cancer patient.
Libby’s official diagnosis was primary stage 3B invasive lobular, estrogen positive, breast cancer and later as it moved to other parts of her body it would actually “morph” into other types of cancer with completely different characteristics in a devious attempt to avoid being destroyed by the chemo treatments.
After reviewing the pathology report from the surgery, a concerned Dr. Schlabach elected to do a PET CT and brain MRI to see if the cancer could be found anywhere else. On October 17, Dr. Schlabach called to say that both scans were negative and for the first time Libby and I felt as if we had a little breathing room and a direction for the future.
After receiving the first good news in weeks, Libby wanted me to immediately share the news on my Caring Bridge journal and I actually got a laugh out of her when I posted this as the last line of my update:
…I could not help but ask when Libby told me the news; I said, “So Dr. Schlabach called you and said that the results came in from your brain scan and he said that they couldn’t find anything at all there, and somehow you think that is good news that we need to share with others?”