At age 54, Patricia Haley felt a strange lump in her left breast. "It's probably nothing," everyone kept telling her. However, when doctors sent her for additional testing following a mammogram, they discovered invasive lobular carcinoma – or in other words, stage 3-4 triple negative breast cancer. The truth is that without self-examination, Patricia may have not have discovered her tumor until much later, as not even a mammogram would have detected the lump. But thanks to her advocacy and lots of research, she is healthy today. To learn more about Patricia’s diagnosis and treatment process, and to discover the one aspect of cancer that changed her most, read our interview below.
Name: Patricia Haley
Location: Marin County, CA
Current Health Status: Cancer free and feeling great!
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
At age 54, I felt a weird, squishy thing in my left breast. I told my GP who sent me for a diagnostic mammogram. I really wasn’t very concerned, and at every step of the way – initial mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy – everyone kept saying, “It’s probably nothing, but just in case….” So, I was pretty surprised when I got a call from a nurse on New Year’s Eve, who told me I had invasive, lobular carcinoma and that I would likely have to have a mastectomy. After additional testing, it was determined that I had triple negative breast cancer, and due to the size of the tumor (over 5 cm), it was stage 3-4.
Interestingly (and relief since I had not been very diligent about getting regular mammograms), the tumor would not have shown up on a mammogram, so without a self-exam, I probably would not have found it until much later. Indeed, it was only after the MRI (which bizarrely enough the first doctor I consulted thought was unnecessary) that we learned how big the tumor actually was. Initially, they thought I had two small tumors, but each turned out to be opposite ends of one large tumor. Before surgery, I had 12 weeks of chemo that shrunk the tumor to almost nothing, but then it grew back to almost the original size in a few weeks. Concerned about the rapid regrowth, my doctors immediately scheduled a mastectomy. After surgery, I had eight more weeks of chemo. Two months later, I had reconstructive (flap) surgery, and in February 2016, I had a PET scan that showed no further evidence of any cancer. In January 2017, I had additional reconstructive surgery to make my breasts more symmetrical in size.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
I was pretty shocked, but I immediately went into research mode, which helped me feel more in control. I was also worried of course, but since my doctors were pretty sure my lymph nodes weren't involved, I focused on the fact that this was treatable. Once I realized I was not going to leave my kid without a mother, everything else seemed bearable.
How did your friends and family take the news?
When I told my friends and family that I had breast cancer, they were really upset. Once I got over the initial shock, I came to feel like my diagnosis was not that big of a deal. But when I told people I had cancer, many actually burst into tears. This turned out to be one of the hardest things about the early months, so I started prefacing my news by saying, “I have something to tell you that’s shocking, but it’s not as bad as it sounds…”
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
As described above, I had chemo pre-surgery followed by a mastectomy and then additional chemo. In many ways, my course of treatment was dictated by the size of my tumor. It was very large and I was a small B cup, so any kind of lumpectomy was not an option. I met with three oncologists, two of whom recommended chemo first. I am glad I took this route, as it was good to go through chemo while I was “fresh,” both physically and psychologically. I think chemo would have been much harder after surgery since it really took a lot out of me. I decided not to have a double mastectomy because the decrease in risk was not that great, and I wanted to preserve the ability to have sexual arousal in at least one breast. I decided to have the flap surgery, even though it was initially a more aggressive surgery because I did not want an implant. I am VERY glad I made this choice, which in large part has to do with the fact that I had a very good plastic surgeon. Indeed, one of the best pieces of advice I got when I was first diagnosed was to find a great reconstructive surgeon.
Were you able to work through treatment?
Not really. I am a consultant and was lucky enough to be able to put that work on hold. Financially, I was extremely fortunate to be able to cover basically a year with no income. In my opinion, women who work through treatment are heroes.
Where and how did you find the best care?
Research, research, research. I asked friends, consulted reputable online resources and got several medical opinions. One thing that really surprised me was the wide variety of treatment options. You really have to investigate and decide which is best for you. This is not a one size fits all situation.
Did you receive any additional support or alternative therapies?
I didn't end up doing any additional therapies, but my amazing friends did chip in and pay for massage sessions while I was getting chemo. That was awesome.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
My friends and family overwhelmed me with love and support. Probably one of the best things about having cancer was the incredible outpour of love. It not only made this ordeal bearable, but it also changed me as a person. Overall, my friendships and relationships are much deeper, and I think I am less judgmental and more grateful. It is also a special gift to have the opportunity to tell people how you really feel about them and to hear how they really feel about you.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
It sounds a little superficial, but losing my hair was one of the hardest things. I felt so helpless and hated how I looked. Eventually, it stopped mattering so much, and now my hair has come back better than ever. I also sort of feel empowered by the fact that I was once bald. After all, once you’ve walked around bald, not much else fazes you, appearance-wise.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wish I knew how long the whole process would take. Initially, I was convinced I’d be done in 3 months tops, so it might have helped to just have embraced the journey earlier. On the other hand, if I had known the whole process would take over a year, I might have been more upset or scared.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
Try to look for the positive in every experience. There is nothing to be gained by focusing on the bad or feeling sorry for oneself. If you're negative, you will bring yourself down, impede your healing and drive people away when you need them most. It’s good to remember that there is always someone worse off than you, and finding humor in a situation can help you from feeling so grim.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Reading will make time go by much faster, so, invest in a Kindle. Also, get a good wig and a baseball cap with hair, and learn how to draw on eyebrows – you can go out in public bald, but having no eyebrows just looks weird (in my opinion).
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
Getting through it. You never know how much you can take until you have to, and overcoming something like this made me realize I can handle almost anything.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
I try not to sweat the small stuff and try to focus on being grateful for everything I have.
How have you changed?
I am stronger as a person, and my relationships are deeper. I have more empathy, understanding that you never know what’s going on in other peoples’ lives, so it’s best not to judge. The person who cuts you off in traffic probably didn’t do it on purpose. Maybe they’re just distracted because they are dealing with a major life issue – like being diagnosed with cancer – so I cut them some slack.