It was the day after Thanksgiving. My wife Kimberly was talking with a nurse about the results from a biopsy performed 2 days earlier. She hung up her mobile phone and burst into tears. Kimberly received the call while we were exiting the gates of Leavenworth National Cemetary in Kansas, where we had just laid my mother-in-law Barbara to rest with her husband, Gilbert. Our kids were in the back seat and did not really know what was going on, but they guessed that mom had cancer.
The week prior, Kimberly had a diagnostic mammogram, and the radiologist told us in person that Kimberly had a suspicious lesion in her right breast (larger than a peppercorn, smaller than a pea) and recommended a biopsy. Luckily, a biopsy appointment was available the day before Thanksgiving, and we took it even though we were flying to Kansas City the next day. We asked the care coordinator to call us as soon as she had preliminary pathology results, and she did. Our family flew home to the San Francisco Bay area on Sunday.
On Monday, Kimberly and I visited the medical oncology department of a nearby clinic. The nurse said that Kimberly had invasive ductal carcinoma. Surprisingly, the rest of the visit did not turn into that dull surreal buzz that often accompanies bad news and drowns out everything else. In our case, years of being in rooms like this one discussing the needs of our exceptional children proved immensely useful. I took notes and Kimberly asked incisive questions about treatment options, radiation therapy, and genetic counseling. The nurse patched-in our long time family physician over the phone, and his presence was very assuring. It was a brief respite from what would become an overwhelming 3 month journey–the first 2-3 weeks especially so. We learned about a bewildering array of cancer treatment options, visited competing medical facilities, and evaluated new doctors.
We drove home and I read the Wikipedia entry for invasive ductal carcinoma. It was the prognosis section that caught me completely off guard:
Overall, the five-year survival rate of invasive ductal carcinoma was approximately 85% in 2003.Reference: https://doi.org/10.1186/bcr767
Those odds were not good, and I had multiple panic attacks over the next few weeks at the thought of losing my wife. “Hang in there. Moment by moment,” a friend texted to me. I read that message over and over, hanging on.