It was February 2008 when Christine Williams discovered after a routine mammogram that she had stage II breast cancer. Two weeks later, she had a mastectomy on her right side and nineteen lymph nodes removed to test for cancer. She asked for her left breast to be removed as well: “I did not want it go through that again. Besides, I was heavy-breasted and didn’t want to be lopsided. But they said they couldn’t fit that operation in at the same time.”
Nonetheless, the surgery went well and Christine returned home the same evening. The lymph nodes were tested and cancer was only found in one of them.
A few weeks later, she developed an infection at the wound site and travelled to the Richmond Hospital outpatient clinic for intravenous antibiotics. After three visits, the antibiotics were still not working so Christine was admitted to the hospital. “I was hooked up to intravenous antibiotics for many hours each day. I was in the hospital for a week, but I eventually overcame the infection and went back home,” Christine explained. “The movement of my right arm was really affected by the lymph node removal. I did my exercises religiously and over a few months I regained close to normal movement. The pain that I had from the nerves knitting together after surgery, which felt like an electric shock, a zapping sensation, lasted over a year. To this day, I still get pain in my right chest.”
A scan was done on her liver, lungs and bones to see if the cancer had metastasized. She was given the all clear. Christine then went to the hospital to have a port fitted into her upper left arm, which prevents the veins from collapsing and accommodates the chemotherapy needle. That August she started six rounds of chemotherapy, one round every three weeks. “The blood tests were on each Sunday before the Monday of chemo, so I was fit to take the onslaught each time. It was awful; even with the anti-nausea drugs to help me, I felt ill for two weeks after each session. It takes two weeks to get over your chemo and then you’re right on to the next treatment.”
“You worry about losing your hair, but honestly, it’s the least of your worries. I had a wig but I didn’t like wearing it. I underwent chemo during the summer so the wig made me very hot. I only wore it when I went out, which caused me to reduce the frequency my outings because of how hot I got.”
That September her radiation treatments started; they continued for sixteen consecutive days, excluding weekends. Every day she went to the cancer centre on West 10th Ave in Vancouver. After about seven sessions, her skin got red and itchy and, towards the end, her skin felt sunburnt so she applied moisturizer every day.
“I never felt the same again after the radiation. I have quite a lot of pain on and off and still cramp in my right chest if I turn my torso. I worry about whether it’s still from the surgery and radiation, or if the cancer came back in my lung.”
That November, Christine had her left breast removed in the hopes of preventing the cancer from returning. This surgery was much less strenuous than the first mastectomy, as she did not have to have any lymph nodes removed. Nobody came to visit her except her husband; she wasn’t sure if this was because people were embarrassed about her cancer.
“I’m lucky to still be around – but now I have a 6.5 cm growth on my liver. The doctors think it’s a cyst. I had two ultrasounds last year and one very recently. My chest feels heavy, so I am seeing my oncologist soon.”
Christine’s fear of cancer returning or spreading is shared by many other survivors. She believes that everyone should know about the how cancer is diagnosed and treated, because you never know when you will need this information.