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What Does A Breast Cancer Diagnosis Mean?

You may have received a diagnosis for breast cancer, or maybe you know someone who has received a diagnosis. What does that mean, exactly? Are there any similar threads that run through a breast cancer diagnosis? Some, but each breast cancer is unique to the person, as is each specific treatment protocol. Breast cancer is not a one-size-fits-all disease.

Before diagnosis, I thought all breast cancers were the same. I have since learned otherwise.

What Does it Mean?


Breast cancer. When you hear those words, either by your own diagnosis or by the diagnosis of someone you know or love, it’s devastating. That’s it.

Your initial reactions run through you, knocking over any amount of sense you thought you had, with no regard for your sanity. You tell yourself to calm down, to try and think, damnit! Yet, the moment swallows you and from that moment on, you know that you’ll never forget where you were or what you were doing. (In Target, on a carefree early morning shopping run.)

I. Have. Breast. Cancer.

What the hell does that mean?  Do I have early stage?  Late stage? Has it spread? Is it encapsulated? Is it common? Is it aggressive? Do my breasts have to be cut off? Do I need chemotherapy? How about radiation? Do I get to keep most of my lymph nodes? Will I lose my hair? Will I be sick? Will I get to live after I endure the medical community and their science? What is my prognosis? Will it come back? If it does come back, does that effect my survival rate?

What the hell does my particular diagnosis mean?!

Many have questioned why I had chemo first, instead of surgery. Believe me, there’s nothing more than I would have liked than to cut the cancer outta me first. Yet, treatments vary for each cancer, are specific for each cancer, and chemo first, or neoadjuvant chemotherapy as it’s called, is the protocol for mine.  Chemo, then surgery. My very life could depend on the order of things.

Occasionally, when I explain this to someone who hasn’t had breast cancer, or a breast cancer they didn’t have, they look at me dubiously, as if I might have gotten confused about my treatment. Nope. Not confused. Protocols change all the time, depending on trial outcomes. When they do, it’s for the patient’s benefit, so we might live longer, so we might survive the cancer trying to off us. Just because you have had breast cancer doesn’t mean you’ve had my breast cancer.

Important takeaway for everyone reading this post: breast cancers vary, as do the protocols of treatment. Period. This is important information when offering support to those who have received this life-altering blow.

After my diagnosis, one I was still learning about, I was told by many, rightly, soundly, that most women survive breast cancer and that it should not be too concerning having been diagnosed, because most women beat this disease. I knew the information was offered with a heart full of love and encouragement and that’s how I tried to receive it.

It didn’t help that a young woman, whose breast cancer site I had been following, had just died (a few years after diagnosis), or that I knew many other women die every year from breast cancer.

Folks want to help by offering good news. I’ve done it myself. But this is what I want to say now: each breast cancer is unique and diagnosis doesn’t mean that the odds are in anyone’s favor. Those of us diagnosed learn this very early on in the hard talks with our army of docs.

Not every breast cancer is easy to cure, nor an automatic home run of survival, even though the stats might seem to skew in that direction.

Knowing that, knowing that this disease might not be so curable for all who have it, helps us to fashion our offers of helpful info or support.

Not that you shouldn’t be positive. YOU SHOULD! You just shouldn’t be blindly positive.  Those diagnosed with a tougher breast cancer, a more aggressive breast cancer, cringe when they hear those casually offered happy stats. How they wish that was their reality. They may understand the reason behind being offered such encouragement, and love those trying, but they also know it can be totally inaccurate in their case because they know their fight is longer, harder, more perilous than if they had a less aggressive breast cancer.

I didn’t know this before I was diagnosed and I’m betting many of you didn’t either until you read this post.

I hope, before offering a well-meaning, filled with love and meant to encourage, most women survive breast cancer these days, that I’ll remember while statistically true, it’s heartbreaking for some walking through the deepest valley of their lives.

From the day of diagnosis, until this moment, Garry and I have received a daunting education. Some of the lessons have been good and uplifting (folks want to love you…let them!), others were a crack to the head. (chemo will bring you to your knees and *fingers crossed* that it works. wait. what?  it might not? nope. for some it doesn’t.)   Our well of knowledge, of what my diagnosis means, continues to fill each day I receive treatment, not only for my particular breast cancer, but for other types as well.

So, what does a diagnosis mean? It means there is much to learn, digest and understand. It means each breast cancer is unique to the person and each course of specific treatment protocol varies based upon diagnosis.  It means that the research is ever-changing and that what holds true for today, may not for tomorrow. It means that even through the chaos, through the fear, through the uncertainty, you will find the warmth of hope, love and devotion from those around you.

This much I know for sure.


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