More than 2.8 million women were either currently being treated, or had been treated, for breast cancer as of 2015, according to Breastcancer.org. That’s inarguably a huge number, but for some reason we always have this tendency to believe that it won’t happen to us.
This way of thinking completely changed for me when my mother sat me down at the dinner table last year and told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
My mother, Ilene Haiber, is a guidance counselor at Neptune High School. She has worked with kids all her life, whether it be as a teacher, counselor or mother. She has a loving family — her husband Tommy and three daughters.
She loves the beach, and would live there if she could in the summer. She’s always been extremely sympathetic as well as empathetic to others, and tends to put other people’s problems before her own.
Young at heart, Ilene has always taken the title of the “cool mom” when it came to the opinion of mine and my sister’s friends. She’s understanding and easy to talk to, and is not only an amazing mother, but a genuine best friend to me and my sisters.
“I Really Didn’t Think I Had It”
My mom first called me in April, 2015, to tell me that the day after her routine mammography, she received a call to come back in for further testing. My mom was totally calm on the phone telling me this, which I thought was strange, because usually she is the type of person to worry about everything.
She told me she wasn’t going to worry about anything just yet, because the same thing happened two years ago, and it turned out to just be density. I didn’t necessarily understand what was going on, so I just trusted my mother’s optimism and waited.
I was at school finishing up the spring semester in Philadelphia while my mom was back home in New Jersey going through the tests.
“When I went back for further testings they said I had to make an appointment for an ultrasound. They were pretty sure it was nothing, but wanted to be positive. When I went for the ultrasound the next week, they asked me if I had been sick. The woman doing the ultrasound said it looked like there was a swelling that could be due to a cold,” my mom shared with me in a recent interview.
My mom told me she hadn’t been sick at this time, which elicited some concern. The woman informed my mother that the doctor probably wouldn’t need to do a biopsy, but that my mom should wait while she spoke with him.
Around 15 minutes later, she came back and said that the doctor wanted to do the biopsy, so my mom scheduled it for next week.
“During the biopsy, the doctor said what I had was really superficial and he didn’t think it was anything, but he was just playing it safe,” my mother said, reflecting on the appointment.
She left the appointment with a false sense of hope, and was told to call the facility on Monday for the results. Come Monday, she called back and was told that the results weren’t ready yet, and to call back later in the day.
She followed these instructions and was once again informed that the results weren’t ready and to instead call back.
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
“This made me kind of angry because they made me wait an extra two days, after a whole month of waiting from the first mammogram. At this point I still didn’t think it was anything serious, I just wanted the waiting to be over,” my mom said.
When May 6 came around, she made the call to the doctor’s office.
“On Wednesday, I went outside during lunch accompanied by a friend to make the call. When I told the woman who answered the phone my name she said she had to get the doctor to speak with me. I didn’t think that was a good sign. He immediately told me how he was so sorry. The doctor explained how he really didn’t think it was cancer when he did the biopsy,” my mother recalled.
“This is when I learned that I had stage 1, grade 2 ductal cancer in my right breast.”
My mom had invasive ductal carcinoma, which means that the cancer began forming in the duct, but spread to other parts of the surrounding tissue. Being in stage 1, the cancer was detected in its early stages and didn’t spread that far.
The grade of the cancer is determined by the appearance and growth of the cancer cells, compared to normal cells. When the cancer cells are depicted as grade 2, this means they look somewhat abnormal and are growing faster.
I didn’t learn any of this until about a week later, when I came home from school. The whole time I figured, “no news is good news,” but I couldn’t have been more far off. My mom didn’t think it was right to tell me something like this over the phone during finals week.
Before I heard the news I was out to dinner with my boyfriend. I was supposed to go back to his house after we ate, but I had a strange feeling that I needed to go home for some reason.
My boyfriend asked if I wanted him to come over too, but I informed him that I needed to be alone. I felt flustered, not knowing why I felt like I needed to be home, until my mom called me over to talk.
“This is why I needed to come home,” I thought.
Upon hearing the news I broke down. I couldn’t process anything my mom was saying to me. One, because I didn’t want to believe what she was saying to me and two because I slowly began to realize I knew nothing about breast cancer.
I had to go back to Philadelphia for summer classes and I hated the idea of leaving my mom behind. When I was back at school, I spent half my time studying, and the other half researching breast cancer and checking in with my mom.
When I could finally come home my mom seemed upbeat a majority of the time. Other times, she would come home from her appointments and seem fine, but then fall to the floor and cry. She would apologize for crying, and I would tell her to stop saying sorry, and that she had every right to cry.
Now, almost a year later from the initial diagnosis, I asked my mom to reflect on everything she has been through.
“The whole thing was so surreal. It just came out of nowhere. No one in my family has breast cancer. The morning of my surgery was the scariest part, but the worst part was having to tell my children, my mother and the look in my husband’s eyes when I first told him,” she shared.
Thankfully, my mother never had to go through chemotherapy. Her appointments consisted of radiation treatments which she has now finished.
Now, she is on Tamoxifen and will stay on it until she goes through menopause. Then she will have to take another pill for the next five years. She sees her oncologist every two months for blood work to check for tumors.
I asked my mom if she made any major life changes due to her experience with breast cancer.
“Not conscious changes, but it changed me in a lot of ways. I have a different view on life and don’t get as worked up over the small stuff. I also stopped smoking after the surgery. I only smoked three a day, but I enjoyed each of them. After the surgery, I didn’t enjoy them anymore,” she responded.
At this point in time, my mom is hopeful, and sees a clear future for herself after this experience.
When it comes to giving advice to other women about breast cancer my mother urges, “Get your mammograms! If you are diagnosed, reach out to people you know who have gone through it already. Talking with two of my friends who had breast cancer helped me more than anything else.”
With a constant support system, her own courage, and a skilled team of doctors, my mom was able to come out on top as a breast cancer survivor.
Reviewed February 5, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
Types and Grades of Breast Cancer. Seattlecca.org. Web. February 3, 2016.
U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics. Breastcancer.org. Web. February 1, 2016.
Phone and email Interviews with Ilene Haiber.