Carla Van Wyck-MacDonald lives near Shallow Lake, Ontario with her husband and their four children, ages 9, 11, 13 and 14. Carla was initially diagnosed with breast cancer two years after her mother died from the same disease.
I am from a long line of breast cancer survivors, so when I was diagnosed in 2008 with breast cancer, I was not in the least surprised. I was just 50, my twin sister and I celebrated that milestone in February 2007. By December of that year, I knew something was wrong.I had a mammogram at Sunnybrook that fall, in October I believe, and received “all clear”. Both the mammogram and the vigorous breast examination at Sunnybrook failed to detect an exceedingly small tumour situated close to my left armpit and sitting deep on a ligament. It was undetectable at that time. Later that fall, I noticed a puckering in my breast when I was drying my lower body, just out of a shower at my gym. I knew instantly what it was, so I booked an appointment with my doctor at the high-risk breast screening centre at the Odette Centre.
Self-care. It’s not a phrase that even flickered across my radar when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, let alone after my surgery or during treatment. But it should have. And, no, it’s not a selfish act.
At the very core of my being, I radiate feminine essence. I grew to understand this through the loss of a physical trait that has been deeply rooted as a symbol of femininity and sexuality for so many centuries - my breasts. At the age of 18, I was diagnosed with the BRCA1 genetic mutation just as my mother, auntie, and sister before me. This meant that I was at high risk for contracting breast cancer.
The worst weeks of my life had finally come to an end. It had been six weeks since my lumpectomy. Six terrifying weeks, living with many unknowns, in a state of complete disillusionment. But the wait was finally over because today I would meet my medical oncologist for the first time, she would go over my pathology report, and reveal my treatment plan. Going into the appointment I felt ready to face whatever would come my way. After experiencing the darkest days of my life, I had emerged feeling strong and optimistic. I had done a lot of research and decided that the odds were in my favour, I could beat this… unless I had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), because that was a different story. However, I wasn’t worried about that because I knew that TNBC only makes up 10-20% of breast cancers and that aside from my age, I didn’t really have any risk factors. So, there I was, full of hope, when I was hit with what I had identified as the worst-case scenario. As soon as I heard “Your cancer is triple negative”, I burst into tears. I don’t remember much of the appointment after that.
If you’re going to be told you have breast cancer, you want to be able to say, “They caught it early.” With Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) - an aggressive, difficult to treat type of breast cancer - early detection is especially important.
The day my doctor told me I had breast cancer was the same day I met my surgeon and was scheduled for a partial mastectomy (otherwise known as a lumpectomy), breast-conserving surgery. It’s not surprising. The Canadian Breast Cancer Society attributes breast cancer as being the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadian women and the second leading cause of cancer death in Canada, so booking a surgery right away is a priority.
My oldest son is 17. Then 14, and 10- and 6-year-old twins. While I don’t claim to be any kind of parenting expert, I’ve had enough experience now to know a thing or two.
Two days ago, my lower back seized and then, seemingly stuck. Never have I ever had back problems. Yet, here I am frozen with body-gripping spasms. I can’t roll over in bed, stand up straight or even wipe my bum without yelping loudly. Thank God, and I don’t say this lightly, I was able to call a friend (who suffers from chronic back pain), who called her chiropractor, who graciously booked me in at the end of his appointment-packed day.
Recently, after spending eight hours with abdominal pain so intense I was doubled over, I conceded to my sister Liz, who insisted a trip to the hospital was necessary and crawled downstairs, ordered an Uber, pulled a patterned facemask over my nose and mouth and went. Twelve hours, three hits of morphine and one magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of my lower abdominal organs later, the emergency room doctor told me a lesion on the right side of my liver was the culprit. Based on the scans I’d had taken of my major organs prior to my breast cancer surgery, the lesion was new and potentially the result of the original tumor and/or the treatment I’d received post-operation. An ultrasound followed, revealing the lesion’s 5cm length by 5cm depth by 5cm width. A second MRI has been scheduled.