Hanging on to Fitness and a Few Strands of Hair Through Breast Cancer Treatment

I am a Medical Oncologist, a wife, a mother of 4, runner of 12 marathons training to run my 13th with a goal to qualify for Boston when the diagnosis of breast cancer caused a significant detour in my well-planned life. When I asked for guidance on how to continue to stay fit while receiving treatment, I received blank stares and found little data. While I never intended to be in this experiment, I find myself now generating my own data about fitness through the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. I am writing this in hopes to help others who find themselves in this same situation.


The Day of the Big Life Detour

Updated: Sep 28, 2019

The day started as a typical Monday morning with running intervals and weight training at Formula Fitness. Next up, my “call back” mammogram. In my approximately 10 years of getting annual mammograms I have been asked to come back for additional views 3 other times. These call back mammograms are nerve racking and this time was no different. In fact, this time was a little worse. This time before I got this mammogram, I thought I felt a little lump in my right breast.

The radiology suite for the call back mammograms is special. It is in a place called the “Breast Care Center”. It is not only the place where extra views and expedited results are available, it is also the place where patients who have a diagnosis of breast cancer receive their care. It is decorated in pink, with pictures of bald women wearing pink ribbons, and all kinds of information about breast cancer hanging on the walls. All of this is lovely, but it does not calm the nerves of the person sitting there in the waiting room who still does not identify herself as a person with breast cancer. But the people are extremely compassionate and it is set up to efficiently get test results which minimizes the anxiety that naturally occurs after any tests done in this radiology suite.

This was pretty much how it went for me: first lots of contortions of my body and squishing of my right breast to get a better look at the spot on the right breast that was noticed by the radiologist who read my annual screening mammogram about a week earlier. With previous call back mammograms, this is where it always ended. Do the mammogram, get the reading, and go home relieved that the scare was just a scare. This time was different. This time I was told that I needed an ultrasound to get a better look and that they could do it right away. So they brought me right back to the ultrasound room and asked me to lie down on the bed next to the ultrasound machine. They poured some cold gel under my right breast and pressed the ultrasound wand over the gel and I was able to see the images on the screen right next to my head at the same time they were revealed to the radiologist. There were 2 distinct masses. I knew right away what this was, but ever the optimist, I asked the radiologist for the full list of options. He listed things like benign fibroadenoma (not cancer), cyst, as well as cancer. I didn't ask which he thought was most likely. I guess I worried that if I asked and he answered, my fear that this was in fact breast cancer would be confirmed. I suppose I wanted to stay in that place where I could legitimately say I did not have a diagnosis of breast cancer for as long as possible. I guess I wanted to delay the time when that line in the sand was drawn which would define my life before and my life after a breast cancer diagnosis. But I would not stay in that "life before" for long because the radiologist recommended a biopsy and said they were able to do it that same day. A little more waiting and then I was brought back to another ultrasound room with another set of radiologists who would do the biopsy. The biopsy involved about 5 stabs at this lump in my breast with a needle, and then lots of pressure on the stab wounds to make sure that the bleeding stopped. I was told that it would take about 3 days to receive results from the pathologist. Could I pretend that I was fine for another 3 days?

I was also told that could resume normal activity in about 5 days. When I told the radiologist what my normal activity included marathon training and that my training schedule called for a 20 mile run on Saturday, she was not sure what to say but she did not think that running 20 miles 5 days after a breast biopsy was a good idea. I guess I will need to figure out what normal activity will mean for me now...

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