Breast Cancer Diagnosis

My extended family in Austin — cheering me after learning about the diagnosis

Unexpected twist

What are the odds of you going to an annual check-up during a pandemic year and walking out with a cancer diagnosis? The entire 2020 and early part of 2021 — I was worried about getting COVID and never imagined getting the other C.

When I went for my annual — I did the routine blood work and physical exam. My Primary Care Physician (PCP) did not find anything alarming during the physical, so I was specifically asked if I wanted to go ahead with a mammogram. I did tell them to put in the request because I had missed it last year due to COVID. After a few days of blood work, my PCP’s office called to notify me about my low iron levels — my levels as a healthy adult should have been in the 11–13 range, but mine had dropped to 6. This low hemoglobin count indicated that I was risking and stressing my heart too much. My doctors urged me to get a blood transfusion.

Walk with friends during spring break — with the low hemoglobin count.

Robin was in Japan, so before the annuals, I was driving my kids all over Austin to soccer games and even places that were an hour away in opposite directions, like San Antonio and Kileen — all in the same day. I was getting my 10k steps or 45 minutes of Peloton alternatively, had a full day job, and was also interviewing for new positions. Among all of this, my kids and I also survived the terrible Austin snowstorm. During spring break, I drove my kids around and hosted my friends for dinner too. My heart endured this stress test, so the blood transfusion caught me by surprise for sure. I had to follow up with a hematologist for the low iron levels, and additional blood and stool tests showed no internal bleeding. With this, all I had to do was go for an iron-rich diet, iron supplement, or iron infusion to get my iron levels to a decent number.

For the last two years, I have been called twice for a mammogram. During one of those tests, I was told that Asians have denser breasts — many of my friends, including my family members, were called twice, and some even had to go through the ultrasounds. So, when the radiology center called me for additional breast imaging, I thought nothing was out of the ordinary. I had no symptoms of breast cancer. During my second round of the mammogram, they suggested I get an ultrasound. The imaging results were not good, so a biopsy had to be done. After learning more about my profession during the biopsy, the conversation with my radiologist and nurse was about Artificial Intelligence (AI) influence on imaging and how the predictions can improve diagnosis. The whole 3-hour process for biopsy passed pretty fast, and I also witnessed the radiologist reaching out to specific tissues to collect samples on a TV screen. I came home with three titanium bandaids.

I spent the following days with my sisters on the internet reading about breast cancer and the possibility of testing positive with no family history of breast cancer and being premenopausal. So naturally, we put on our WebMD doctor hats and ruled out the possibility of having breast cancer. We had multiple different ideas as to what ails me. But all it took was one phone call from my physician to prove all of our theories wrong. I was crushed to learn that I have metastatic breast cancer. That morning, I was in back-to-back meetings, and all I remember is the tears that wet my cheeks as I sat through endless conference calls — without knowing what the future holds for me.

My sister and I could not hold back our tears. Many FaceTime calls with my younger sister, Robin’s sisters, niece, and even my parents ended in crying. And, of course, Robin immediately came back from Japan the very next day. I have my share of bad days with pain and feeling low emotionally, which brings tears, but I have not cried about the diagnosis since then.

At this time, all we knew was my cancer on the right breast is positive, and it is metastatic because of the spread to the lymph nodes. However, we got additional lab results from the biopsy the next day, revealing I am triple negative.

Robin bringing my smile back with his return

I berated myself over missing a mammogram appointment the year before. Did I unknowingly let my cancer spread and worsen? My oncologist assuaged me of these worries and assured me that my condition was only recently formed. However, it spread fast due to its invasive and aggressive nature. We did not know the pervasiveness of cancer, but I did know that the diagnosis changed my life.

I owe my new life to Robin because he was the one who pushed me to go for annuals with the job change. Otherwise, I would have found out a bit too late, and the damage may have been more devastating.

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