After Diagnosis of Cancer Comes Surgery, Chemo and Tears

An original article by Sarah Weddington. Austin American-Statesman, August 5, 2001, Insight Section, Page H3.

On April 22, I shared with Austin American-Statesman readers thoughts and emotions following my breast cancer diagnosis. Nothing in my past as a lawyer, a Texas legislator, a member of the Carter White House or a university teacher prepared me for this experience.

Immediately after diagnosis, I was hit with an avalanche of information and choices I had to make about my treatment path. Everything I've learned underlines the importance of early detection. Women whose cancers are found early have the best treatment options and survival rates. If my tumor had been small, surgery would have been less invasive and chemotherapy probably not necessary.

Most lumps and changes in the breast that are symptomatic of breast cancer are found by women themselves. That was my situation, I discovered the lump. The smallest cancers, though, are discovered through mammography. I had a mammogram only 15 months before my diagnosis, and the report said "nothing suspicious." Because I couldn't understand how a mass as large as mine could be in place 15 months after a mammogram found nothing, I asked a radiologist friend, Bob Elzey, to look at that mammogram with me. Each of us studied the film and finally agreed there was no indication of a mass. Cancers can grow rapidly. My doctor says finding breast cancer depends on self-exam, doctor's exam and mammogram, in that order. I probably would have found the tumor much earlier if I'd been doing regular self-exams; instead I did them sporadically. Now I urge others — and I'm determined myself — to do them regularly. For pre-menopausal women, the best time is a week after a period ends; for post menopausal women, any consistent specific date is fine.

After my diagnosis, I named my tumor Darth Vader after that menace hiding behind a mask in the "Star Wars" movies. I wanted it cut out and then dissected in the pathology lab to discover its characteristics and learn how best to fight it. Surgery, the most common form of breast cancer treatment, was my first step. Coping with illness gives you a helpless feeling, as those who have faced it with others or for themselves know too well. Finding doctors in whom you have faith and to whom you are willing to entrust your life is a priority. I think of them as champions, and I was lucky to find ones who fit my needs and temperament.

Based on the pathology report and the fact that the tumor was moderately large, 3.8 cm., or not quite 2 inches across, medical experts said there was a good chance that rogue cancer cells too small to be detected were multiplying in my body. They recommended six months of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of daily radiation. Cancer patients, doctors and scientists are hoping that better treatment options will be developed in coming years. But for now, chemotherapy- or the use of chemicals to kill cancer cells—is the best medicine has to offer. Friends refer to the treatment as a chemical cocktail or "chemo fiesta." Each patient receives the mixture of drugs deemed best able to kill that person's cancer cells. The problem is the chemicals kill all fast-growing cells, including fast-growing healthy cells. Often the most visible side-effect of chemo is hair loss.

That one has crept up and captured me. I always thought my best feature was my long, lush, curly hair. It is now in the trash. James White, who owns the Broken Spoke, knows that I love to dance county-and-western. He doesn't know that country-western music is also the best way for me to cry. When I lost my hair, I played my best tear-jerker CDs to wash away the first stage of no-hair blues.

I still have tearful times, but my "let's-do-something-about-this" self has re-emerged.

Better cancer treatments must be found. I volunteered to participate in a study comparing various chemo treatments to see which one works best. Let's hope the results from the current 1,500 volunteers will help those diagnosed in the future. Women must understand how important it is to do self-exams regularly and correctly. I now emphasize that in all my speeches. I'll be featured in the October issue of MAMM magazine, a publication devoted to "Women, Cancer and Community," emphasizing those points. It's an article written and photographed by Austin women.

For many months I've been thinking about how to design the memorial for my Texas State Cemetery plot close to Big Foot Wallace, a bachelor and early Texas raconteur. When I recently asked friends for suggestions, I didn't connect those queries—as they did—with my newly found cancer. They worried that I was much more upset than I was letting on. However, we all shared a good laugh when they learned I recently bought five pairs of earrings from a woman designer. They decided I had faith in my future if I was willing to buy so many earrings.

I certainly am not in any hurry to spend my days nextdoor to Big Foot. I'm eager to get back to dancing at the Broken Spoke.