When I was a young adult, I heard a lot about cancer around the dinner table at home. Not because anyone in my immediate family had cancer but because my father, Dr. Elliott McCaughey, was a cancer researcher. He was a world expert on a rare cancer linked to asbestos (mesothelioma), first researching this connection among shipyard workers at the Harland and Wolff shipyards (of Titanic fame) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This is where my family originally hails from and where I spent my childhood.
A decade or so after arriving in Canada in 1972, my father became chief pathologist at the Ottawa Hospital in the 1980s. His job was to study biopsy samples under a microscope and determine what type of cancer, if any, was present. At home, he always had medical books and reports on his desk with grainy images of cancer cells. Sometimes I typed his research articles about cancer for him giving me an early exposure to scary descriptions about cancer symptoms and prognoses. Terry Fox’ tragic death from cancer in 1981 only reinforced my fear of cancer as a dreadful disease that could kill – and fast. Still, I was in my twenties and it was the early '80s and my life was in front of me. I thought, at that age, doing everything possible in terms of a healthy lifestyle would prevent me from getting cancer.
Fast forward 40 years to April 23, 2015, the date of what I thought was a routine mammogram. It was less than two months before my 59th birthday and about three months after my retirement from full-time employment as a manager in the federal government. Although I knew that I had a lump in my right breast (confirmed by my family doctor at my annual check-up in late March 2015), I just assumed that it was another benign cyst. I had had plenty of those over the years. My family doctor arranged a mammogram appointment for me at the Women’s Breast Health Centre (WBHC) at the Ottawa Hospital.
Claire on vacation a month before her diagnosis
The first inkling that something might be amiss on that April day was being told that more pictures and an ultrasound were needed. However, I told myself not to worry as this had happened once before during a mammogram when I had some quite large benign cysts. Yet, I felt a stab of fear when there was a sudden bustle of activity in the room as the technologist left to get the radiologist to take a closer look at my mammogram and ultrasound. The radiologist came into the room, looked at my images and started talking about DCIS (ductal carcinoma-in-situ), micro calcifications and fatty necrosis, all of which appeared on my mammogram. Then she told me she was concerned about the lump in my breast and that a biopsy would be needed.
Nothing fully sunk in until I was sent to meet a nurse coordinator a few minutes later who started mapping out appointment dates for me (biopsy and surgeon) and informing me that I was part of the RADS program (Rapid Diagnosis and Support Program). She told me this program was for patients with a high probability of a cancer diagnosis. I could hardly breathe then, things were happening so fast. It felt surreal, as if I had just been knocked over and was saying to myself – what happened to me? I managed to weakly say to her “This is serious, isn’t it?” She agreed it was serious and told me that I had a 90% probability of a cancer diagnosis. My heart dropped. She must have seen a very scared look on my face because she looked at me and said, “We are very good at what we do here and we are going to help you”. At the time, I did not know about all that the WBHC does, but I now know that they are indeed very good at what they do.
Claire Pre-Cancer Diagnosis
Overwhelmed, I went home and broke the news over the phone to my partner (now husband), Jim. I just sat, full of emotion, but still not crying. Later that day when I told my 24-year-old daughter, then I started to cry – it really hit home. I was scared, anxious, and full of dread.
Two days after my initial mammogram, I went in for my biopsy at the WBHC. I recall it was a gloomy rainy April day which only reinforced my solemn mood. The radiologist worked with the technologist to take two biopsies – one from the large lump on the left upper side of my right breast and another one from an area of DCIS on the right lower side of my right breast. DCIS is sometimes seen as pre-cancerous, but given that I had a lump as well they were looking at anything suspicious in my breast.
About eight days after the biopsy, I got the news from my family doctor. She phoned me in the early evening and said right off the top “So - it is cancer”. Again, I had that terrible sinking feeling. My doctor tried to reassure me that I would be okay and her words did reassure me somewhat. I knew that I would have to have surgery. My first surprise was when she told me that the surgery for breast cancer is day surgery, in and out the same day. I had assumed that I would be in hospital for many days and that this was a major surgery. I was soon to discover many more things about cancer which made me realize that much had changed from the 1980s when I had first heard all about this disease from my father, the pathologist. Still, with the cancer diagnosis, I felt like I had just arrived in a strange city to which I did not have a map.
Article written by Claire McCaughey, breast cancer champion, wife, mother, master gardener, Ikebana practitioner, serious introvert, good listener, and believer that it is never too late to try something new.