Getting the Diagnosis: All You Hear is “Cancer”

Breast cancers in breastfeeding women are rarely diagnosed this quickly because the breasts are so lumpy when you're nursing.

I tried for 15 years to get pregnant, and when I was told that we should prepare to welcome a baby boy, I was determined to do everything right. I was prepared for the challenges of breastfeeding, but it turns out that my son and I were the perfect nursing pair. He did a great job of latching on and sucking, and I did a great job of producing “liquid gold”. Then I developed a breast infection. Many nursing women have them – painful, but no big deal. I felt a lump that seemed like a clogged milk duct. But when the infection went away, the lump stayed, so I went back to the doctor.

The doctor came in and examined me. My son, then 9 months, was on my lap, and she laid one hand on my breast. Then she said abruptly, “Ok, you can get up now,” and started ordering tests. Later she told me she knew what the lump was as soon as she touched me.

I was very lucky. From the time I had the breast infection to the time I had the definitive diagnosis was six weeks. Breast cancers in breastfeeding women are rarely diagnosed this quickly because the breasts are so lumpy when you’re nursing.

Cheryl nursing Austin the night before her diagnosis.
Her cancer was in her right breast

But when the surgeon came in and told me I had breast cancer and I had to stop nursing, all I heard was, “YOU HAVE TO STOP NURSING.” I didn’t listen to the details about how serious this cancer was.

When you’re diagnosed with something that’s really devastating, there’s only so much you can hear. For me it was that I couldn’t breastfeed any more. All I could think of was, “How will I feed my baby?”

A couple of months later, I sat in my oncologist’s office and received more bad news. He was talking about treatment and told me I had only months to live. But before he told me my prognosis, he told me, “YOU HAVE TO HAVE REALLY STRONG CHEMOTHERAPY AND YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE YOUR HAIR.”  That’s all I heard.

If you are close to someone who has just received very tough news, she may not realize what the actual news is yet. One of the best gifts you can give this person, besides just being there, is to accompany her to the doctors’ offices and write down everything the doctors and nurses communicate. Then give the patient some time to digest the big news and schedule a quiet time to go over the other details. This is a very vital service a caregiver can provide for a patient in need.

I’m now on the board of a non-profit organization, the Society for Participatory Medicine. It’s really a movement that encourages people to be part of their own healthcare team and encourages healthcare professionals to treat patients and their families as part of the team. I was very lucky to get to that place in my treatment. Tomorrow I’ll talk about that, but first, please share your story… have you ever been on the receiving end of this type of bad news? How did you process the information you were given? Have you ever helped anyone through a similar situation? What tips can you give to help others in your shoes?

Tomorrow’s Post… Getting Treatment: How I Became an e-Patient

Published on: October 13, 2009
About the Author
Photo of Cheryl Greene

Cheryl Greene is the co-founder and Executive Producer of She is a mother, a breast cancer survivor and a foodie. Cheryl is active in social media and can be found on Facebook and Twitter as @MsGreene.

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