My name is Patricia Armendariz-Tallon, but you can all call me Patty. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 30, 2010; I was 33 years old. This was the day turned my world upside down. I had just recently moved to Memphis from Ohio with my family due to a job transfer with my father. I was a single mother, separated from husband, who lived in Kentucky at the time. I have three beautiful children who were 14, 10, and 5 at the time of my diagnoses.
The problems with my breasts started when I was around 15 years old. I would discharge from the nipples. Due to the large size of my breasts, 34 DD, it was hard to feel or see any abnormalities. I had my first child when I was 19 and I breastfed her. My breasts became larger, 38 G, and never really went back to the normal size. I did breastfeed all the children, but when my third child came I began to notice a dark discharge from my left breast. My OB/GYN stated that it was normal and would probably dry up. That is something that never happened with my breasts. After nursing, I was always able to extract milk even years after nursing. This dark discharge also stayed. This was in 2000.
In 2006, I left my husband and moved back to Ohio with my children. I was living with my parents until I was able to get on my feet because I had been a housewife for 7 years.I started working at a local physician’s office as a medical assistant. In 2007, I talked to the nurse practitioner about this discharge, and we sent a sample to a lab to see exactly what we were dealing with. The results came back that it was a protein based discharge and was not uncommon. But they did suggest that I get a ductogram just to be safe. I had a mammogram with ultrasound and the results were normal, but my breasts were too dense to truly see everything. I was scared to death to get the ductogram and just figured since the mammogram was normal, I would just continue to get them yearly.
In 2008 we moved down south. Now, I was still a single mother dealing with two dead-beat fathers and trying to support my three children. The discharge was still present and I had begun to get an ache on the entire left side of my left breast. It was sporadic, but hurt enough that it was uncomfortable. In my heart I knew what it was cancer. My paternal grandmother had breast cancer in her 30’s, as did one of her daughters. Three of my mother’s sisters had ovarian/cervical cancer and one had leukemia. I was surrounded by cancer, it seemed. At this time I was working for surgeons who specialized in breast cancer operations. It had been 2008 since my last mammogram/ultrasound, and it was now 2010. I informed the doctors of my situation and they encouraged me to schedule a mammogram. I kept putting if off, even though I was the one who would call to schedule it. Then one evening before taking a shower I thought I saw a piece of lint or something on my left breast and I just kinda brushed it off….and that is when I felt it. A hard lump the size of a pebble…I knew my worst nightmare had come true. This was the end of April of 2010. My children and I had finally got our own apartment in Memphis, and we were happy. But I suppose it was too good to be true.
The next day at work, I told the doctors I worked for what was happening and I wanted an ultrasound now! We had one in the office, and luckily he could do it!! Instead they felt it would be better if I had it downstairs in the hospital, where they had better equipment. Needless to say, I scheduled the appointment that day. I did have the mammogram and ultrasound, and by this time my discharge has worsened and so had the pain. The mammogram came back highly likely to be cancer, and a biopsy was needed. The doctors I worked for were wonderful and always reassured me that at my age I was unlikely to have cancer. But I knew better. This was something I could feel inside me. Of course I had the biopsy, and it was positive for a ductal carcinoma which had spread through the entire left side of my Left breast. I will never forget the day my doctor told me the results. Since I worked in the office, I was usually the one who received tests results and gave them to the doctor. This was one result I did not want to see alone. I asked the receptionist to not tell me when they got there and call the doctors to review. It was March 29 or 30th 2010 at 4:30 pm. Both doctors had left the office for the day and we were getting ready to close up. Suddenly the doctor was standing at my desk holding a pathology report, and my heart sank. He informed that it was cancer, and gave me all the details. I was like a rock, no tears, just sat like it was everyday news and said okay. Bi-lateral mastectomy is what I want. I think I was in shock because I showed no emotion. I could see the pain in his eyes having to tell me this. Our receptionist was upfront balling her eyes out, and I told him we better go comfort her. Ha! I was comforting other people when in reality, I had just received a life changing result.
I drove home still in shock. And I told myself I was okay, it was going to be okay. I got home, walkedto my parents house, saw my children playing and that was it. I ran to my mom’s room crying saying ‘It’s cancer, It’s cancer!’ over and over. All she did was hug me, cry and say ‘I know, Mija, I know’. The thought of what could be, leaving my children without a mother, was more than I could take. I was all they had. I took care of them. They depended on me.
Thankfully I worked for wonderful surgeons and they were amazing through out this entire ordeal. We had a private meeting in the office with my entire family and they described all my options, and we planned to do the blood test to see if it was hereditary. We discussed my surgery options, lumpectomy as opposed to mastectomy. I wanted them both gone. They were huge. I had back pain. I was like ‘just take them!!!’. Unfortunately, our office was being bought by a hospital and in May 2010, our insurance was changing. I did blood work to see if it was hereditary. I even drew my own blood. I was so anxious, but it came back negative. I don’t believe that for a minute, but my present insurance would not pay for the removal of both breasts because of this. So I waited until May so I could have them both removed. One month of walking around trying to make the hardest decision of my life. Do I remove them both? How could they possible make them look the same if I don’t? Do I really want fake breasts? All these question just racing through my head. I had to be strong for my children.
During this one month waiting period, I saw an oncologist, plastic surgeon, and cardiologist (due to my tachycardia). Scary is only way to describe all this. I was a smoker, until April 2010 when my plastic surgeon told me I had to quit or I may have trouble healing. I did finally decide to stick to my original plan of a bi-lateral mastectomy with reconstruction and port-a-cath placement all in one day. May 9, 2010, I had the surgery. I remember laying in that cold operating room, scared to death. My family was so supportive and always at my side. During the 9 hour surgery, my youngest son ran a fever, he was so distraught. I remember pain…pain and tears. The surgeons I worked for did my surgery. The lymph nodes on the left side were removed and tested during the surgery and it was positive. The cancer had spread to 2 out of 6 of my lymph nodes. I had a lumpectomy on the left side. The right breast also contained suspicious areas that the pathologist believed probably were pre-cancerous cells, or going to be within the next couple years. They took wonderful care of me. The plastic surgeon put expanders in. These can be filled with saline until I reach the desired breast size, then they switch them out with saline breasts. Before I started chemo, I had about 600 cc of saline in each expander, around a D cup. I had 2 drains coming from both breasts. These are usually in for 10 days or so. Mine were in for 2-4 weeks. I had so much drainage, and could not start chemo until the drains were removed. My plastic surgeon removed my last drain after 4 weeks, but I thought it was too soon. It was still draining 30-60 cc of fluid a day, but what do I know. So in June 2010, I received my first dose of chemo – A/C treatments every 2 weeks. After my first dose of chemo, I got sick. My right breast incision was red and swollen and I had a fever of 102. I was admitted to the hospital. I had no idea that this was the start of whole new nightmare. The right breast was infected and had lots of fluid build up. They tried to extract as much as possible and had it cultured.
An infectious disease doctor was called in. I was on 3 different antibiotics including Vancomycin. The culture was not growing fast enough. All we knew was that I had an acid fast bacterial infection. The plastic surgeon decided that the he would take me to surgery to place another drain and try to relieve some of the excess fluid. This did not help and I was off to have the expander removed. I was devastated. I was in the hospital for 5 or 6 weeks. When I was finally discharged,I had lost my hair and was on 3 IV antibiotics 4 times a day at home, for 6 months. Upon my release, I continued my chemotherapy. I had only received one dose. I was in rough shape. The infection ended up being some crazy mycrobacterium fundulitum, something or other. All I knew was it was a distant relative of tuberculosis. During my course of treatment, I was not able to work and had to come live with my parents to help with my children. I had no energy, was very sick, and kept getting my chemo, no matter how bad I felt. More then once they wanted to hospitalized me due to my low white blood cell count and red blood count. I refused transfusions and every time they wanted to give me one, I begged for one more day, so my numbers could go up. And they did. My last dose of chemo was in October 2010, and I was still on IV antibiotics due to that funky infection. I remember having thrush so bad I didn’t eat for days. My kidneys began to fail because of the vancomycin. All this was happening while in the hospital those 6 weeks. I told my family not to bring the children to see me too often. They thought I was dying. And that is how I felt. I know I jump around a lot in this and I apologize, my memory is not what it used to be.
My bones and joints ached like nothing I have ever felt before. I remember not being able to roll over in bed due to my hip pain and not having strength. I would lay there and cry til someone woke up or I built up the strength and cried through the pain. I felt like a burden on my family.
But my story does not end here. In October of 2010 I was back in the hospital with some sort of stomach problem. They thought it was an Ileus but could not be sure so I was admitted and had an NG tube placed. That goes through your nose down to your stomach. OMG, that hurt so bad!!! It was another awful week in the hospital. In January, the 6 month round of antibiotics was done, or so I thought. I had to wait 5 months before the plastic surgeon would do another surgery to replace the expander on the right side. This whole time I had one fake breast, or man-boob as we tend to call it, because it is hard as a rock.
In May 2011, it was off to surgery again. He was going to try to get the expander back and did warn me that if they found any fluid he would not be able to insert the expander. I remembering waking up in recovery and asking if everything was okay and how many drains I had. The nurse told me he was unable to put the expander back because he found an abscess with some infection still in it. I lost it. I was so upset and just kept thinking ‘This isn’t fair!’ While in the hospital, we started more antibiotics and did a couple more surgeries on the right breast because I was having difficulty healing. In the end my doctor decided to leave my breast completely open and let it heal from the inside out. I went to wound care 3 times a week and was once again placed on IV antibiotics for 6 months. I was devastated, depressed, and I felt that I was never going to be rid of this infection. I began to alienate myself from my family. I didn’t leave the house. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or even be around people other than my children. Now, keep in mind, this entire time I had no income and was not working.
In November of 2010 I was released to start work again, light duty, and the day my employer received this release, they informed me that they had upgraded my position to an LPN and I no longer had a job. More good news for me!!! My life was in ruins. I couldn’t go anywhere because my immunity was so low due to all these crazy antibiotics I was on and from the Taxol, my last chemo.
In September of 2011 I had to have an open full hysterectomy. I had cysts in my ovaries growing six times the normal rate, so I was at high risk for ovarian and cervical cancer. It all had to go. I was still on my second round of IV antibiotic, Premaxin, this time, 4 times a day and Azythromycin, 500mg once a day. Due to my inability to heal properly, the incision opened and I was back in the hospital in October 2011. The bottom portion of the incision took a good 3 months to fully heal. In January of 2012, I finished my antibiotics, and I won’t know if it is cleared up until I can find a new plastic surgeon. In the midst of all this, I lost my apartment in Memphis and was forced to move back to Mississippi and live with my parents. I have chronic joint pain and difficulty getting around due to the pain. I was hospitalized for major depressive disorder, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, and suicidal thoughts in February 2012. I was done. I felt hopeless, worthless, and broken. I know I will never again feel the way I did before chemo and I will always be in pain. I still have one fake breast and nothing on the right. I want to just have the left expander removed and be done because I have this eerie feeling that this is not over. I apologize if this is hard to understand or follow but I lose track of things so quickly. And I forget everything it seems like. I am currently fighting for my disability, unable to work, and still live with my family. I thank my family more than they realize. Without them, I would have never made it. My children are my strength and I am here today because of them. I am not sure when my journey will end. Or if it ever will. I just hope my story comforts someone who feels alone, scared, fed up, anxious, tired, hurt, sad, confused, or just plain done. Please know you are not alone and we are all strong women!!
Thank you for caring enough to read.
The informational content of this article is intended to convey a personal experience and, because every person’s experience is unique, should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.
This story is intended to convey a personal experience and, because every person’s experience is unique, should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.