By Jayita Chatterjee
“Sometimes life is like an archer’s bow. It pulls us back so we can shoot forward with more force and clarity. And just like an arrow, the more you get pulled back, the more potential energy you have… the more potential energy you have, the farther you can go.”
- Dr. Raj Raghunathan, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?
The tattoo of an arrow on my arm helps me remember this message.
Sunday, March 19, 2023. It’s the day I got diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s the day when my world changed. A myriad of emotions took over me that day…. and not the good kinds. However, I knew I needed to arrow ahead and stand strong in the face of this new challenge that life tossed my way.
I have always been good about staying on top of health checks. I went in for my annual women’s check with my OBGYN in early February. Since I had turned 40 this year, I qualified to do my first mammogram screening. On February 27 I got my very first mammogram done.
The first week of March, I got a letter in the mail saying that my mammogram performed on February 27 showed a finding that required supplemental imaging studies, such as additional mammographic views or an ultrasound, and that I needed to go in for a retake. Of course, my husband and I immediately Googled the chances of a callback. We found out that apparently a lot of women do get callbacks on their first mammogram, since there is no baseline to compare against; hence it’s not a real concern. As such, we did not make much of it.
On the morning of March 13, we went in casually for the retake, i.e. a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. After reviewing the new images, the radiologists said I needed to come back the same afternoon for a biopsy following their standard protocol of time between the imaging and the biopsy procedure.
I was in no mood to eat, but forced myself to have lunch. I asked my husband to join me again for the second visit of the day to the radiology center. I knew I might not be cautious at the wheel if I drove, given all the craziness, and he too wanted to be with me for the biopsy. I had a core needle biopsy done and a coil marker placed at the site of the tumor finding. I knew I did not have much hope when the radiologist accidentally grunted while pushing in the needle and hit a hard mass.
After the procedure, the radiologist sat down with me and my husband and reviewed the findings. She said that she did not like what she was seeing, that we should brace ourselves, and handed us a list of local breast surgeons. She asked us to wait for the official pathological results from the biopsy, but also advised us to start screening/reaching out to breast surgeons so the cancerous tumor could be taken out as soon as possible. This whole time I had been holding strong, but at this point, I felt a lone teardrop stream down one cheek.
The next few days were a blur. My husband and I are not from the medical field, I did not have any family history of breast cancer, I did not know a single woman in my social circle that had breast cancer, hence we were practically cancer-illiterate. I started researching breast cancer in general: its types, stages, causes, grades, treatment options, etc. I gathered my questions for the surgeon for our first meeting. We also looked at top breast surgeons in the area, and we narrowed down our choices. We decided we would seek a second opinion to validate my treatment plan, so I got on the books of two. All this while trying to maintain some form of normalcy in our daily life without being overcome with the fear of the unknown.
Two things that I did decide on at the very onset were to stay strong and to be transparent with my daughter. Our 11-year-old daughter is a mature kid. I did not want to withhold information from her; I did not want her to go online and try to find answers for herself. I wanted her to be able to ask me questions openly; I wanted an open dialogue; I did not want her to bottle up her feelings and her fear. I wanted her to know that the doctors and I would do the best we could to see this through, but at the same time I did not want to overwhelm her. I knew she could handle this if I was right beside her and if I was sharing information with her at a level that was age appropriate. And to this day I think those were two solid decisions I made. We have a ritual of spending about 30-45 minutes of mommy-daughter time before bed every night, and that’s our time to talk about our lives, how our day went, our feelings, our dreams… anything under the sun, basically. That was my time to have those transparent discussions with her. And I know she continues to thrive because she is empowered to ask questions and have an open dialogue with me about something as disruptive as cancer.
Sunday, March 19, 2023. We were anxiously waiting on the official biopsy results the entire week. And while our family was out on a casual drive and grabbing an early dinner, I got a call from my radiologist. I wasn’t expecting a call on a Sunday… so I knew the results had to be bad. And they were. I was positive for breast cancer. I had stage I invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), ER/PR+ HER2- breast cancer.
Since March 19, I’ve had a slew of doctors’ appointments with breast surgeons, reconstruction surgeons, and oncologists. I’ve had MRIs, blood work, and CT scans. I had a bilateral mastectomy, sentinel node biopsy, and reconstruction phase 1 with tissue expanders.
After my mastectomy on May 5, I received my pathology results and Oncotype DX results, had chemo port placement surgery on June 20, and had Taxotere-cyclophosphamide (TC) chemotherapy from June 26 to August 28. Up next, I have reconstruction phase 2 surgery (removal of expanders and DIEP flap reconstruction). Then I will start hormone therapy, in which I will be taking tamoxifen for five years.
Even while going through treatments and enduring bad side effects, cancer could not take away my desire to stay positive, to be grateful for the support I have, to enjoy the present, to never give up and to find ways to give back. I find myself reflecting these days: What am I doing to leave this world a better place than I came into? What legacy am I going to leave behind? Have I helped others enough who might not have the same privileges as me? I feel that self-reflections like these make me fall in love with life and help me gain more clarity of my life’s purpose.
Often I am so caught up hustling and simply living my everyday life that I fail to recognize opportunities where I could have been of service in a greater capacity than taking care of just my family and loved ones. Often I get so wrapped up in enjoying the fruits of today that I forget to plant seeds for the future. But the things I do now, after my diagnosis, that genuinely make me happy inside are journaling/blogging, meditation, yoga, nature walks, sharing knowledge and awareness through social media, and advocating for mammograms and health screenings.
I am honored to have been chosen as one of the ten “2023 Faces of Hope” for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Washington DC Walk by the American Cancer Society. I intend to keep fundraising for cancer support organizations, to keep working with newly diagnosed cancer patients and sharing my journey, and to keep researching and educating myself.
Cancer is tough, but I am tougher!
Connect with Jayita:
On the Podcast: Breast Cancer Conversations
DIEP Flap Reconstruction – What you need to know about Changes in Insurance Codes