One in 11 American women will be victims of breast cancer sometime during their lives. If you are one of them, Ellen Kingsley wants you to know that as devastating as that diagnosis will be, and as traumatic as the treatment will be, you can live through it.
It's easier, of course, if you know where you can get help and what your options are. And it's immensely helpful to have emotional support, especially from women who have gone through the same turmoil and treatments. She knows that, too.
Each evening this week on Channel 9's "Eyewitness News" at 6 (with a shorter version at 11), WDVM's award-winning consumer affairs reporter will recount her own experiences with the disease that American women dread over any other. Ellen Kingsley was taking a shower when she discovered the lump in her left breast. She called out to her husband, Robert Hirschfeld, a physician. "He knew right away," she said.
Kingsley was 33 years old.
"I was shocked that someone my age would get breast cancer. You think of older women, your aunt, your mother . . . It's important that someone my age should know that they're not invincible. You think you're indestructable . . .
"I know that a lot of women don't examine their breasts. If I hadn't been doing it, I wouldn't have found it . . . I had had a thorough gynecological exam just two months earlier. The doctor said that I probably caught it at the earliest time you could feel something.
"(A cancerous lump) feels different from other lumps. It doesn't feel like a BB, or an elongated gland, like when you get your period. It's a thickening, a hard place in the breast; it doesn't feel like a swelling."
Life, of course, does not always seem fair. "I am not a person who takes chances with my body. I never was a drug taker, I don't smoke, I never ate things with saccharin in them." But there was cancer in her family. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when he was 44 -- she was 12 years old at the time -- and both his mother and his sister died of breast cancer (Ellen's grandmother was in her 40s, her aunt only in her 30s).
Kingsley also fit two other high-risk categories: early onset of menstrual periods (she had been 11) and late child- bearing (Kingsley has two stepdaughters, 15 and 9, but was only beginning to think about having a child with her husband of two years).
The growth might have been detected earlier if she had had a mammogram, a breast x-ray that can spot a tumor before any lump could be felt. The American Cancer Society recommends that women have a baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 and 39 and that women over 40 have them yearly. At 33, Kingsley had never had a mammogram.
Kingsley's physician performed an aspiration biopsy, inserting a needle into the lump and removing cells for laboratory examination -- which confirmed the malignancy. At her request, the lymph nodes under her left arm were removed first to see if the cancer had spread. It had: Three of the nodes were malignant. Of the four stages of breast cancer, she was in Stage Two, with a long-term survival estimate of about 40 percent. But chemotherapy could increase that percentage.
With her husband and surgeon, Kingsley decided on mastectomy (removal of the breast) with immediate reconstruction. A pouch of silicon gel would be implanted where breast tissue had been. And she would undergo chemotherapy.
She was lucky in one respect: Treatment of breast cancer patients has changed in recent years. The disfiguring Halstead radical surgery, a procedure that removes underlying chest wall muscles and lymph nodes in the armpit as well as the affected breast, for the most part has given way to lumpectomy (removal of the isolated tumorous area) or to a simpler form of mastectomy.
Kingsley said she took a "methodical" approach to making her choices. "If the lymph nodes are positive, you need chemotherapy. They took the lymph nodes -- three were positive -- and then I decided that I would have mastectomy." Her husband favored immediate breast reconstruction, she said, a fairly new technique. Today, she says, 30 percent of women who have mastectomies have reconstructive surgery -- usually later, after the surgery has healed.
"The biggest help was the reconstruction. I just don't have a disfiguring mastectomy. One month after surgery I could wear the same clinging bathing suit, the same bra, the same clothes. I could wear my sleeveless halter- top tennis dress. I'd say the one bit of self- consciousness I have is in the ladies' locker room. Probably at some time I'll have a nipple reconstruction."
Not that she's trying to deny the mastectomy, she notes. Because of the scar, "people would know right away. On the other hand, I think breast cancer is very upsetting to other women."
Kingsley's body was not the only part of her damaged by the cancer: so was her psyche. "I needed a lot of support," she admits.
She joined a group composed of women who had had mastectomies at about the same time. "But I was the only one who was going through chemotherapy, and losing my hair," she said. In retrospect, she says, "where I really needed more support was during the chemotherapy."
Though she believes that she received excellent care, she also observed that surgeons sometimes fail to provide the emotional encouragement that patients need. "The surgeon would say something like, "Gee, you should be raising your arm by now," and I'd think, "That's easy for you to say."
Kingsley's surgery took place last March; the chemotherapy ended in August. "I'm feeling really good. But it took a long time. Toward the end of chemotherapy I got very depressed. You lose your sense of self-esteem, self-worth; I was having sleeping problems, eating problems, in addition to having this monthly assault on my body from this chemotherapy.
"Just in the past two weeks have I begun to get my energy back. I used to do five stories a week (for Channel 9), now I could only do two." Even now, she admits, she's still wearing a wig until her hair grows back. "I think I've adjusted to things. What remains is some fear of recurrance, some fear of death . . . "
But Kingsley is determined to tell her own story. "We started shooting the day after surgery," she said. "It's not me at my most glamorous, but it's real. I don't think most people have seen a real person go through it. I certainly didn't look my best."
Her friend and colleague at Channel 9, Jane Van Ryan, helped her with the story, interviewing Kingsley, her family and friends. Like Kingsley, Van Ryan has a family history of breast cancer.
And there's something more that Kingsley plans to do. She's going to join the American Cancer Society's new "Can- surmount" program, a sort of emotional- support buddy system matching new cancer victims with people who have gone through the same treatment.
Today, Ellen Kingsley has an 80 percent chance of survival without recurrence of breast cancer. "And that's not bad," she adds.