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The Voice of People With Breast Cancer


Our Voices Blog

Tears and Laughter – My MBC Story part 2

By Brenda Cummings

This is part two of a three-part post. To read part 1 of Brenda’s story, click here.

I don’t need to tell you what was happening between 2019 and 2023. By May of 2022, I’d received four COVID-19 vaccinations and felt confident to attend a musical production with my niece. We were front row centre and seemed to be the only patrons with masks, soon discarded I must confess. When I found myself coughing a few days later I assumed it was COVID that I’d picked up in the theatre and left it to my presumed immunity to deal with. Three weeks later, however, I was still coughing and made the late decision to use a rapid response test. It was negative, which I attributed to being long past the contagious stage and besides, the pandemic had by then expanded to a “triple-demic” of COVID, influenza and RSV. The last place I wanted to be was a crowded doctor’s office, and media reports were advising that children with respiratory symptoms were being triaged ahead of adults. I was doing my part to stay home and ride it out.

Throughout that summer the dry cough persisted and by mid-September, I decided to call for an appointment with my GP. The first available opening was November 7, which was disturbing but with no other symptoms beyond an intermittent stitch in my side, and considering my teenage history of asthma, I was loathe to complain. In the meantime, I received my fifth COVID shot, being the first bivalent available. But as things unfolded, I was required to attend a legal proceeding on the same day as my doctor’s appointment and reluctantly called to reschedule, now booked for December 14.

By the time I sat down with my doctor (whose office is a 35-minute drive from my home), the coughing had become a constant irritant, along with a scratchy feeling in my chest and somewhat laboured breathing. She ordered bloodwork and a chest x-ray, which I had done locally just before everything shut down for the holidays. Over that Christmas, I had the odd experience of leaning over my sofa to plug in tree lights and feeling a sharp pain on the left side of my chest. Had I cracked a rib?

On December 27 I was surprised to receive a phone call from my doctor. The x-ray showed a moderate pleural effusion, she said, commonly known as “water on the lung”. Fluid was accumulating between the outer lining of my right lung and the chest wall, filling the pleural cavity. “What could be the cause?” I asked. Well, it could be a heart condition (seemed unlikely), inflammation from an infection or, worst case scenario, metastatic breast cancer (mBC). She was booking me for an early appointment with a respirologist to investigate, along with a CT scan and another in-person with herself on January 3rd. I hung up the phone convinced I had a lingering bacterial infection from one of the three respiratory viruses still raging. I’d had a right-side mastectomy, chemotherapy and been cleared of breast cancer some 24 years ago; there’s no way it could be mBC.

At the January appointment, I mentioned the incident with my rib, which still felt sore, and on touching the area my doctor decided to order a bone density scan along with the other appointments.

It should be stated at this time that I’d left financial services some eight years prior and at 61 years of age considered myself semi-retired, earning a modest income from some rental units in a rural location. I haven’t owned a car since the late 80s. Consequently, getting around in the country by taxi, ride services and scarce transit offerings has always been a challenge.

My first return taxi ride to the respirologist in Sarnia cost $260. But that, of course, was the least of my worries. The specialist booked me for a thoracentesis, at the Sarnia hospital, to draw pleural fluid for both analysis and therapeutic purposes. By the day of the procedure, more fluid had accumulated, with nearly a litre sent off to the lab. An x-ray directly afterwards also showed that my right lung was failing to expand properly, with the right hemi-diaphragm “stuck” in an elevated position. This was concerning to the respirologist and when I gave him the date of my CT scan, he bumped it to “urgent” status, securing an appointment in three weeks.

By this time, I’d completed the bone density scan and in a few more days had follow-up calls booked with both my family doctor and the respirologist. On the morning of January 27 my GP called with the news that I had osteoporosis, and she was prescribing the common medication alendronate, to be taken once a week. That news was bad enough, and in a strange mood of “lightning never strikes twice” I was optimistic about the next call expected later that afternoon.

It was after 5:00 when I heard from the specialist, whose tone was grim. Cytology of the pleural fluid identified probable metastatic breast cancer cells. I went numb as he explained that being in the fluid meant the cancer was already “swimming through [my] body.” He was referring me to a colleague in London, Ontario who could perform a procedure to try and obtain tissue samples using a special scope. In the meantime, he would call me with results from my upcoming CT as soon as they were received.

I put down the phone in disbelief. How did I go from a person with no health concerns beyond a scratchy cough to someone with brittle bones and terminal cancer in the span of a few weeks? I spent the weekend in dire ruminations and, at some point, let myself cry.

Stay tuned for part three of Brenda's story in July.

The views and experiences expressed through personal stories on Our Voices Blog are those of the authors and their lived experiences. They do not necessarily reflect the position of the Canadian Breast Cancer Network. The information provided has not been medically reviewed and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the guidance of your healthcare team when considering your treatment plans and goals.