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As part of the OnkoHero series, we present moving and at the same time inspiring stories of cancer patients. Editors Marcelina Dzięciołowska talks about the hardships of fighting cancer, emotions, strength of spirit and motivation with Magda Surynowicz-Brodowska, who fell ill with breast cancer.
Red. Marcelina Dzięciołowska: Was breast cancer diagnosed in your prophylaxis?
Magdalena Surynowicz-Brodowska:Unfortunately, my prophylaxis has failed, and actually I have failed. I haven't tested myself. Due to the history of cancer in my family, I was so "fixated" on women's topics that I run to the gynecologist every three months, but I completely did not think about breasts.
Are there any symptoms?
My breast ached from time to time, I felt discomfort in it. One day I sensed something in the shower. A week later, I checked again - this time there was nothing there in my opinion. After a while it seemed to me that I felt something and decided that I had to do something about it or else I would go crazy. During the teleportation with the gynecologist, I was referred for an ultrasound. Within two days, I managed to make an appointment, where the doctor asked what brought me to her, and when I described the situation, I heard: “Oh, that's great! If it hurts, it's not cancer! ”
This belief that cancer does not hurt is false?
Unfortunately, that's not true. During the ultrasound, I saw the doctor's face thinner and thinner. She said it was serious after all and referred me to an oncologist. I left the office with a feeling that I had nothing to check, that it was definitely cancer.
Did you feel it based on your family history of cancer before?
Yes, since I was a teenager, I just knew that sooner or later I would probably get cancer. This information was not a big shock for me, although I must admit that I was scared. I sat down on a bench by the clinic and wondered what to do next.
And what did you do?
I called my colleague from work, who was already at the stage of oncological treatment, and told her about everything. It was Friday. She told me to give her a moment. Soon afterwith this she called and said that she had made an appointment with her surgeon, which was scheduled for next Monday. This is how I found doctor Aleksander Grous.
What did the surgeon say?
The doctor said there was nothing to wait for and a biopsy should be done right away. At the same time, he ordered me to get a DiLO card, so while waiting for the biopsy results, I managed to get this card from the GP at the local clinic. I was also waiting for confirmation of the HER2 receptor tests, and when I went for the biopsy results, the doctor actually had an appointment for me at the council at the Oncology Center in Ursynów. It all happened very quickly. My treatment started with surgery, not chemotherapy.
Later, when I started interacting with girls with breast cancer, I found out that they start out with chemotherapy treatment. For me, however, it was decided that the operation had to be the first.
Didn't surprise you?
I didn't even investigate why the decision was made. I decided to trust the doctors. The first person I had contact with was a surgeon who aroused a great sense of trust in me from the very beginning, he directed me, and at the council it was told that an operation had to be performed first. Perhaps these were the indications, I had two rather large tumors, a multifocal tumor in one breast, so I assumed they knew what they were doing.
The preoperative biopsy showed that my cancer was hormone dependent, so I suspect that's why surgery was the first. It was only after the histopathological examination, after the removal of the breast, that I learned that the tumor was HER2 positive, i.e. more aggressive than the hormone-dependent one, and I had to get chemotherapy as a complementary treatment.
One breast was removed during the first operation?
Yes, the sick one. At that time, I didn't have any genetic tests done yet. The doctor said that I had to perform them and if it turned out that I had a mutation, it would be advisable to remove the other breast and ovaries as well.
What emotions did you experience while waiting for the results?
Despite the awareness that one day I will have to deal with cancer, which has been with me for a long time, when the disease becomes a fact, emotions are indescribable. From the very beginning, however, I approached the topic very task-oriented. I trusted the doctor and I did everything that was recommended to me, one by one.
Could you count on the support of your loved ones?
Not everyone can say it, but I can - I have a fantastic husband who has been very supportive of me from the very beginning. I have children,family, great friends. I have a breast cancer aunt who, despite the fact that she is very far away, kept "holding" my hand and guiding me.
The right attitude is half the battle?
Yes, my attitude from the beginning was that I knew I had to go through this and go on living.
How has the treatment affected your working life?
Since I started with surgery and later had chemotherapy, I couldn't work. From the beginning, however, I wanted to return to work as soon as possible, to get back into contact with people and not to separate myself from normal life. Every morning, after chemotherapy, I got up, bathed, prepared my youngest son for school. I did not allow myself to "fall apart".
Have there been any worse moments?
I must admit that they have been. Sometimes I shed tears silently, but I made friends with the cancer. I found that there is no point in denying it and you have to come to terms with it, accept the situation. I was stuck in this belief, so the smile on my face and breast forward, actually one breast!
After all, it's probably not that easy …
It's not easy, you need a strong psyche to approach this topic this way. I have contact with women who are emotionally undergoing such a diagnosis very difficult. The fact that I did it this way is my way of dealing with emotions. Whenever a problem arose, I did not analyze it, did not break it down into prime factors, but acted.
Stress and fear certainly help the cancer, but not the patient. Tell me, what is good support for you?
Good support is one that allows a sick person to throw their emotions out. What irritates people with cancer is repeating that everything will be fine. It does not work like that. Good support is telling someone: "There will be better and worse days, but whatever happens - I'll be there for you."
As I already knew that I was going to have chemotherapy - and that was what I was most afraid of, my husband said: "Whatever happens, we'll get through it." In fact, when my hair started to fall out, I said to my husband, "Robert, we need to cut our hair immediately." Before, I had a longer hairstyle, so at the beginning of chemistry I cut it short first, and when one morning I had a tuft of hair in my hands, I called my friend, who is a hairdresser, and asked her to come over immediately to cut me “bald”.
What happened next?
Monika came the same day. I remember we laughed terribly - we made part of it fun. Nobodyhe did not cry, I did not cry, no one felt sorry for me. I preferred so. I didn't want this memory to be a trauma to me.
What about the rest of your family? Did the children know about cancer?
I didn't hide it. My sons saw me without my hair, they knew that my breast was removed, I did not cover myself and I did not pretend that everything was as it was before. I spoke aloud about everything, and they participated in it.
We allowed each other different emotions. The most important thing is not to deceive myself that everything will be fine at the beginning of the treatment, because then it would be difficult for me to explain why it is different, since I said something else, for example during chemotherapy.
Being aware of cancer, where in my case it is aggressive, it's not that I thought it would be great and we will never come back to this topic again. I am aware that I may have a relapse, that there may be metastases, but no matter how much time I have left, I would like to live my life well, and not go with a cancer on my arm that whispers in my ear all the time.
How old are your children?
The youngest son is 10, the middle one is almost 19, and the oldest is 21.
Did you feel ready for the kids to know what was going on?
I assume that children need to be prepared for various situations in life - also for diseases. Life is not all roses, sometimes you have to face something hard and difficult. While it was easier with the older sons, unfortunately it was the hardest with the youngest son. But it must be said that it is so and not otherwise.
As prevention has failed for me, now I try to talk about it, encourage women and men to get tested, because I probably want to make up for my lost opportunity.
Are you already removed your second breast?
Yes, in November last year I had my second breast removed prophylactically. Now I am in the process of reconstruction, in fact, when it comes to this prophylactically removed breast, I am at the last stage, because in March I will have an implant expander replaced, while in the right breast, which I had removed in January last year, I have an expander inserted at the moment, which it is filled successively and will probably also be replaced with an implant in a few months.
Is the breast reconstruction process arduous?
Let's start with the fact that when I had my first operation, the doctor persuaded me to have a simultaneous reconstruction, but I did not decide to do it then.
I was afraid of complications, I didn't know if I would have radiotherapy andI decided to remove the breast without reconstruction. Back then, having a breast was not a priority for me.
When did you start thinking about reconstruction?
At the moment when the conversation came about the prophylactic removal of the second breast. Wearing a prosthesis may not be very bothersome, you can get used to it, but the holiday period is troublesome - the body sweats, it is moderately comfortable.
Did you feel safe in the hands of your doctor?
My surgeon is a person who wants the patient to feel comfortable and feel feminine again, so he chose the method of reconstruction so that the breasts look natural, so that both breasts would be reconstructed with the same method.
Does the process cause discomfort?
The greatest discomfort is caused by the drains inserted during the operation - they are usually installed from a few to a dozen or so days, rather than with the expander itself. Refilling the expander with saline is not painful, but the waiting time is quite long as it is a gradual process. You would like to have breasts already, but you have to wait patiently.
Will your breasts look like your "lost" ones?
Yes, they will be practically the same as they were. It should be remembered that this is still oncological surgery, not plastic surgery. Its purpose is to recreate the breasts and not to plasticize them.
How long did it take for you?
In my case, the breast that I had had prophylactic removal closes practically in four months, from inserting the expander to replacing it. I am undergoing surgery at the European He alth Center in Otwock, so there was no rescheduling of the surgery, everything is going according to plan. In some centers, unfortunately, the deadlines for reconstruction are longer. Everything is going very smoothly here. I hope it will be similar with the other breast.
All these procedures were carried out by the National He alth Fund?
How did you endure the chemotherapy period? It was as bad as you feared it?
I have had six infusions every three weeks with the TCH regimen as I am HER2 positive. It was white chemistry, but more condensed than the one administered every week. Apart from the fact that my hair fell out, then my eyebrows and eyelashes at the end of chemotherapy, unfortunately I had a lot of problems related to the gastrointestinal tract. However, I was well prepared for this by my clinical oncologist. There were problems with the mucosa, gastric problems: diarrhea and constipation, general exhaustion, pain in bones and joints. Fortunately, my body is over therestrong that I never had to have deferred chemistry. The first week was always the worst, then it got better. The more chemistry I took, the longer the period of malaise was, and the shorter those better days. It is a difficult experience, but I expected it to be much worse.
When did you get back to work?
At first, I thought that I would be working while taking chemotherapy, but my oncologist categorically advised me not to. There was a time COVID-19 was raging so it was a good decision. You have to allow your body to recover. Three weeks after the last chemotherapy, I got a certificate that I could go back to work, and I returned to work from mid-July.
Where do you work?
In the application office of a law firm. I like contact with people, I really wanted to get back there quickly.
Could you count on the support of your employer?
Yes, I had a lot of support. I heard that I have as much time as I need, that they will wait for me. This is a great comfort.
Did you inform your employer and co-workers exactly about what happened to you?
Yes, they knew exactly which disease I was dealing with and what would happen in turn. This is still the case today. I didn't have to worry about anything, I could count on them, I could focus on myself, on treatment.
Are you in a safe stage of your illness now?
I am still taking herceptin, but from March onwards I will be able to breathe - I will have finished herceptin therapy. I will only stay on anti-hormone treatment, which I am supposed to take for 5 years.
What surprised you the most on your cancer pathway?
The fact that I endured the chemo better than I expected. It turned out that not all chemotherapy has to end in vomiting and be tragic. This should not be feared.
You have your hair now. Have you worn a wig before?
No. For most women, having no hair is worse than not having a breast, which I just don't understand. From the very beginning, I have come to terms with the lack of hair. When I left, I put on a handkerchief. As you know, I decided to take part in thePomacajSię campaign to show that you can feel good without hair or breasts.
The worst part of it is that when you see a woman without hair, she has cancer right away, and when a man is bald, it's easy. In the West, women wear bald heads because they simply have such an image. When I left the house, I covered my bald head.
Once in the summer, I went shopping with my husband and son. As I got out of the car, I asked them to wait as I have to put it ona handkerchief. My son then asked, "But what for?" and I replied, "Let you not be ashamed." Then I heard that they love me with and without hair, and they will never be ashamed of me.
How did you react?
I threw this scarf and went shopping with my bald head.
What were the reactions of the people you passed?
Actually, a complete lack of reaction, no one was looking at me very much, I didn't see my astonished eyes. Many more people paid attention to me when I was walking in a headscarf.
Were you looking for support in the forums?
I wasn't looking, I didn't want to penetrate the information and take it personally. I also didn't want to accept someone else's negative emotions.
Let's go back to thePomacajSię campaign. What did you get out of this event?
Despite the fact that from the beginning I laughed a little about this disease and did not give in to bad emotions, I felt good without hair and without breasts, I did not hide it, of course there were moments when my throat tightened and I wondered how much of this femininity really remained in me. My husband kept telling me that I was beautiful, we laughed at the lack of breasts, we joked and it helped me every day.
When I came across the website of the girls from the campaign, most of them already had beautiful hairstyles in the photos. It touched me terribly internally. I wanted to do something, show that I don't have hair and no breasts, but that doesn't mean it's the end of my life. Ania and Gosia fromPomacajSię are sparkles that give hope and a sense of security.
How did you react when the campaign photos were ready?
I looked at myself differently than before. I have noticed that I am beautiful, that I am sexy, that I am feminine, and it is not that it was suddenly taken away from me. My inner worth has grown back. It was not about physicality itself, but the fact that I dared to show myself to the world, that I showed that it was not the end of my life, was also extremely important. It is impossible to describe it! By showing my story, I wanted to inspire and help at least one person.
How was the reception of the photos from the campaign?
The response was huge, both from women and men. Everyone wrote that they are proud of me, that they congratulate me on my courage. It was amazing. Information started to flow to me that the girls went to have their tests checked, that one of them had sensed something. I felt that this was my role in life, which I did not know so far, or maybe it was meant for me.
What do you want to tell the women?
I want women to start thinking about monthly self-examination so thatrecognized their breasts. At the beginning it would be good to do it more often than once a month, because breasts change during the month, so you have to "grope" over and over again to get to know them well first. I would like breast self-examination to become a he althy habit. Let us take care of ourselves, but also of our loved ones, because if we do not take care of them, no one will take care of us.
Thank you for the interview.About the authorMarcelina Dzięciołowska Editor for many years associated with the medical industry. He specializes in he alth and an active lifestyle. A private passion for psychology inspires her to take up difficult topics in this field. Author of a series of interviews in the field of psycho-oncology, the aim of which is to build awareness and break stereotypes about cancer. He believes that the right mental attitude can work wonders, therefore he promotes professional knowledge based on consultations with specialists.