Kathy Vantran: Journalist Chronicles Cancer in the Fight of Her Life
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In addition to the breast cancer, the PET/CT scan showed a massive amount of cancer in my abdomen. The breast surgeon recommended an OB/GYN oncologist who ultimately brought my case before a board to determine what to attack, what way, and which cancer first.
He looked at the scan, explained that he'd like to do laparoscopic surgery -- with four small incisions as opposed to one long one down the middle of my belly, it offered a quicker healing time -- but wouldn't know for sure until he started. Surgery was set for Nov. 14.
After the surgery, he would do a biopsy to determine what type of cancer we were dealing with. Believe it or not, it would be better for it to be ovarian cancer than breast cancer that had spread that far.
With this second finding, I felt like an outsider dutifully fulfilling tasks. I was dumbfounded and in shock. And as the reality sank in, I made preparations for the worst. I had a living will drawn up and made sure my finances were in order. I had no idea what shape I would be in after we started all this, and didn't want my loved ones to have to deal with anything more than need be.
The breast surgeon had explained in great detail what to expect with the surgery she would perform Nov. 8. In addition to removing the tumor in my left breast, she would need to remove some lymph nodes. Again, she wouldn't know how many until she got in there.
In preparation for the lumpectomy -- the surgeon removes the tumor and diseased area instead of removing the entire breast -- knowing that my left arm would be pretty useless for a while, my family made special shirts with Velcro on the side so I could get my shirt on and off without too much trouble or arm movement.
Nov. 8 arrived, and off to the hospital we went for what would be the first of four surgeries. The surgeon stopped by to check on me before the procedure. Then I was wheeled down the hall. I know I was scared and full of "what ifs." What if I didn't make it through surgery? It happens. What if they found more disease in the breast? What if I had a ton of lymph nodes that needed to be removed?
But there wasn't much time for fear.
The breast surgery went well. The breast surgeon took out eight lymph nodes, and it
turned out only two were diseased. Since she removed some lymph nodes, she had to put in a temporary drain -- a plastic tube that runs into a bottle -- that would carry fluids out of my body until my lymph system rerouted itself. The drain was a bit tricky. We were shown how to routinely empty it and keep track of how much fluid was coming out. I went home the next day.
With the help of medication, I wasn't feeling too badly after my surgery, and even made it downstairs for a birthday dinner Nov. 10 with my sister, who flew in from Albany, N.Y., and my brother, who drove up from Springfield, Va.
U.S. Army Sgt. Kathy Vantran goes over her notes for a story during annual training. Vantran has spent more than 25 years as a journalist (with the Defense Department) writing about troops around the world. (Courtesy photo)
I had hoped we'd be able to get the drain out before the abdominal surgery, but that wasn't the case. There was still too much fluid draining from my body.
Nonetheless, we headed off for another surgery Nov. 14. My sister and niece from Pennsylvania came down to be with us. I don't remember much after this surgery, but I do remember waking up and asking if it was done laparoscopically and feeling such relief when the nurse said "yes."
The surgeon told my family that he did what is called a "debulking," where he took out as much disease as he could. This included a complete hysterectomy. The good news: the cancer didn't affect any of my vital organs. Again, I gave a sigh of relief. There were, however, still many areas of the disease he had to leave in -- many tumors that were less than a half-inch in diameter -- so he hoped chemotherapy would take care of them.
Typically, the laparoscopy would have been considered an outpatient procedure. But because I had just had the breast surgery and had the drain in, I ended up staying two nights before going home.
While I was home recuperating, the nurse from the breast center called to say the surgeon wanted to do a "recision" surgery to go in and take out more tissue around where the disease was to ensure they had a safe "margin." That surgery -- my third -- was set for Nov. 27. My mom came down from New York to stay with us after this one.
In the meantime, we got back the results of the biopsy performed during my abdominal surgery. The good news was that the breast cancer had not spread. The bad news was that I had ovarian cancer. It was stage III-C and very aggressive.
The Battle Strategy
In battling both breast and ovarian cancers, the oncologists had to come up with the best mixture of chemotherapy drugs to fight them. Since my case was unusual, my doctors took it before a summit of the best oncologists in the Baltimore-Washington area.
I had follow-ups with both surgeons, who scheduled what was to be the first of eight chemotherapy sessions, beginning Christmas Eve. I also underwent another outpatient surgery to implant a port so they could use it to infuse the chemotherapy drugs instead of trying to find a vein every time.
Because of the breast surgery and removal of lymph nodes in my left arm, it could no longer be used for blood pressure readings, blood drawings or IVs. As a result, my right arm was quite black and blue, sore from all the blood drawings and IVs.
Although I didn't have much of an appetite and couldn't move around too well or too much, my family and I decided to venture up to New York for a pre-holiday celebration with the rest of the family, to include a visit with my 96-year-old grandmother. We didn't tell her I was sick, because we didn't want her to worry. We played cards as usual -- she loves to play -- and had a nice, "normal" visit. I'm glad we went, because she passed away in February, so that was my last visit with her.