By Danny L. Raines
Living as a Breast Cancer Survivor
It was a beautiful October day in Captiva Island, Florida. I was on vacation with my wife Vicki at the end of the summer season. We rented a great condo for the week. Housekeeping had damp mopped the marble floor. I walked across the wet tiles to exit the room and slipped. My left side hit the doorframe on the way down and I ended up with a concussion from my head striking the floor. Thankfully the concussion was minor, the embarrassment of the fall was short lived and the bruises healed quickly. But, I found a mass on the left side of my chest, which seemed odd. Thinking it was an internal bruise, I ignored it for a few weeks. It didn’t go away though. I started focusing on my left breast, particularly on the outside edge of my nipple. After a few weeks of monitoring, I went back to my family doctor and asked him to take a closer look. The doctor said, “It is just a fatty mass,” so I went on my way.
About the first week in December, I asked Vicki to look at the mass and see what she thought. She immediately suggested we make another appointment with our family physician. This visit was different though. My doctor wasn’t focused on my head injury this time. He felt the mass several times and said, “You need a mammogram”. Thus began my journey of addressing the suspected cancer.
The “Women’s Center”
So here comes Big Danny, 6’1,” 250 pound man into a “women’s center” for a mammogram. I can’t describe how uncomfortable I was and the looks I got when I walked in door. A guy who worked at Georgia Power for 40 years climbing poles, working hot primaries from a bucket truck, climbing transmission poles, bare handing 500,000 volts energized was just reduced to a mere childlike image of his/my true self. The young lady who performed my mammogram was wonderful, understanding and patient as I tried to regain my composure after each attempt to get a “good picture” of the mass. It took several tries until she finally had the images.
I immediately went to another part of the “women’s center” for a sonogram of the mass. Another delightful and super nice young lady ran the machine and the first words out of her mouth once she had a visual on the machine was, “Does anyone in your family have a history of breast cancer?” Well, how do you think I felt at this point? After the doctor read the sonogram, he turned to me and said, “We need to perform a biopsy.” By this time I was resigned to the fact I was going to die at 67. I was shaken to the core until the doctor turned to me and stated, “Don’t worry. You will die from something, but it will not be from this”. I felt a bit better but not jumping for joy at this point. All of this occurred in between Christmas and New Year’s. What a late Christmas present.
We were instructed to go home and wait until my family physician called with the pathology report after the holidays. Well, he went on vacation. We didn’t get a call until after the New Year and what seemed to be an eternity. I was in upstate New York on a project. I provided consultations to electrical utilities as an OSHA authorized trainer. On a Wednesday afternoon, Vicki called and gave me partial information. It was nothing more than affirmation of what we expected. It was definitely cancer and I needed to see a breast specialist as soon as possible. I had to finish the workweek, and fly home for an appointment arranged for the next Tuesday.
First Breast Specialist visit…
Well, Tuesday finally arrived after many sleepless nights of worry and wonder. I walked into a beautiful breast cancer facility. The office walls were covered with paintings of ladies and a lot of pink ribbons. Not one man’s picture in the house. Again, feeling very uncomfortable not only about having breast cancer, but also about my surroundings. There were many ladies sitting in the room with their husbands who were there for support. Now, in I came with Vicki, my wife as my support. I’m not sure anyone in the office knew who the patient actually was for a while. Then the administrative assistant said, “Mr. Raines, come this way please.” There were a few raised eyebrows in the waiting room to say the least. I could only smile and say, “Which way”? And thus began my journey to become a breast cancer survivor.
Dr. Scott Timbert was my surgeon. He had been a breast specialist for 20+ years. Once he read the pathology report (Malignant Neoplasm of Central Portion of Left Breast – Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Grade 2 – HER2 Negative carcinoma – Progesterone Receptor negative – Estrogen Receptor Positive), we started discussing options. First we talked about a double mastectomy. Dr. Timbert suggested a genetic test to determine if I was at an increased risk for more breast cancer in the future, as well as other possible cancers. I tested negative for any BRCA mutations, so we decided only to take left side. Next we discussed the surgery timeline. This was early January and his first opening for surgery wasn’t until February 23rd. Just knowing the tumor was in there was a very disturbing feeling I didn’t like. Of course, I wanted to have my problem solved that day. I couldn’t believe there was so much breast cancer and surgery in this one office. I was shocked to see the number of victims of this disease my doctor treated. I asked how serious it would be for me to wait another month. I then found out the cancer had been inside my breast for years and another month or so “wasn’t going to make much difference.” That was a matter of opinion and not scientific data. It did “matter” to me. I had several commitments to my customers, so we settled on Monday, February 29, 2016 – leap day.
Routine business was anything but routine for the next five weeks or so before surgery. I found it very difficult to carry on as a consultant as if nothing was wrong. I decided to start being an advocate for male breast cancer and began telling people men can get breast cancer too. I teach electrical safety to electricians and utility linemen. A very “bull headed” and “strong willed” group of men. At the end of each class I would ask, “Who is the toughest, meanest guy in the room?” Of course this was testosterone city here. More than one guy would raise his hand or be pointed out. I would then ask, “What would knock you to your knees, take the wind right out of you sails in a second?” Strange looks would be on all the faces, then I would say, “Breast cancer in a man” and told them my story. The room became extremely quite. I advised them to self-check or find someone who would do a breast exam for them. I told them not to ignore the little things they may become very large and dangerous.
Day of Surgery
The night before the surgery was extremely tough. I slept very little and was up at 4AM for a shower then the 30-minute drive to the hospital. I knew this was going to be one of the toughest days of my life. Check in was smooth, all the paper work was done. I got into a hospital gown and the IV was started. Dr. Timbert came in and injected the nuclear marker directly into my tumor to identify the margins and any lymph nodes which could show the presence of cancer. I kissed Vicki goodbye and off I went into operating room.
I remember getting on the table and being comfortable, but that’s about it. I don’t remember anything else until I was in the recovery room. I woke up in a blur expecting pain, but there was none. All I wanted was something to drink. It was now around 10:45, the surgery had lasted about two hours. I had two Hem-Vacs attached to me. The tubes exited under my left arm to the bags attached to my compression “girdle.” I stayed in recovery until about 11:20AM and then they rolled me upstairs to a room. As I moved and was raised up to slide over onto the hospital room bed, I just knew the pain was about to become severe. There was none.
Once settled into bed, the next hurdle was getting up to go to the bathroom. I had an IV running for more than five hours, so it wouldn’t be long before I had to go. Sometime after I had eaten a bite of lunch, it was time. I had been lying still and not moving much. I asked the nurses if I had been administered any pain meds, “No” was the answer. This was a little confusing because I thought there would be pain. I rang the call button and the nurse came in and helped me up. I was able to move fairly easy and walked to the restroom. Another nurse brought me the neatest little pillow. A ladies group at a local Presbyterian church had an outreach program for breast cancer patients. They had pillows shaped almost like the smile in a “Smiley Face”. You would not believe how much comfort that pillow brought me. I placed it under my armpit and it kept the weight off the area where the tubes came out. That was amazing. We sent them a thank you card.
Later in the day I asked again, “Are you sure there is nothing in IV for pain?” Again the answer was no. Dr. Timbert came in about 6:00PM and said everything went well He told me he removed only two lymph nodes. I ate a bit of supper and tried to rest. No such thing when they check vitals and fluid drainage every few hours.
Dr. Timbert came in at 6:20 the next morning and signed my release papers to go home. By 8:00 I was in a wheel chair on the way to the pick up point and out of there. I went home with my girdle on and the Hema-Vacs pinned to my compression bandage hidden up under the largest button down shirt I owned. I had two prescriptions, one for antibiotic and one for pain, but the pain med was never filled. My daughter picked up the medication and met us at house. My orders were, don’t pick up more than five pounds, no straining and not much walking. No shower, “bird bath” only, and track the drainage amounts in Hema-Vacs.
Home and Recovery
I have spent more time in a recliner than I have ever spent in my life. Thank you “Lazy Boy!” It was very difficult to sleep with the drains in my left armpit area. Sitting in the recliner was the norm for two weeks. I went back for a follow-up with Dr. Timbert the next week. All was going well, still no shower and tracked the drainage amounts in Hema-Vacs. I tried the bed a few nights the second week, but at about 1:00 AM I rolled over on the tubes and had to get up. I just couldn’t do it.
The two follow-ups with Dr. Timbert went well and out came the tubes. Boy did it feel good to get those things out of me! But, the next week Dr. Timbert had to drain 500+ CC of fluid out of my left side. That was strange. I thought the breast was growing back, but it was just fluid from the outer layer of the skin being detached from rib cage. The tissue that was removed left a huge void and until the skin reattaches it collects fluids. No pain, but it was uncomfortable until I was drained. A needle stick and in a few minutes later I go from an “outie” to and “innie” on the left side. I will not request any type reconstruction. I can live with the left side missing and just make up a good story!
Drain Free, Finally
After many weeks of waiting and wondering what was next, on April 25th, Dr. Timbert performed a Betadine Slurry injecting 50-100cc of Betadine directly into to cavity where the breast once was. Within three days, the fluids decreased. On May 5th, the last catheter was removed and I only had 90 CCs of fluid a week later. I never had another draining.
It’s now three months post op, and I am returning to “normal”. I actually went without a shirt and went swimming this past weekend over Memorial Day celebration with all my family. I find myself being less self conscious of the fact that I am now without a left breast. I’m not sure how others view me, but I am just glad to have this behind me and look forward to the future.
My Oncotype DX test results are back. With a less than 5% chance of my breast cancer recurring, I will not need chemo.
My advice is to not worry, pray hard, be and stay positive, and just know there are many other survivors out there.