Cancer is one of the most common diseases of our age, and yet those who face it rarely know what’s about to happen to them beyond the broadest terms. “Cancer up Close” is an open recount of Michele Goncalves’s cancer journey from pre-diagnosis to life after treatment.
My mother had breast cancer over 20 years ago, so you can understand why I freaked out when a kidney-shaped lump appeared in my left armpit one week after I ended five and a half weeks of radiation/oral chemo treatments.
“How could this be happening?” I thought to myself. I started crying and couldn’t help but touch the lump constantly. I immediately thought the worst and ran to the internet to look up “lumps in the armpit.” And of course, I found all manner of diagnoses.
It could be a swollen lymph node, an ingrown or infected underarm hair shaft, or just a benign cyst like a pimple. Or, it could be cancer.
I concluded that I must have a swollen lymph node. The reason I chose this option is that everything I read said lymph nodes are shaped like kidney beans, exactly like mine. It was hard as a rock and very painful too.
I called the cancer center I was being treated at and spoke to my nurse navigator (case manager) to share this news.
“Do you have any injuries/cuts near your arm? It could be an infection from that or an infected hair follicle,” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “Well, I’ll let the doctor know but maybe you should go see your GP. Let’s talk again in a bit and see how it goes,” she said, not sounding concerned.
“OK thanks,” I said, adding a regretful “for nothing” in my mind.
I e-mailed my functional medicine doctor in Michigan. She was more concerned, especially since the lump was hard and not soft. She asked me to take a picture and send it to her. She didn’t like the look of it and said we needed to watch it. I was asked to take another picture and send it to her in a week to see if it was growing or going away, since a cancerous tumor grows quickly and wouldn’t show signs of shrinking on its own, according to her.
I appreciated this response. At least somebody cared enough to look at it. However, I wasn’t fully satisfied and wanted to be proactive and do more than just wait and see if it shrank. Given the fact that I had just finished intensive radiation treatments, I absolutely refused to get a CT Scan or mammography and have more exposure, so I immediately thought about getting a thermography breast scan instead.
Because of my interest in functional medicine and holistic healing, I had already heard lectures on Youtube and read articles discussing thermography as an option for women to monitor what is happening in their breasts. Thermography measures heat activity in the body to see where there are active zones. If there is a red zone on the picture where it doesn’t make sense, this could suggest that there are more blood flow and activity that could be a problem.
I searched online and found a thermography practitioner near me in New Jersey, where I live.
When I spoke to the owner on the phone, I mentioned that I was doing this because I had a suspicious lump under my arm, and I had just finished chemo and radiation therapy. She said that generally, you need to have a six-month rest if you have been on chemo before a thermography scan due to inflammation. But, given my circumstances, she contacted the naturopathic doctor to confirm it was okay to do and I scheduled an appointment for March 16, 2018.
I was a little bit anxious since I wasn’t completely sure what was going to happen. My brother was nice enough to go with me.
She took some time to explain what thermography was all about and asked me to remove my shirt and bra since I had to acclimate to the room’s temperature for at least 10 minutes with my skin exposed.
She put up a fold away privacy screen and I sat on a stool for about 13 minutes before getting the green light to start.
She removed the screen and proceeded to take pictures of me from different angles with a special camera. The entire thing took about 15 minutes. Not bad at all.
She could look at the photos on her screen, but she is not the one who interprets their results. This has to be done by an actual doctor after, she uploads the photos to a database. A licensed naturopathic doctor from Canada then reviews the images and writes the report.
She explained that my results would come in about a week. I’d get a log-in code to view my report online and download the images. I’d also get a free phone consult with someone to discuss my results if I wanted. All told, it cost me $240.
On March 23rd, I received my report. It was hard for me to interpret. The medical professional in Canada explained that the images revealed lymphatic congestion in my breast area. Blue areas on the images mean no heat activity, thus low to no blood flow (congestion), of which I had a lot of. I did have a few spots of red, which shows high heat (thus blood activity), but it was nothing of significance. Yay!
I thanked God that my report showed no suspicious activity. While this gave me some peace of mind, I still held my breath as I continued to monitor the lump like a hawk. Gradually it got less red and less painful. Eventually, after several months, it turned into a huge pus-filled pimple that busted and healed on its own. I still have a tiny mark from it over a year later. It was gross, but it may have been a cyst all along.
Come back next week when I discuss how I panicked after my radiation treatments didn’t shrink my tumor, and how long it took before I eventually saw positive signs.
Until then, breathe deep, be kind, and take it one day at a time.
Michele Goncalves is a financial compliance and fraud auditor for a Fortune 500 company by day and a passionate pursuer of holistic and functional medicine knowledge by night. She is also the author of the column The Consummate Traveler.