After 22 years as a cancer nurse, Margaret (Peggy) Long of Fox Point became a cancer patient. She said while working as a cancer nurse has offered her more perspective on what to expect, that knowledge can be as harmful as it is helpful.
"It’s helped me a lot because I feel like I’ve got a really good understanding of breast cancer and this disease," she said. "So in some ways, that’s more comforting but at the same time, I know how this can behave horribly."
As Peggy explained her journey from cancer nurse to patient, much of her descriptions are loaded with medical shop talk — high-tech terms describing scientifically what her body has endured from diagnosis to the double mastectomies, to reconstruction and healing. But her journey has also been cerebral, battling between being a cancer nurse with some distance from the disease, and simultaneously being a cancer patient.
"I’ve taken care of women with early, with metastatic, women who have died," she said. "I think for my own sanity, I try to stay on the side of the nurse and how the system works. Because I think it goes back to that scary side of cancer and how we know how these things are supposed to behave, but anything's fair game."
Diagnosis isn't about breast size
Peggy said even if a woman isn't the most well-endowed, that doesn’t mean she's not at risk. Many women who do regular self-breast exams may not notice anything because it can be years before a sizable lump can form. It’s tiny calcium deposits that you can’t see without a mammogram that can be the red flag, Peggy said, offering a better chance of survival because of early detection.
Peggy had gone in for her annual mammogram and the doctor had noticed small, star-like spots on the scan, which were micro calcifications. Only because she had a previous scan to compare to were doctors able to pick up those spots she said.
"When they looked at last year's, there was a new little area that had these three little lit-up spots that really, we didn’t know," she said. "That’s how good the mammograms are, they picked it up when it looked like nothing."
After the questionable results of her mammogram, Peggy had a biopsy. Usually patients will get a call back by 2 p.m. the same day, she said, but when the clock hit 2:01 p.m., she got nervous.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even really panicked up until I didn’t get a call on the biopsy results," she said. "The scariest time is when you don’t know what you’re dealing with."
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At 5:30 p.m. on April 3, Peggy learned she had invasive breast cancer. The very next day she had an MRI but cancer wasn't going to stop Peggy in her tracks. She and her family — husband, Kevin, and three daughters — went to Florida as planned. When she returned, she had more information from the first biopsy and was told she would need a second.
"Everything was just kind of all put-together, then it was just waiting for the surgery," she said. "But in the meantime, I just kept working. It wasn’t until after the surgery when they said I’d have to be off work that it stopped."
What stopped was her quickly spinning world. During all the tests and screenings and meetings with a whole cancer team, Peggy's life continued to throttle on just like any other mother of three girls, ages 18, 15 and 11. There was still laundry to be done, kids to take to practice and bills to pay but on May 10, the day of her surgery, everything slowed to a crawl for Peggy and nearly stopped.
Peggy had bilateral mastectomies, then reconstruction surgery. This means both her breasts were removed and she now has breast implants.
Peggy said even without her breasts, she doesn’t feel like any less of a woman.
“That’s where at my age, I feel like they’ve served me well when I was having children,” she said with a laugh. “And now I’m kind of beyond that part. In fact, I feel like I gained something that looks better in a shirt.”
Peggy was home-bound for six weeks after that surgery.
"I think that’s the first time I really stopped," she said. "I looked at it as kind of a gift of time because I’ve never been home like that."
Enter a caring community. Peggy's friends, family and neighbors set up a meal train for her, helped with car pools and really with anything Peggy needed, she said.
"We have so many friends that were so helpful, dinner, carpools, everything was just kind of, taken from me," she said. "I really didn’t worry about anything. It’s hard to be on that end, to receive that kind of help, but I also know the tide always turns and at some point, you get to be back on the giving side."
'Just get your people around you'
With so many national cancer support programs like the Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the American Cancer Society, Peggy said she always felt she belonged to those groups as another person helping people with cancer — not a patient. But when a whole team of her daughter and daughter's friends walked in "Making Strides" in Peggy's honor, it changed everything.
"Their friends all came and were walking for me which was the first time I’d seen my name," Peggy said. "It was so sweet and so special, but before that moment, I’d always felt like that was an organization that I worked with, that helped the patients I took care of. Not necessarily one of the ones that got to be a recipient of all of their work."
They all donned stickers that said, "I'm Walking For Mrs. Long."
"It comes down to however you’re going to deal with it," she said. "Even after we’ve lost patients or I’ve had patients die, I’ve found it’s easier to just keep talking about them. There’s comfort, I think, in just talking about it and just putting it out there."