Cancer Dance: The Journey of Cathy McClain Kaplan
When Cathy McClain Kaplan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002,
she saw an opportunity to educate and inspire others about her journey.
During her year of treatments and recovery, she wrote weekly e-mail updates
to a community of family, friends and other breast cancer survivors (whom
she calls her Bosom Buddies). Her e-mails are now collected in her upcoming
book Cancer Dance, a diary of one woman’s fears, discoveries, resilience
and humor. The following is an excerpt.
Subject:Update #1 (10 days after diagnosis)
Date:6/22/02 12:51:27 PM PST
This is the first of my status reports from what I call Cathy’s
Cancer Trip. Please don’t be offended by the humor—I am actually
quite okay with this and it seems to be bothering others more than me.
I’m either lying on the beach in Encinitas or pottery shopping in
Tecate, Mexico, as you read this. What? How can she do that? Isn’t
she supposed to be miserable? Why hasn’t she had surgery yet? Is
she crazy? Those of you who have known me a while know the answer to that
last question. Yes! Crazy, but not stupid. I have seen several doctors
and had several tests already. I am now waiting for my appointment with
the surgeon I have chosen. That will be Wednesday, June 26th. Meanwhile,
my fiancé Charlie and I had this vacation planned already, so why
not go and enjoy my last chance to shake loose for many months.
Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, 3rd Edition is an excellent
resource for breast cancer information. It is my main textbook as I research
surgical and treatment methods. If you have boobs, get this book. She
covers every aspect of breast care, not just cancer. According to Dr.
Love, at this stage I have already had this cancer for more than five
years. Taking the time to get the treatment I believe in with a surgeon
that I trust is more important than rushing to the operating table.
Breast cancer runs in both sides of my family, so I have been watching
my fibrocystic breasts for many years. (I guess some men have been watching
them too.) In 1984 I had a surgical biopsy on a lump that was blocking
my milk ducts as I tried to breast-feed. Tests showed it was simply a
benign cyst. One year later, my mother was diagnosed with the exact same
cancer I have. She had a modified radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and
hormone therapy. She is healthy to this day and is by my side as I go
I have been watching this recent lump fairly closely for the past year.
My last three mammograms were only six months apart. The problem with
fibrocystic breasts is they don’t mammogram clearly. Everything
looks suspicious, even healthy tissue. I have my new gynecologist to thank
for insisting that an ultrasound be done. She isn’t familiar with
my lumps, and when I went for my annual exam she didn’t like the
way the lump felt. I was used to it, so I wasn’t worried. The ultrasound
was suspicious. The lump did not have a uniform shape like a cyst. May
15th was my ultrasound, June 10th was my needle core biopsy, and June
12th I received my diagnosis. I have invasive ductal breast cancer (the
most popular type). Fortunately, it is a slow growing form of cancer.
Prior to my biopsy, the tumor was 1.2 cm. Now, after eight needle core
samples have been removed, I don’t know what size it is. We won’t
know whether or not I have stage I or stage II cancer until after the
lymph node(s) under my arm are evaluated during my surgery. (Stage I means
the tumor is smaller than 2 cm and has not spread; stage II is a tumor
larger than 2 cm or one that has spread outside the original tumor). I
had a bone scan on June 21st, and my bones appear to be clear of any cancer.
Since the removal of multiple lymph nodes can lead to lymphedema, a swelling
of the arm, I want to avoid losing too many of them. As a sign language
interpreter, I don’t know if I could still interpret if I developed
this condition that limits arm movement. However, we won’t know
if the cancer has spread to my lymphatic system unless the nodes are evaluated.
For this reason, I have agreed to participate, if I qualify, in a new
clinical trial at my cancer center in Sacramento. The sentinel node biopsy
procedure offers the chance to evaluate a single lymph node first and
possibly avoid removing any others. In this surgery, a dye is injected
into the tumor and the doctor watches to see which lymph node the tumor
drains to. This node is the sentinel node, the node that can be watched
to monitor the spread of cancer. The probability that cancer has spread
to this node before any others is very high. When the sentinel node is
dissected and tested for cancer, if none is there, then no more lymph
nodes are removed. If cancer is found in the sentinel node, then all my
lymph nodes will be removed and many of them examined (major bummer).
Since the size of my tumor is so small, I have opted for a lumpectomy
and radiation therapy instead of a mastectomy. I don’t like the
idea of radiation therapy, but I am quite fond of my nipple and would
like to keep it. Some say the younger you are, the more aggressive the
cancer is. For this reason, chemotherapy is recommended. All I know is
there is a 30 percent chance the chemotherapy will prevent the cancer
from becoming active in other parts of my body in case it has already
spread. Since the life expectancy for someone with metastasized breast
cancer is less than five years, I don’t want to take any chances.
Knowing the history of cancer in my family, I would rather lose my hair
than take any chances of losing my life. At this time, I am choosing to
Many questions are still unanswered and I will know more after my appointment
with the surgeon on June 26th. By then I should know if I qualify to participate
in the clinical study. I will know my surgery date. As I learn more, I
will let you know.
I have already received so many wonderful cards and messages from my friends
and family. I feel totally supported (and maybe a little smothered) but
considering the C-word is involved, it feels good to do an inventory of
all the lives I get to share in. Life is good, and I plan to enjoy every
last minute of it.
Thank you for being there for me. I will send another update after my
appointment with the surgeon.
Love, hugs and smooches to all of you.
Subject:Update #2 (2 weeks since diagnosis)
Date:6/28/02 03:16:27 PM PST
It has been so wonderful to hear from so many of you. I have people from
all religions praying for me. That should mean I am covered in every corner
After my peaceful R&R in Encinitas, California (not Ensenada, Mexico,
as some of you thought, but far more beautiful) I hit the road running.
I had an appointment with my oncologist Wednesday morning and discussed
chemotherapy options. We won’t make decisions until after the tumor
and lymph node are evaluated, but the popular course of action these days
seems to be AC (Adriamycin and Cytoxan) with a possible follow up of Taxol.
(There is a quiz at the end of this e-mail, so pay attention.) My mother
received CMF treatments (Cytoxan, methotrexate and 5-fluorouracil) in
1984 and did not lose her hair, and I was hoping to follow the same course
of action and save my hair. Alas, that was 16 years ago and much has been
learned since then. Today AC has a bad rap. The oncologist says it is
now given in lower doses than before, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
One way to avoid problems with my veins’ reacting to the chemical
is to have a port and catheter inserted into my chest so I won’t
be poked dozens of times in the arm with needles for blood tests and chemo
treatments. I will probably choose this method, as my arms are precious
to my career (and hugging my nieces).
Wednesday afternoon I met my surgeon at my cancer center. I call him Papa
Smurf. (Remember the cartoon?) He was wearing Smurf-colored scrubs and
stood well above six feet tall (anything over 5 foot 9 inches is tall
to me). What a sweetheart, and better yet, extremely experienced in the
sentinel node biopsy procedure. I will be receiving this procedure for
my surgery; however, I will not be participating in the clinical trial.
The trial involves selecting some patients at random to have the sentinel
node biopsy, with others having the sentinel node evaluated along with
other nodes. I want to make sure I keep the chance to have only a single
node removed, so I am not going to participate in the trial. I apologize
to future breast cancer patients for my selfish decision.
As excited as I was to learn that I will be getting the surgery I chose
from the surgeon I selected, my balloon soon burst when I heard the surgery
date: July 16th. My heart sank. For the first time since I heard of my
diagnosis, I could feel depression setting in as the day wore on. That
would be 36 days after my biopsy. My tumor is so close to my lymph nodes
already, and the biopsy did a lot of destruction; I was worried that would
be too long to wait, worried the cancer would certainly spread. The next
day I was e-chatting with a sister-survivor who informed me of some statistics
regarding the timing of surgery. She told me that having surgery within
28 days of biopsy appears to be the timing for greatest success. Encouraged
by her info, I sent a fax to my cancer center explaining my concerns and
mentioning the 28-day window. Papa Smurf came through for me. The next
day I received a call from his office saying my surgery had been moved
up to July 8th, exactly 28 days post-biopsy. It will be at 6:00 pm—evidently
Smurfs work overtime. I know, it is only eight days’ difference,
but those were going to be the longest eight days of my life. (The moral
of this story is to take charge of your medical treatment, and don’t
be afraid to ask for what you believe in.)
I head up to Charlie’s home on Sunday, July 7th, as he lives closer
to my surgeon in Sacramento. I have outpatient surgery on Monday, July
8th, and then recover for one week. If my lymph node shows signs of cancer,
I will go back into surgery a few days later to have the rest of my lymph
nodes removed. (This is the prayer part.) I will begin chemo treatments
If you would like to shower me with gifts, you can send them to Charlie’s
house. Otherwise, e-mail messages are absolutely cherished.
Now for the quiz and survey…
1) What type of chemotherapy treatment did Cathy’s oncologist recommend?
a. CMF b. AC or c. AC/DC?
2) Who is Cathy’s favorite surgeon?
a. Papa Murphy b. Papa Smurf or c. Papa Pill?
Cathy is wigging out. What color hair would you like to see her in? Brown,
dark brown, black, blonde, gray, red, platinum or wavy gravy?
More e-mail updates after surgery...
Cathy Kaplan is a performing artist, sign language interpreter, writer,
dancer and photographer. For the past 16 years she has worked a the disabilities
services program manager at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and
was appointed by former Governor Pete Wilson to the California Governor’s
Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Please Email us for further information on book release date.
Read the rest of the interview with your order of ABILITY Magazine.
Other articles in the Robert David Hall issue include Letter From The
Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Cell It Somewhere Else; Headlines:
MS, Alzheimer's, Flu Benefit & Tsunami Relief; Senator Harkin: Disability
Rights Abroad; Media Access: Pursuing Inclusion and Representation; Behavior-Based
Interviewing: Identifying Ability; Innovations: Balance Sport Wheelchairs;
Motor Vehicle Accidents: Frightening Statistics; Test Drive: Get Off Your
Knees; Recipes: Coast to Coast Cuisine; World Ability Federation; Events
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