Northwest Herald

Oliver: Living with a cancer diagnosis means learning to live with uncertainty

All of us live with a certain level of uncertainty; it’s just part of being alive. As hard as we try to control our everyday circumstances, we just don’t have that ability.

For a recovering control freak like me, this is a hard truth.

As someone who deals with a cancer diagnosis, the level of uncertainty has multiplied significantly.

Almost five years ago, a lump was found in my right breast. That was such a shock, since breast cancer doesn’t run in my family, and I’d been healthy. I also was at the doctor’s office that day for a different issue, so learning that there was a lump was more than I could get my head around.

The news kept getting worse as I went in for my first diagnostic mammogram, which was followed by an ultrasound. Indeed, I had a lump, and the radiologist told me that it looked malignant.

That meant that I’d have to undergo an ultrasound-guided biopsy of the lump to confirm that it was malignant and to be able to see what kind of cancer it could be.

I now had a team of doctors who were going to help me through this journey and who would consult together as to the best course of action.

Just as I was getting used to the idea that I had a tumor in one of my breasts, I learned that there was some concern about my other breast too. Although there wasn’t a tumor, per se, there were some suspicious-looking calcifications that the team wanted to check out.

According to the excellent resource, calcifications are pretty common. Most are benign, and they don’t lead to cancer on their own. But their presence can indicate something going on in the breast that is cancerous.

Now I’d have to undergo a different type of biopsy, since calcifications don’t show up on an ultrasound like a tumor would. This one was a stereotactic biopsy, which is guided by mammography.

Even after that biopsy, I had a hard time grasping that my left side could be a problem too. Yet, on the day the tumor was removed from my right breast, tissue also was removed from my left side. When it came time to stage my cancer, I had stage 1 on the right (thanks to that tumor) and stage 0 on the left.

To me, it seemed pretty clear that everything had been caught early and that I’d just have to work my way through my treatment, and I’d be good to go.

That meant a month of radiation treatments on the right side only, and a daily medication along with monthly injections that would last for five years.

Everything had been going well for the past four years. Even though I had to go to my oncologist every month, including during the height of the pandemic, I have been faithfully sticking to my routine.

Once a year, I see my breast surgeon and we discuss if anything has changed. I “graduated” from seeing my radiation oncologist a year or so after my radiation treatments ended.

And every year I get another mammogram, just to be sure that nothing has changed. I was even able to go back to screening mammograms instead of having to get the more intensive diagnostic ones.

So, I wasn’t too anxious when I had my latest screening mammogram. When the tech told me that I’d get my results in three to five days, I joked that it’s not a good thing if you hear something sooner.

To my surprise and horror, I got a call the very next day. Something new had been seen on my screening mammogram and I’d need to come in for more pictures. Even more surprising, it was on my left side, the one that hadn’t had the tumor, the side I refused to be worried about.

Even more surprising was the news that I’d need to have another stereotactic biopsy because the new groups of calcifications are suspicious. However, I was assured that they still might be nothing to worry about.

Just hearing the word “biopsy” again caused a wave of emotion and “what-ifs” for which I wasn’t prepared. My mind immediately raced to how I was going to care for my husband Tony, who has Alzheimer’s disease, if this turned out to be something. His disease has progressed so much over the past five years. What if I had to go through surgery again? What if this keeps happening?

Of course, once I had a chance to digest this news, I decided that it would be best to react to the actual news and not worry about something that might not happen. I’ll know when I know.

Still, rocker Tom Petty was so right when he sang: The waiting is the hardest part.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.