Northwest Herald

Oliver: Here’s hoping this cancer battle sequel comes with a lot less drama

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, I wrote in a column that the whole thing seemed like something out of a movie written by a sadistic screenwriter.

The thought that a character with so much on her plate could be given cancer too seemed to strain reality. After all, a good screenplay usually has a streamlined plot so that it’s easy to follow. Add too many obstacles and no one will believe it.

Life sometimes resembles a bad movie. Or at least it does for the Olivers. And I still can’t make this stuff up.

By 2019, I had already had my mother, who had mild dementia, come to live with us. My husband then was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. My mother’s dementia worsened, and it contributed to her death in early 2018. The rest of that year was spent dealing with her estate.

I had hoped that 2019 was going to be the year when I got to catch my breath a little bit.

It was not to be. Enter our sadistic screenwriter.

What started out as a lump in my right breast that was found during an emergency visit to the doctor for something else morphed into the need for a double lumpectomy. In addition to the lump on the right side, there were suspicious microcalcifications on the left side that seemed to indicate the possibility of cancer there too.

After I healed up and found out that I had stage 1 cancer on the right side and stage 0 on the left, I underwent radiation treatments on the right side only. And I began a five-year course of medications to try to keep the cancer from coming back.

All had been going well until my last mammogram early last month. Somehow our sadistic screenwriter just couldn’t leave my plotline alone.

Part of my coping mechanism for all of this has been to lean into my sense of humor. So, it was completely natural for me to joke around with the mammogram technician. When she mentioned that I’d be hearing my results in three to five days, I teased that hearing any sooner probably wasn’t a good sign. She chuckled and reassured me that wasn’t necessarily true.

Except that I heard from the fine folks at the Northwestern Medicine Gavers Breast Center the very next day. That I knew the person who called me should be a clue about how much time I spent over there in 2019.

I needed to come in two days later to have more pictures taken of my left side because there seemed to be some new groupings of microcalcifications. They wanted to be sure.

Despite all of this, I tried to remain calm. I’m sure it’s nothing, I told myself repeatedly. Except that after those second images, I was told I would need to have a biopsy done of the suspicious area. I was told it might just be something that came about from the trauma of the surgery in 2019.

Only it wasn’t.

This time, I have some cancer that started to travel. Not much and not far, but it’s cancer. Again. All this while I was being treated with drugs that were supposed to stop cancer from returning.

The verdict: I’ll need to have another lumpectomy on the left side, and I’m not getting out of radiation. I still don’t know what’s going to happen with the medicine situation.

All I know is that I naively thought that I would be safe from the cancer coming back for at least the first five years. The numbers seem to back me up: Less than 10% of women with stage 0 will develop cancer within the first five years. I guess that makes me special.

Now I have to go into planning mode and try to figure out how I’m going to be able to give Tony the care he requires while also recovering from surgery. It must be noted that Tony’s condition has markedly deteriorated since 2019.

Good thing I’ve got a lot of dear friends and I have a better idea about what to expect this time around. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried. Of course, I am.

I sure didn’t see this plot twist coming.

Here’s hoping this sequel comes with a lot less drama.

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.