My Breast Cancer Journey: Connecting With My Oncologist
If my breast cancer journey has taught me anything, it’s to trust my gut.
After months of uncertainty, following my instincts, relying on support from loved ones, and advocating for myself finally connected me with the best oncologist and care team I could hope for. But it took some time to get here.
In 2011, two years before I was officially diagnosed with breast cancer, I noticed some bloody discharge coming from my left breast. I went to our local hospital and had a mammogram, which came back normal. I met with a breast surgeon, who told me it was probably nothing; she advised that I get in touch if the discharge was still an issue 6 to 8 weeks later. It stopped soon after my mammogram, so I didn’t think much of it—until two years later, in late July of 2013, I felt a marble-sized lump in that same breast.
I got a mammogram right away, and my results came back within the week—like last time, everything looked normal. But I knew it wasn’t. I called my Ob/Gyn and asked for an ultrasound to check it out further. My doctor agreed with me and scheduled me for an ultrasound at my local hospital—that’s when the breast cancer tumor was detected. After two false negatives on mammograms, I finally had an answer.
The radiologist initially told me my cancer was early stage 2. Although it was a relief to have a diagnosis, I was anxious about finding the right doctor for treatment. I knew what side effects cancer treatments could have on the body because I watched my father go through treatment for cancer. I saw how rough the therapies were on him and I knew I wanted something different. I wanted to be my own advocate and I was looking for physicians who took a more holistic approach to cancer care—I wanted nutritional counseling, emotional support, and innovative therapies.
A friend recommended the hospital where she’d been treated, so I headed an hour away for my next scans to determine more specific diagnosis and treatment. After many tests there, they found my cancer was stage 4, not stage 2 as I was previously told. I was terrified. When my husband, Ricardo, and I met with the oncologist, the doctor listed the treatments I would have and said he could realistically give me six months, maybe a year to live. When my doctor left the exam room, we sat and cried for about 15 minutes and finally left in a fog. I felt hopeless, given up on--like I wasn't given a proper chance to fight. One thing was clear: I needed to keep searching for the right doctor.
I saw another oncologist at a nearby hospital and got the same assessment—he wanted to put me on the same treatments as the first doctor and gave me a prognosis of six months to a year. Ricardo and I kept looking for hope and we kept getting a death sentence.
After that, I was somewhat stuck for a little while. I knew I needed to start treatment, but I didn’t feel like those doctors were the right fit for me. Part of me was afraid if I got more opinions, they would all say the same thing. My instincts told me it was possible to find a doctor with whom I really connected, but I didn’t know where else to turn. Eventually, I scheduled my first round of chemotherapy at the second hospital, but it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what to do.
Ricardo made my decision for me. Before my first scheduled chemo appointment, he reached out to a cancer facility that followed an integrative approach to treatment. He’d heard about it from a family member and decided one of us needed to take that step. The cancer center wasn’t close by, so I was hesitant, but I went to see if they could give me what I was looking for. Finally, after many months of feeling alone on this journey, I connected with a wonderful oncologist and care team. At our first appointment, I asked the oncologist, Dr. Tlemcani (Dr. T), how long she thought I had to live. She immediately told me, “I don’t know—I can’t tell you that. That’s out of our control.” She gave me confidence that my diagnosis was not a death sentence. We hit it off immediately and the rest is history.
From there, we began treatment. I started out with chemo and then moved on to targeted hormone-based treatments, which I responded really well to. From day one, I put my full trust in Dr. T. I knew she had my back and my best interests at heart—she wants me here on Earth for as long as possible, so whenever she recommended something, I went along with it full force. At one point, when my scans showed some new activity, Dr. T actually called me from her vacation to discuss next steps. Since we first met, I’ve felt cared for and confident I’m in the best hands. Thanks to Dr. T and my whole medical team, today I’m in remission.
This is not the path I wanted for myself, but it’s the one I’m on and, to be honest, at times I’m thankful for the cancer. It’s taught me to look at life differently and appreciate what I have. I’ve learned, thanks to my incredible treatment team, that cancer is not an automatic death sentence anymore. And I’ve learned, from my own persistence, that trusting my gut is the way to go. It is so important to follow your instincts and find the right doctor for you. It’s not convenient or enjoyable to travel to various hospitals and doctors’ offices to find the right fit, but the way I see it, cancer isn’t enjoyable or convenient either. This is your life, and the right doctor can make all the difference.
Jennifer Lopez lives in Lansing, Michigan with her husband, Ricardo, and their dog, Einstein.