Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pathologically Speaking, Part I

Full disclosure:  Making sense of a biopsy pathology report isn't exactly an intuitive process.  I didn't understand what mine meant - and I'm an intensive care nurse.  So to save you time and Google searches, here is a very brief primer in semi-layman's terms.

1.  Breast cancer is not breast cancer is not breast cancer. 

This should be fairly obvious - but it's not.  From the moment I shared my diagnosis with friends and family I've been bombarded by well-meaning stories of how breast cancer and its subsequent treatment affected (insert female loved one's name here).  My mom (I love you, Mom!) even took to facebook messaging me lists of all of the breast cancer survivors she had known or heard of.  But as well-intended as these stories are - they have absolutely no bearing on what I am or will go through. In other words - just because we wear pink doesn't mean that our stories or outcomes are the same.  And that's ok.  (However, I like the stories so don't stop telling them to me - this means you, Mom!)

2.  There are several types of breast cancer.

Back that bus up.  Cancer (for those of you that may not wear non-latex gloves every day) is simply normal body cells that get stuck in the division cycle of their life cycle.  These normal cells become abnormal because they divide and divide and divide (much like a bad version of the Duggar family reality show).  These normal cells can originate from anywhere - in fact, this process is happening in your own body every day.  Thankfully, most of the time, the body's own defense system can recognize that they have a Duggar on their hands and can get rid of it before it goes to syndication.  Sometimes, however, some of these dysfunctional cells may go unchecked - and that's where trouble begins. The longer cancer cells continue in their division process, the less they look or act like the parent cell.  Pathologists can determine how advanced a tumor is based on how far from normal the cancer cells appear or act.

So, lets go back.

2.  There are several types of breast cancer.  

Breast cancers are classified by where the cells started out.  Most breast cancers either originate in the milk producing glands (lobular) or the milk ducts (ductal).  Cancers can be either invasive - meaning it has spread to the surrounding tissue or in situ - which refers to cells that are confined to one place.  In my case, the pathology report states I have an invasive ductal carcinoma - in other words, this breast cancer started in a milk duct and it has spread to surrounding tissue.  We won't know exactly how far until the final biopsy report returns from the surgical specimen.