By Martha Kaley, Founder, earlier.org
When our son was about 5 years old, he trotted down our drive to get the paper. As he was running back up the hill, a neighbor’s dog started chasing him. Fortunately, I was outside and intercepted the dog and chased him off. However, after this experience, Mark began to be hesitant around dogs. I have always been a very big dog lover and couldn’t bear the thought of my son being frightened of animals because I felt that he would miss a gift that animals bring to our lives. After years of observing Mark’s continued and growing reticence with dogs, I decided that we needed to add a dog to our family.
The search for just the right dog took us to a farm where there was a litter of Chocolate Labs ready for adoption. There was one sturdy little chocolate drop away from the others who was trying to drag a downed tree around. I knew right then that we had found our guy: sturdy, persistent, stubborn and feisty. Mark had already determined that since it was a male, his name would be Sherlock. That is how our relationship – and our story – begins.
Sherlock lived up to his displayed characteristics of sturdy, persistent, and feisty. And stubborn. Very stubborn. He spent years training me to provide him with treats and walk him upon demand. He even trained me to wrestle with him every morning after our walk. Our morning routine was set. Then, one morning during our wrestling match, Sherlock scratched my chest. It wasn’t much of a scratch, but the next morning I got up and realized that there was a straight line bruise from my clavicle to my breast. I ran my fingers down it and felt a mass at the base of the bruise. With my heart racing and a sudden feeling of nausea washing over me, I quickly attempted to regain my composure, assuring myself that there could not be a problem…I had just received a clear report from my mammogram just three months earlier. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t shake that tiny bit of anxiety that continued to surface when my mind got quiet and I could not distract myself. I started hearing the message, “Don’t play doctor, go see about it”.
In an effort to calm the voice in my head, I committed that I would see a doctor after my next monthly cycle if the mass was still there. In the meantime, Sherlock and I were still wrestling and playing and doing all of the things that I had been trained to do. Yet, still, I could not quiet that voice in my head.
I went ahead and met with my gynecologist. He did a needle aspiration and assured me there was no cause for alarm, so I went back to the routine of my life…until 2 days later when I was coming in from a run and the phone was ringing. It was my gynecologist with the results from the aspiration. He said, “There was no fluid, but there are some atypical cells.” Pause. I said, “So what does that mean?”
His reply, “Well, they’re not benign and they’re not malignant, but with this in mind, I would like for you to see a surgeon.”
I hung up the phone and took a long pause. It occurred to me that life was starting to move in a direction out of my control. I diligently reminded myself, though, “Remember, you had a clear mammogram three months ago so I am sure everything will be fine…” But I just couldn’t shake that sinking feeling. I tried simple logic: there is no breast cancer in my family. I watch my weight. I run almost every day. I eat olive oil. I do all the right things. But it didn’t work…I felt sick with anxiety and uncertainty.
The next day, I met with the surgeon. As I sat quietly in the waiting room, my hands were sweating and my heart was racing. After the examination, he did not seem particularly concerned, but he suggested that since the cells were atypical, he would like to go ahead and remove the mass. With this decided, certainly now, my life could start to get back on track. We had planned a trip to Disney World for the next week and decided that we could go ahead with that. We scheduled surgery for the Monday after we returned. Jim and I did not even tell Mark or Sherlock because we knew there was no need for concern.
That Monday morning came and both Jim and I were confident that we would simply get this taken care of and move on. We arrived at out-patient surgery; we knew that the surgery wouldn’t take very long. Everything went as planned. Or did it? The mass that I had felt after that fateful wrestling match with Sherlock was removed and quickly determined to be benign. Outstanding! But, as the surgeon was closing up, he, in his own words that very day, “…just decided to take a look around.” And there it was: the tiny group of horrible cells deviously hiding in my body, lying in wait to wreak havoc upon me, my family, my life, and my entire world. For the rest of my life. This barely 2 centimeter malignant mass, pressed against my chest wall was a demon living silently inside me…and my dog – my precious, energetic, stubborn Chocolate Lab - aptly named Sherlock – found it. Not medical science. Not a $400,000 mammography machine. Not a doctor with 12 years of education and decades more experience. Just my dog. It was the same density as breast tissue so it never would have been seen on imaging and it was so deep that it would never have been felt until it was…too late. This was the vehicle that, with no warning, in that very nanosecond of life, catapulted me away, forever, from the very life I had known for 47 years. That life was gone.
As I walked through this valley, having just crossed the permanent and forever bridge that forced me to leave my ‘old life’ behind, I gained insight for which I am very grateful…and at times, very sad. After learning that most breast cancer is in the body five to eight years before it can even be imaged, and that is even with the best technology that is available today, my priorities shifted and my selection of choices changed. Weighing on my heart and in my head was the realization that it was absolutely imperative to insure that a new and more comprehensive method to detect breast cancer was in process.
Sherlock couldn’t take care of all women, but he gave me the opportunity to take over his work. With this opportunity came an obligation from which I could not turn away. My choices were no longer just about my life and the lives of my immediate family. Now, my choices were expanded to a global family. I could no longer close myself off into my own familiar world. My experience became the gift of a life forever changed.After her diagnosis and treatment, Martha Kaley founded Earlier.org – Friends for an Earlier Breast Cancer Test – the only US non-profit exclusively dedicated to funding research seeing an earlier biological detection test for breast cancer. Learn more at www.earlier.org.