Thanks to a spider bite, woman learns powerful lessons about cancer, gut feelings and second opinions – Chicago Tribune
If being begged by a huge spider in the middle of the night wasn’t bad enough, the encounter proved to be the just the beginning of retired nurse Pamela Fischer’s battle with breast cancer.
As Breast Cancer Awareness month commemorates its 37th year this October, the Naperville woman is sharing her story and offering a warning that they should never accept their first diagnosis if they suspect something is wrong.
Although not preventable, the American Cancer Society says women can reduce their risk by making healthy choices like eating right, staying active and not smoking. It’s also important to follow recommended screening guidelines, which can help detect certain cancers early.
It’s recommended that women ages 40 to 44 start mammograms if they wish to do so, but those aged 45 to 54 absolutely should have them done. Women over 55 can switch to an every two years schedule but screenings should continue for anyone who expects to live for at least 10 more years.
Fischer’s story began in June 2021.
“I was begging on my left breast by a huge spider while I was in bed,” she said. “It didn’t hurt but when I took a shower, I saw a lump which I assumed was from the bite. It was just a tiny thing and I know cancer doesn’t just spring up overnight, so I ignored it.”
By August the lump had become a little harder so she visited her family practitioner, who sent her for a mammogram and an ultrasound. Following a four-hour appointment, she was told she had a dilated duct with calculation. As a retired nurse, Fischer thought it could well be cancer but the radiologist disagreed.
“She said nothing screams cancer to me. She said it was only a one percent chance,” she said.
A breast surgeon agreed. “If anything, she thought it might be from a trauma,” Fischer said. “She advised me to come back in January.”
In November, she was surprised to get a call from the breast surgeon who said they’d taken another look and now wanted to do a guided biopsy and a lumpectomy right away.
“She told me there was a 30 percent chance it was cancer,” she said. “But she still felt it was nothing.”
Sadly, the opposite was true.
“It was absolutely horrible,” Fischer said. “No one thought I had it but I knew something was wrong. I had my suspicions so I wasn’t totally surprised. But I’d had all these tests and they said it was nothing.”
Although the margins were clear after the surgery, doctors in February decided they needed to widen them. A second MRI revealed that although her nodes were negative, there was more cancer in other areas that hadn’t shown up on the mammogram or ultrasound.
“It was really scary. I had a four-hour long appointment that said there was nothing wrong but it turned out I was loaded with cancer,” Fischer said.
At the end of March she faced a difficult decision: either have another lumpectomy to widen the margins further or have a mastectomy.
“Initially, I wasn’t ready for it, it was all coming at me very fast. But when a neighbor told me to think what I wanted my future to be I decided to have (a mastectomy),” she said.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the her cancer story. Her oncologist recommended radiation treatment after more cancer was found on her chest wall.
“She said in 20 years she’d never seen that before,” Fisher said. “They probably wouldn’t have found it at all if it wasn’t for the fact that I was bleeding so much during the surgery that she needed to cauterize the nodes.”
After 28 radiation sessions, Fischer’s skin started to peel. “It was awful, I couldn’t keep my arm down for two weeks,” she said. Fortunately, she didn’t require chemotherapy.
Eight months after her diagnosis, she’s healed but still requires occupational and physical therapy. She’s recently started a three-year program of tamoxifen to prevent recurrence.
Fisher said while her treatment went fairly smoothly once she was diagnosed, she wasted four months because it wasn’t found initially.
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“If I had to go through it again, I would make them do a biopsy straight away and then get a second opinion,” she said. “It’s been a long journey with an unfortunate beginning.”
Fisher is grateful for the help she’s since received from the Living Well Cancer Resource Center, which has provided free sessions with a social worker to help her get over the trauma. Although she wasn’t a candidate for breast reconstruction, she’s also happy that she recently received a prosthetic.
“It makes such a difference,” she said. Under Medicare, not only was the prosthetic free, but she’s also been given special bras.
Fischer chronicled her cancer journey on Facebook so she could keep friends and family up to date. Although it’s sometimes hard to read, it does have a happy ending.
“Ironically, the spider bite turned out to be a godsend,” she said. “Doctors said I could have had cancer for between five to ten years without knowing.”
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved from England to Naperville in 2007.