Monika Malecka was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019 and received chemotherapy for six months before undergoing surgery to remove her right breast in March 2020 — just a few days after the COVID-19 lockdown. Malecka was the last person the surgeon operated on until that summer because of the pandemic. The 70-year-old Montreal woman, a retired medical secretary, says that after being “on the patient side of the desk,” she appreciates health-care teams more than ever. She also has come to know the true value of her closest friends.
Now, Malecka is cancer-free. This is her story.
I live alone. I’m an only child and both of my parents have died. I think my cancer has made me stronger.
It started when I discovered a tumour in my right breast on April 22, 2019. I wasn’t doing any self-exams, I was just soaping myself in the bath, and I felt something strange. And I said to myself, ‘My God, it feels like a piece of wood.’
Two days later I went to a radiology clinic for a mammogram. They said, ‘We’ll call you back in a week’s time if we find something, if we don’t call you, that’s good news.’
They did call, but I missed the call. When I went to the clinic the next day, the nurse told me they’d found two tumours. I was shattered. I had seen my father die from lung cancer in 2009. I expected a lot of pain because, in my mind, cancer meant pain.
The nurse gave me a CD with the imaging of my breast to take to a doctor. I didn’t have a family doctor, but I knew some of the surgeons at the Royal Victoria Hospital from my work. A colleague of mine connected me to Dr. Sarkis Meterissian, a breast surgeon and director of the McGill University Health Centre’s Cedars Breast Clinic at the hospital. They called me 10 days later to repeat the mammogram, and do a needle biopsy as well as an ultrasound.
I expected a lot of pain because, in my mind, cancer meant pain
I remember looking at the pictures on the screen, and where they directed the needle. The lesion that I felt was was under the skin, and but there was also a deeper one. They call it a lesion until they know for certain it’s a tumour.
Two weeks later, Dr. Meterissian, confirmed that I had two tumours that were already quite big. He wanted me to start six months of chemotherapy before doing anything else, like surgery.
I asked him if that meant the cancer is advanced, but he said no, that it was the sort of chemo that they give to try and reduce the size of the tumours. That reassured me that my cancer was caught in time.
I was also told that my chances of survival were good because I was postmenopausal and it had been caught early. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol, except once in a while I’ll have a glass of wine. I’m also very active — I belong to an outdoor club and we hike, cross-country ski and cycle, plus I work out at the YMCA.
I saw an oncologist that same day and he told me he wanted to do more tests to make sure my body could withstand the chemotherapy. That meant diagnostic work — a scan of all my bones, and a MUGA scan [multigated acquisition scan that checks how well the heart is pumping during rest and exercise] to make sure there were no defects in my heart.
The chemo treatment meant putting a catheter in my left breast just above my heart — the medication went directly into the catheter. I had a disc the size of a quarter — the port — placed under the skin that was connected to a long wire.
I was angry
What went through my mind the first month was denial, and then anger. I was angry! My friends started noticing there was something wrong. I have three very close friends. I told them the truth and they gave me moral support — like you wouldn’t believe.
Every three weeks, I went to the clinic for about three and a half hours for chemo — it’s a reddish colour. Blood work would be done every two weeks to make sure my platelets were not too low.
What struck me the most through all this was the younger women with cancer in their 30s and 40s at the clinic. There were women who were having eight hours of chemo — they were in a much worse situation than me. One day a woman had her birthday and I had a feeling that it was probably her last birthday.
For me, chemo went really well. I was never sick, but I could feel pain at the roots of my hair. I slept with a towel on my pillow because I was expecting it to fall out any day. The oncologist recommended shaving it off.
I think the loss of hair — facial hair, the eyelashes, everything — was difficult. I was more concerned about my hair than losing my breast, and when I went to see my hairdresser and asked her to shave my head, she said I was her third customer that day with breast cancer. Two days later I bought a wig.
After the last chemo treatment, I waited seven weeks for my blood to normalize and had another MRI scan, all to get ready for breast surgery on March 17, 2020.
I was more concerned about my hair than losing my breast
It was the Friday before, March 13, that everything stopped in Quebec because of COVID-19. All weekend, I kept thinking they’re going to cancel my surgery. I knew from experience at work that if something is going on, the first thing you do is call patients to postpone surgery. I was dreading that phone call. But when I got the call, I was told the surgery was still on.
I would have the right breast removed and two lymph nodes biopsied. If the lymph nodes were clear, I’d be fine. If they were not, that meant the cancer had spread.
The last thing I remember was looking at a huge clock in the O.R. that said 2:05 and then someone put the mask over my face. I woke up in the recovery room at around quarter to six that evening. There were just two nurses. They said they usually have 12 patients, but the hospital was in lockdown, so I could stay the night if I wanted to. But my friends were picking me up.
I also found out that my lymph nodes were clear!
Now I go every four months for blood work. In December, I’ll get an ultrasound of the right breast where I had surgery, and a mammogram done on the left side. I feel like March 17 marks the start of my second life — cancer has changed my outlook for sure. My friends in my walking group are thinking of doing the Camino walking tour in Portugal — we’re working up to 25km walks every Saturday or Sunday.
If I could share any advice with others, it would be to do breast examinations — which I never did. Look for any changes, and don’t let things go.
Karen Hawthorne is a Toronto-based writer.