Bartlett woman recalls breast cancer diagnosis 20 years ago

Andrea Petrowski

Twenty years have passed, but Andrea Petrowski of Bartlett remembers the stress of getting a breast cancer diagnosis. It’s a story she hasn’t told often because she prefers to focus on living a joyful life.

She was a mom with two small children, recently separated from her husband and moved to Bartlett from Texas, when she noticed a thickening on her right side, between her arm and breast. She and her children were active in sports and the spot wasn’t sore, so she assumed it was just muscular bulk. After all, she was right-handed.

“Before, nobody ever mentioned that, like a thickening,” she said. “They always say ‘a lump.’ But I didn’t have a lump.”

She happened to mention it in passing to her doctor at her annual checkup, and he was immediately concerned.

At the time she was diagnosed, the usual recommendation was to get a mammogram at age 40, but she was only 36 and hadn’t had one previously. Petrowski also has a strong family history of breast cancer on her mother’s side: Her mother is a survivor, and two of her mother’s sisters died from the disease. But Petrowski has always resembled her father and assumed she had just taken after him with her health.

At first she was numb with shock at the prospect of cancer and couldn’t talk about it without crying.

A biopsy was inconclusive. So she agreed to surgery with the understanding she would have a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery if the surgical team found cancer. She briefly delayed the procedure so the family could celebrate her son’s eighth birthday beforehand. Her daughter was also young, not quite 11, and she wanted to keep family life as normal as possible for them.

The surgery revealed metastasized cancer. She woke up to the news that she’d had a modified radical mastectomy and reconstruction on her right side.

About two weeks later she became severely ill with flu-like symptoms of fever and vomiting. She called her plastic surgeon, and the office manager advised her to go to the hospital if she thought she was getting dehydrated.

Her father drove her, and they discovered she was really suffering from sepsis, a life-threatening response to infection. Doctors quietly told her parents they didn’t expect her to survive the night. Her ex came over from Texas to watch the children, and the family called their preacher.

“I almost died,” she said.

They had to take out the breast reconstruction temporarily and treat the infection. She was in the hospital for a week, but she recovered her strength and kept telling herself, “I’m not going to die. I’m not going to die.”

After that setback, she managed her recovery as well as most breast cancer patients do, taking one day at a time. She went through chemotherapy and radiation, and she took the drug Tamoxifen for five years to reduce the risk of recurrence.

Surviving sepsis, cancer, surgeries and other treatments gave her a higher perspective on life afterward.

I think it brought me a calmness,” she said. “I think I was pretty high strung, before – a Type A personality. Which I’m still a Type A personality, but not as high strung. … It changes your perspective on a lot of things.”

Today, she encourages people who are undergoing breast cancer treatment to try the approach that worked for her. “If you just take it one day at a time and you don’t worry about the big picture, you just do what the doctors say, you just focus on that one day and don’t stress yourself out with ‘down the road’ – I think that was my coping.”

She wasn’t one of the survivors who got relief from talking about her breast cancer journey, and at first she just put her head down at work and plowed through projects, letting her boss communicate her health updates to her colleagues.

Strong family support and her church were blessings during her recovery and the follow-up reconstructive surgeries. Her dad went to her children’s parent-teacher conferences on her behalf, and he didn’t tell her until later that her son had been missing sleep, worrying about her, and he once fell asleep during the school’s standardized testing.

Her son is now 28 and lives in Houston, and her daughter is 30, living in Memphis. She believes her son developed strong compassion after watching his mom’s recovery, and her daughter inherited her mom’s own high-strung tendencies.

Petrowski has lived in Bartlett since 1998 and is a board member of Memphis Miles for Myeloma, a fundraiser organization for a couple of myeloma (bone tumor) charities.

Although her life is not centered around the disease she survived, she can immediately recall details, such as the exact date of her first surgery: Oct. 7, 1997.

“You never forget that date,” she said. “And then for like 10 years out, I would be kind of emotional during the month of October just because it brings back the memories, and you worry about it coming back. Every time you go to the doctor, or go get a mammogram, you’re a nervous wreck.”

It helps that she has begun getting her mammograms at Saint Francis Hospital in Bartlett, where she now works, she said. They treat one patient at a time and helped her to feel like a person, not a number.

“It’s more calming and I’m not as anxious, and I don’t get all stressed out,” she said.

Today, she doesn’t mind talking about her breast cancer if the topic arises, but it took her about 10 years to get to that point. “I don’t want that to define me. It is part of who I am, but it is not the whole picture.”