Star Wars character Rey holds her yellow light saber

The Short Life and Excellent Death of Darth Lumpius

Karin Kallmaker LIFE + STYLE 46 Comments

Back in August I knew I would be writing this post and that this would be the title.

Darth Lumpius had visions of immortality. Its evilness was about the size of two Cheerios. A routine mammogram screening discovered the nasty little bugger. Three weeks later Darth Lumpius was no more, aspirations of takeover all for nothing, thanks to a crack team of Resistance fighters: one surgeon, one radiologist, one radiation oncologist, one therapeutic oncologist, and a platoon of technicians and nurses. They each had their own light saber and the Force was with them.

All Star Wars references aside, I found out I had breast cancer in August. By the beginning of September, I no longer had breast cancer due to quick outpatient surgery. Radiation treatments followed to discourage any hangers on of trying to attempt their own takeover. I am now cancer free with no greater risk of another case than the general population.

All in all, start to finish, the best possible breast cancer story a person can have.

Less than Three Months

It’s hard to believe that the entire sequence from first detection at the routine screening, pre-surgical tests, a trip to nuclear medicine (that sounds so cool, doesn’t it?!), surgery, recovery, and radiation took not quite three months.

Trust me when I say that this year I am profoundly grateful for a great many things:

  • Imaging breakthroughs – the machine that detected this tiny tumor is about 1,000 times more sensitive that a machine 10 years ago.
  • Medical treatment breakthroughs – the only other female in my family I know that has had breast cancer was an aunt decades ago; her treatment option was a double mastectomy. I have a completely healed four-inch scar and a minor amount of residual numbness that is slowly going away.
  • The Affordable Care Act which mandates annual mammograms as a free and covered screening, and requires health plans to repeatedly remind their patients to have one. I didn’t need persuasion, but the reminders were useful to avoid any gaps where Darth Lumpius would continue to grow.
  • Health care professionals who have been relentlessly vilified and terrorized by science deniers still showing up to the job, and doing it with compassion.
  • Researchers – from the first measurement to the ultimate biopsy of the lump after surgery, multiple tests now exist that made it possible me to always choose the least invasive option that offered the best long-term outcome. I left my final radiation session knowing my chances of another case are the same as the general population.
  • Peeps who took on work on short notice with no more info than “I have a schedule crunch, can you help?” are rock stars.
  • My wife Maria, kids Kelson and Lee, and friends who knew who took the news without drama and gave boundless support, and who fell in with my quirky humor but succeeded in discouraging me from getting a tattoo on my scar that said “Ha ha! Missed me!” because that’s a Wile E Coyote move, and I don’t need an Acme anvil dropping on my head.
  • Most of all, since they determine as much as 80% of our body’s resistance to cancer, I am thankful for the genes I got from my parents and their ancestors. I have no doubt that Darth Lumpius’s plans for evil takeover of my right boob were hampered by the Force that I inherited from them. They’re all Skywalkers to me.
 
meme Star Trek character Spock doing Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" finger sign with caption "May the 4th be ever in your favor." Signed Gandalf.

All the News Was Good

There is no question that I’m grateful for this outcome.

From my earliest follow ups, every doctor underscored the continuing good news. Darth Lumpius was small and nowhere near the chest wall or my armpit. After biopsy, they knew it was feeding on estrogen and therefore any undetected remnants could be easily starved. Other than it being malignant, all the news was good.

My surgeon (a delightful thirty-something Resistance leader) said flat out, “This is 100% curable.” Just before surgery she asked me to decide if I wanted a more cosmetic final appearance or a potentially shorter surgery and recovery. She nodded in agreement when I said, “Whatever approach is best to kill it, please do that.” Though I’m sure she’d heard the joke before, she laughed when I said that my days as a boob model were over anyway.

There’s one final score that comes from the sample itself which predicts the likelihood of another cell going over to the Dark Side. On a scale of 1 to 100, the happy place is 25 or less. My oncologist lit up with joy when she told me my score was 12. Darth Lumpius, for all its attempted evil, was pitifully ineffective.

(One caveat – I do have to take estrogen blockers for five years. Yes, I will have even less estrogen floating around than I already do. I’m going to have to write my name on my hand at this rate. Yes, I’m truly looking forward to gaining weight even more easily. However, all of that is better than having breast cancer again.)

 
a purple bowl with gold etchings holds an assortment of reddish, orange, white, grey and black rocks. Some of the rocks are etched with empowering words like strength, insight, grace, and inspiration.

A bowl of Inspiration we keep on the piano.

Certainty and Uncertainty

Knowing that the word “cancer” rightly fills people with dread, I kept the news to myself and the closest of family and friends. There was some uncertainty, of course, but I knew I was going to be mostly okay (and I am better than okay) and I wanted to save everyone needless worry. At some point I may need those healing thoughts and prayers. Should that come to pass I’ll ask for them then.

Though I was certain I was going to be fine, I had no way of planning my time in September or October. I presumed surgery, recovery, and radiation treatments would all be the worst possible experience, so I pushed deadlines and projects around in case I was not up to working. The time loss didn’t happen so I was able to resume some of those projects much more quickly than I had thought, including finalizing an audiobook and releasing a new series. As I said above, I’m grateful to the people who helped when I couldn’t plan ahead more than a few days at times.

Not All Women are This Lucky

I am well aware that my diagnosis and treatment are not what many women experience. Given all the good news, I was calm enough to be fascinated by the science, machines, nuclear medicine dye injection, and the cool glued-shut-zero-post-surgical-wound-care scar. I was assigned a social worker for mental health support that I didn’t need, and I was more than happy to yield my time to someone who did need it.

The process was like an assembly line where I moved from specialist to specialist guided by many different techs and nurses in between. I found comfort in always knowing the next step, and that there was nothing about my case that caused any of the professionals intent on saving my life from breaking stride. Everyone was kind, listened, and happy to speed me on my way.

Genetics is the real wild card in how cancer progresses and how successful treatment is. We can’t change our genes. But we can get the screenings and use those results to have control over our own destiny. And we lucky breast cancer survivors can continue to insist that early detection and rapid treatment are a universal right.

I know many women who could have had my outcome didn’t, or won’t, because of where they live, how much money they have, and the color of their skin.
Please research charities before you donate to be sure they are doing the work you want to support. My opinion is that “awareness” campaigns are worthless if an aware person can’t get the screening.

All that said, the bottom line in fighting breast cancer is early detection. What you don’t know can kill you. Knowledge is power. Early detection may have literally saved my life. At the very least it spared me more invasive and painful treatments that may have proven less effective.

 
The overwhelming Death Star approaches tiny Alderaan

And Then There Were the Bills . . .

My wife and I are both accountants and both skilled when it comes to the forensic side – following the money. It took us 2 hours working together to understand how billing worked, where copays had been applied, and how to match EOBs (the statement that says what the bill is and what the insurance company will pay of it) to claims numbers (which weren’t on the EOBs) to services rendered (with claim numbers but no descriptive relationship to the EOBs except date, and/or the name of the doctor vs the location of the services which was not always correct).

I had to make a color-coded spreadsheet. I may have said more than once, “They shall come to fear my accounting powers.”

There were obvious simple fixes that could have made it much easier, like universal use of the claim number. I assume they’re not implemented because making it easier is not a goal. I imagine many people give up and just pay. We found multiple errors in both directions, but mostly in theirs. It finally squared up in subsequent months. I do not miss my days of doing reconciliations.

 
Star Wars Mandalorian character Grogu also known as Baby Yoda smiles happily. Is probably looking at ice cream, like Karin often is.

This is a Happy Ending

During radiation treatments they played various songs that ranged from Motown to cozy 90s. The first song during radiation treatment was “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel which made the lasers and scanners moving all around me a truly surreal dance of technology. The final one was “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds.

So I am turn, turn, turning to the new season, this one filled with gratitude for the community I live in, and the love I know is there for me. A lot in the world is broken but this story is not one of them. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and this year I have much to celebrate.

To everyone reading: You are part of this happy ending. Thank you.

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Comments 46

  1. So, glad to here a happy ending for you. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family as you all deserve the best one yet.

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  2. Karin! Holy cow. Thank you for sharing your journey with your usual wit and clarity. I’m glad you caught it and I’m even more glad it went as it did. Sending hugs and I’m going to squeeze the snot out of you when I see you again!

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  3. Sorry you had to have this experience, but I’m very thankful it turned out well. Wishing you an easy experience with the estrogen blocking medication. Happy thanksgiving!

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      1. I’m one month past major surgery to remove a malignancy from my liver (along with most of the liver!), and can totally relate to your positive experience: superb doctors and medical technicians and follow-up nurses, caring and thoughtful responses, even with the hospital being severely stressed and understaffed after 3 horrible epidemic years. So far, my prospects look good, thanks to timely detection and biopsy–not to mention amazingly skilled surgery and pain management. I have never been more grateful for all the good people in my life!

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  4. So glad to hear all went well for you. Thanks for sharing and wish you and your family all the best.

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  5. Thank you for sharing. I’m so happy your story has a positive ending. Wishing you and your family a happy thanksgiving xx

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  6. Thank you for sharing and for the reminder to be proactive in attending to my health.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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  7. So glad to hear you’ve beaten back the big “C”, Karin. I’ve always thought of you as a warrior. Fight on! 💕

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  8. Whew! I am very glad and grateful for the way this went. I am equally grateful for your sense of humor and skill in purveying what could have been a horrific recounting. I am certain there were times when humor wasn’t your first response, but being able to poke fun is therapeutic, as well. I am rambling, sorry. My main response is still “Whew!”.

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      Pretty much sums up how I felt after the very first follow-up. The radiologist said, “Well that’s small, but I don’t like the look of it. I want to know what it’s made of.” I think she knew, because we talked about how fortunate the position and size was from that moment onward in terms of whatever it was, it should probably be removed. A lot of health care puts people on conveyor belts through a treatment system, and I definitely was, but that’s EXACTLY what I needed. I don’t mind a systematic approach, not when every person I interacted with was kind, answered questions, and encouraging. Everyone should be so fortunate!

  9. I’m so glad this story was low angst and had a happy ending. Keep it up! (also, thanks for sharing.)😁

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  10. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad you kicked it’s ass. May the force continue to be with you 💜🌈

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  11. So thankful that you’re doing well and will enjoy an extra thankful Thanksgiving this year. Thank you for sharing your story and encouraging diligence in testing.

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  12. As someone who lost a grandmother and several friends to this terrible disease, I am so very grateful and joyful when I hear of someone kicking cancer’s ass. You have many more adventures waiting for you, and many more stories to write for the world. Happy almost Thanksgiving!

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  13. So glad that your story has a happy ending. Definitely a lot to be thankful for. Thank you for sharing.

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  14. Thanks for sharing your story. Your humor is much appreciated. So glad to hear that you have a happy ending. Happy Thanksgiving to you & your supportive family & friends.

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