In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Parenting’s Raven Snook, Sarit Fishbaine shares how watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy helped diagnose her breast cancer. Sarit is pictured with her husband and their three children Yoav, Hadas, and Maayan. (Photo: Sarit Fishbaine)
About two years ago, when I was nursing my youngest child, I decided to see a breast specialist in Israel, where I live with my husband and children. Although nothing specific concerned me, my breasts had always been lumpy and the mom of a good friend had just died of breast cancer. So I figured I’d get a checkup.
The doctor agreed I had lumpy breasts, but she assured me that I had nothing to worry about. I was 34 years old, healthy, and nursing my third child — any lumpiness, she said, was probably due to milk collecting in one area of the breast and the issue would likely subside once I stopped nursing.
About six months later, I was watching Grey’s Anatomy, one of my favorite television shows. In the episode, a young mom arrives at Seattle Grace Hospital for a mastectomy after her breast cancer had been mistaken for milk collecting in her breast. I couldn’t fall asleep that night — it felt like a huge warning sign. I had stopped nursing a few months prior and my breast tissue had softened up, but there was definitely a lump on my left breast.
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The next day, I made an appointment for a second opinion with a new breast specialist. I had to wait three weeks to see the doctor and I didn’t want to worry my husband, so I told him I was going for a routine checkup. I didn’t mention Grey’s Anatomy or my fear that the lump could be serious.
At the appointment, the doctor gave me a manual breast exam but he was taking a long time. “What is it? It is leftover milk?” I asked.
“No, it’s not,” he replied, adding that I needed an “urgent mammogram and biopsy.” He scheduled both for a few days later.
That night I went home and told my husband everything. Waiting for the results was nerve-wracking. My husband kept saying the lump was "innocent until proven guilty,” but I had a bad feeling. Soon the biopsy confirmed that I, an otherwise healthy mother, had stage III breast cancer that had also spread to my lymph nodes.
Sarit pictured after her breast cancer diagnosis. (Photo: Sarit Fishbaine)
Once I had the diagnosis, we told everyone right away, including our kids, who were 20 months, 4 and 7 years old at the time. “Mommy’s sick. She has a disease and the doctors are going to take care of her,” we said.
The two little ones didn’t understand, however, my 7-year-old son asked, "What’s the name of the disease?”
“Cancer,” we answered.
“No, no, no, no, just not cancer!” He cried. To him, cancer meant death. We tried to comfort him, but we also made a point to never say, “Mommy is going to be OK,” because we didn’t know if that was true. We said I had very good drugs and very good doctors.
Although I tried to stay positive throughout the entire process — aggressive chemotherapy for six months to reduce the tumor, then a unilateral mastectomy followed by radiation — I still thought about death. My husband and I talked about it all the time — what would happen if he had to raise the kids without me?
Sarit’s children were included in the process of shaving her head. (Sarit Fishbaine)
Fortunately, I had a network of friends, plus my sisters, parents, and in-laws, who helped with babysitting, cooking and delivering dinner, and cleaning — plus my close girlfriends came with me to all my chemo treatments. We made my appointments about quality time — we drank coffee and chatted. We even made a fun music video in honor of Purim, the Jewish holiday in which we “pole danced” (I was hooked up to an IV) and lip-synched to the Gloria Gaynor song "I Will Survive.” I also shared my entire journey on Facebook because it was the easiest way to update my loved ones. I never considered my breast cancer a secret.
I’m fortunate to be married to the most wonderful man, who, since my diagnosis, has taken the lead in raising our three kids and managing a household. He does everything — cleaning, laundry, and combing and braiding our girls’ hair. My kids have been involved too — when chemo made my hair fall out, we all went to the hairdresser, and the two older ones helped cut it all off. We didn’t want my hair loss to be traumatic for them and they loved stroking my bald head.
I’m scared to imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t seen Grey’s Anatomy that night — it inspired me to seek a second opinion and may have saved my life.
As of now, I am cancer-free and I’m getting reconstructive surgery. One year after the diagnosis, I still haven’t come to terms with how I look. But I’m trying to rebuild my life because I’m in a very different place than I was before.
I never did tell that first doctor about my breast cancer. I don’t know if she missed something or if I didn’t have cancer back then and the tumor developed later. I never looked for anyone to blame — it’s really difficult to catch breast cancer in women in their 20s and 30s. We don’t have mammograms and we’re usually not checked very thoroughly. Any lumps, especially when you’re breastfeeding, are often dismissed as harmless.
I’ve learned to always trust my instincts, even if they’re set off by something as silly as a TV show. You just never know.