Natasha Curry is not your everyday average nurse. As a palliative care nurse practitioner at San Francisco General Hospital, she cares for the poorest and most vulnerable. When she discovered an almond-sized lump in her armpit, she did everything she tells her patients not to do and dismissed it. One painful biopsy later, Natasha found out she had cancer; in one life-changing moment, the nurse became the patient. This is Natasha’s breast cancer story, told in real time.
Natasha Curry is not your everyday average nurse.
As a palliative care nurse practitioner at San Francisco General Hospital, she cares for the poorest and most vulnerable at what is often the most challenging time of their lives. Many patients are homeless and also struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, in addition to cancer and other life-limiting diseases. It’s tough and heart-breaking work.
Last year, while leading a Doctors Without Borders cervical cancer mission in Malawi, Natasha’s husband of 25 years announced in a text message that he was leaving.
She returned home, fell into bed for a few weeks, and eventually with the help of her friends she pulled herself together and went back to work.
A few months later when she discovered an almond-sized lump in her armpit, she did everything she tells her patients not to do and dismissed it, or wrote it off as a “fat lump."
Months went by before she finally got a mammogram, but radiology saw nothing in either breast. It was the armpit lump that caught their attention. Next step was an ultrasound, where the lump was clearly visible. One painful biopsy later, Natasha found out she had cancer; in one life-changing moment, the nurse became the patient.
This is Natasha’s breast cancer story, told in real time.
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About Breast Cancer Stories
From breast cancer diagnosis, through chemotherapy, breast reconstruction, and radiation, we experience each new milestone as it happens. This podcast is about what happens when you have breast cancer, told in real time.
Host and Executive Producer: Eva Sheie
Co-Host: Kristen Vengler, Natasha Curry
Editor and Audio Engineer: Daniel Croeser
Theme Music: Them Highs and Lows, Bird of Figment
Production Assistant: Mary Ellen Clarkson
Cover Art Designer: Shawn Hiatt
Breast Cancer Stories is a production of The Axis.
PROUDLY MADE IN AUSTIN, TEXAS
Natasha (00:00): So I officially found out about a month ago, actually... Yeah, a month and a day. Just looking at the date, the 17th of January. It's very interesting when you listen to women's breast cancer stories. So many of them start with this scenario in the shower and it's so true.
Eva (00:23): Why are we all playing with our boobs in the shower?
Natasha (00:28): Somebody has to. And also we're washing our armpits, I think. I'm not sure.
Eva (00:36): Throughout Kristen's journey we met a lot of people and we reached out to the audience, asking for others who wanted to tell their story and privately between Kristen and myself, we agreed that whoever this person was, the main criteria would need to be their only goal was to help others. And that is how we found Natasha. This is another story about what happens when you have breast cancer, told in real time
Natasha (01:05): For about the past 10 years, I've worked in San Francisco Bay area as a nurse practitioner, specializing in something that's called palliative care, which often gets confused with hospice. It's actually a very different modality of care, which really focuses on patient's quality of life. And the vast majority of my patients are cancer patients. And I'm very proud to work at San Francisco General Hospital. I think it's one of the gifts that San Francisco has. And that's kind of me in a nutshell.
Natasha (01:37): Oh, I've also worked with Doctors Without Borders for a couple of times too. I've worked in Amman in Jordan as a pain specialist. That's one of the things that palliative care really focuses on. And most recently I was actually the medical lead for a cervical cancer project in Malawi, came back in July of last year to... I have a bunch of surprises that we can talk about later.
Natasha (02:03): They say healthcare providers are the worst patients. And I did everything I would never tell one of my patients to do. In the shower, maybe three or four months prior to my diagnosis, under my right armpit, there's a lump and it's not small. It's about the size of an almond, like a big almond. And I found that and I was like, "Oh, that's not good." But I had so much going on at the time that I was able to explain it away. I told myself, "Well, I probably cut myself shaving." Because I've had a little ingrown hair that turns into like a bumpy thing that many of us may have had. And then it's one of those things of having too much information to be able to explain things away. So I said, "Oh, it could be a lipoma." That is a sort of a benign fatty deposit in my armpit. So I just wrote it off and completely ignored it.
Natasha (02:57): And then was aware for a couple of months that it hadn't gone away. So finally made an appointment with my primary care provider who didn't even palpate it like medical term for like, feel me up, under there. And he's like, "Ah, we see this all the time, but it's time for your mammogram. So let's just send you anyway." It took about six weeks for me to get a mammogram. And then they managed to schedule it at a time when I was away in England for Christmas Holidays to visit my family. So I had to reschedule and then the day it got rescheduled for, I had a really, really busy workday and they called me from the clinic and said, "Actually, you're going to have to cancel that medical appointment." And I was like, "Oh." So I called to cancel. And they said, "Oh, the next appointment is like three or four months away."
Natasha (03:46): So then the sensible person in me kicked in and I said, "I really, I need to come in today." Went in and it was a very interesting, like I can sort of step back and look at this objectively and clinically, which sometimes helps the fact that it's actually happening to me. So they did a mammogram, both breasts and saw nothing. What they did see was this lump under my arm. And one thing I hadn't thought of, which was probably me in total denial, that it was an enlarged lymph node. And so then we went to ultrasound and they were able to find the breast mass on the ultrasound. But to this day I remain horrified that it didn't show up in a mammogram.
Natasha (04:29): And then they sent me for, it's called a fine needle aspiration. So they stick a very sharp needle in, they pull some cells out. And that was kind of interesting to watch it on the screen as they're doing that. They did about four or five takes sort of smooshing the cells out. And then they put a bandaid on your armpit and send you home. And about three or four days later, I was on the phone with one of my patients. And I saw a call come in from my primary care provider, who left a message saying, "Hi, Natasha, give me a call back. We can review your results. We just got a call from the UCSF pathology department." And even before I called her back, I knew pathologists don't call primary care providers with a benign report.
Natasha (05:21): So I took my phone out. I'm lucky enough to have a nice garden in San Francisco. I took it out. I took some deep breaths and it was very kind that she was a nurse practitioner with a medical practice that I see. And she said, "Yes, we've got the results."
Eva (05:40): You'll hear Natasha join us for some special episodes coming up this summer. And we'll be back to hear her whole story from the beginning, on August 11 on Season 2 of Breast Cancer Stories. Listen to Breast Cancer Stories on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Breast Cancer Stories is a production of The Axis. the axis.io.