Stealing Second Base.

A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Experience

A pair of Discrene brand masectomy breast form...

A pair of Discrene brand masectomy breast forms with optional false nipples glued on (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At 5’2”, with 44D-sized breasts, Lillian Shockney, RN, was not prepared to read in her own pathology report, which she sneaked a look at while her doctor was out of town, “breast carcinoma.”

Those not in the medical field might not know what that meant.

Shockney, who goes by Lillie, is an oncology nurse, and she knew exactly what it meant.

She had wept with a patient years before who begged her not to tell her her breast was gone when she woke up in a post-operative room.

Shockney’s frozen silence confirmed the patient’s worst fears.

Shockney was 17.

In the 70s, she reminds us, biopsies were performed during surgery, so when you went in for surgery you did not know if you were going to lose a breast or not.

The biopsy to confirm cancer was performed during surgery and the breast and muscles removed if cancerous, in a procedure called a radical mastectomy.

The procedure was invented by a doctor at Johns Hopkins University, where Shockney worked.

In 1992, Shockney, then age 38, knew that the lumpectomy she had just undergone to remove a benign cyst, was not enough.

She had decided to get a mammogram when she noticed the lump.

Though the lump was benign, the mammogram showed another spot suspicious enough to prompt a surgical biopsy.

She had Stage I breast cancer with extensive ductal carcinoma in situ.

A mastectomy would be next.

“I had flipped to the other side of the side rail, going from a nurse to a cancer patient in a matter of seconds,” she says.

In fact, two years after that first mastectomy, in 1994, she had a second mastectomy.

In neither case was she a candidate for reconstruction because in several previous abdominal operations her heart had stopped under anesthesia.

What’s So Funny About Cancer?

As a nurse, Shockney had heard from many other patients questions their children had asked them.

So, she was prepared for some, but not all of the questions her 12-year-old daughter asked when she was first diagnosed.

“Did you get it because of me?”

No. Women who have their first child before the age of 30 are at lower risk.

Shockney had her daughter at 26.

“Will you get to keep it and bring it home?”

Her husband answered he didn’t think he had a pickle jar big enough to put it in to store it on the mantle.

“Will the doctor move the other one to the middle so you won’t lean to one side?”

No. She would wear a breast prosthesis in a pocket in her bra that would balance her.

“A pocket? Great! You’ll have a place to store money when you go to the ATM!”

Shockney says this conversation with her daughter was the first time she’d laughed in the five days since she’d learned of her diagnosis.

She and her husband resolved to find something funny about the diagnosis every day from then on.

Shockney also had a role model for finding humor in the situation.

When she was 12, her mother’s best friend was diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer, given 5 months and told to go home and settle her affairs.

“She told [her doctor] she didn’t have time to settle her affairs because she was going to be too busy living….she had made a list of the personal goals she intended to achieve… and she had just decided to add an additional goal to the list – to outlive her doctor.”

She lived another 21 years, outliving her doctor by three years.

She told Shockney,

“I think that humor builds the immune system, and it is the immune system that has gone on the blink to allow cancer cells to grow.

“So I’m going to find something to laugh about every day as part of my treatment.”

Though Shockney’s mother’s friend followed doctor’s orders for surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she could not make herself do the boring arm exercises recommended.

Instead, she hired a young golf instructor for weekly lessons, without telling him about the surgery that kept her from a full range of motion.

He continued to yell at her for eight weeks for not raising her arms high enough at the top of her swing, until finally, she could do it.

Over the next three years, the friend won a number of golfing awards.

The time came for Shockney to tell friends about her diagnosis.

“An interesting phenomenon happens…when you do tell others. They can’t help it and mean no harm by it, but they stare right at your chest…There were times I was tempted to stick a post-it on my left breast area that said, ‘Stop guessing. It’s me.’”

Shockney’s reconstructive surgery was approved ten years after her first mastectomy.

By then, she’d had discussions with an anesthesiologist who decided to change her anesthesiology regimen to prevent the respiratory failure she’d experienced before.

Scheduled for December 5, 2002 in Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where Shockney worked, she decided to provide some comic relief for the surgical team.

She taped signs to her body that they would see when they lifted her hospital gown after anesthesia put her to sleep.

“Over my right mastectomy incision it said, ‘Please supersize me.’

Over my left mastectomy incision it said, ‘I’m here for a front end realignment.’

And over my navel it said, ‘Dear Santa, thanks for bringing me cleavage.’”

A Breast Cancer Expert’s Story

In 1997, three years after her second mastectomy, Shockney became the Administrative Director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center.

She soon became a member of the surgical faculty as well.

She had known after her first mastectomy that her professional focus had changed and her purpose in life was clear — educating and informing women with a breast cancer diagnosis what their options were.

Of the many patients she has helped, this story stands out.

A woman called her at work and asked her who she had reached and where she was.

Shockney had already answered the phone with her name, but she repeated it and told the woman she had reached the Breast Center at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

The woman explained briefly that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, that she was given three or four weeks and she had a one-week baby at home.

Could she help?

Shockney arranged an appointment at Johns Hopkins for the next day and chemotherapy was initiated within 48 hours.

When the woman first came in, she brought her husband.

He asked Shockney three times if her name, as shown on her badge, really was Lillian.

Shockney confirmed each time that it was.

Two years later, after the family had celebrated their daughter’s second birthday, the husband explained his strange behavior.

Two weeks before their daughter was born, before they knew about the cancer diagnosis, his grandmother had died.

She had said she would come back as a guardian angel.

They would not know her by sight, but by name.

Her name was Lillian.

His wife had been calling her mother the day Shockney answered the phone two years before, just after she had heard the cancer diagnosis and grim outlook from her doctor.

Her mother had a different area code and phone number from the Breast Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

The young woman celebrated her daughter’s third birthday before cancer finally took her.

She had achieved her goal of living long enough that her daughter would remember her.

As it happens, Lillian Shockney was named for her grandmother.

Where Is Shockney Now?

Lillian Shockney is the Administrative Director both of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and JHU Cancer Survivorship Programs.

She is an Associate Professor at both the JHU School of Medicine, Departments of Surgery, Gynecology, Oncology, and the JHU School of Nursing.

She and her mother co-founded the non-profit foundation, Mothers Supporting Daughters with Breast Cancer.

Her awards include the Amazing Nurses Award, from Johnson & Johnson, the Komen Foundation’s Professor of Survivorship Award and the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

She is a blogger on Yahoo! Health.

New Vocabulary


Usually, we think of a prosthesis as an artificial leg or hand, something to replace the look and functionality of the original, to the extent possible.

Breast prostheses are for the same reason and are typically used if reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy is not an option.

The most common kind today is made of silicone gel.

They can be slipped into a pocket of a special bra, made for those who’ve had mastectomies, or attached to the skin temporarily with adhesive.

Shockney testified in front of Congress in 1998 to help get a bill passed to ensure that breast prostheses needed after cancer surgery were covered by insurance.

To get a copy of Shockney’s book from amazon, just click on the title, Stealing Second Base: A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Experience and Breast Cancer Expert’s Story.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”


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