In June 2013, when I was 46 years old, I became the first in my family to be diagnosed with breast cancer. A regular exam led to a follow up, and then a biopsy, followed by a lumpectomy, 6 rounds of chemo, 7 ½ weeks of radiation, and a year of non-chemo infusions. The medications I’ve taken since will (finally!) come to an end in mid-2024.
All the money that’s been raised for breast cancer research has made my journey very manageable, because it informed every decision made along the way. For every level of treatment, doctors had statistics about the percentage of performance that could be expected. I think of those who have faced cancers in which every decision was scary and the paths were filled with unknowns. That treatments were known to perform with some certainty, alleviated my anxiety considerably.
The side effects of treatment can be many, and I was advised by a friend early on to speak up about them, as they were likely not uncommon and often manageable. Mine included joint pain, hot flashes, cardiac issues and skin eruptions. While my sense of taste was altered, another friend turned me on to the joy of a chocolate shake when nothing else was quite right! And it turns out that psoriasis, which I’ve battled for more than 25 years, is – like cancer – a rapidly reproducing cell, and responded to the chemo, so my arms and legs cleared up completely during treatment. Definitely a silver lining.
Before my first chemo treatment, I made a visit up north so my parents and family could see me looking healthy and familiar. Then, I cut and donated my hair, and the next week I cut it shorter. And one week while I was out of town at a work conference, I woke up to find it coming out in clumps. My best friend hosted a shaving party, and in an incredible show of solidarity, she and another bestie shaved theirs at the same time. I wore a wig once for Halloween, but I found the bare head somehow freeing, though I did develop a collection of hats for warmth. In fact, one of my nieces was inspired to learn to crochet and has since donated hundreds of hats to oncology patients in Michigan.
I continued to work full time, and my colleagues were very supportive. Another niece, who was also a co-worker, organized a huge team from our company to participate in the Making Strides for Breast Cancer walk in downtown Detroit. I was overwhelmed at the number of friends, all my siblings and family from Michigan and beyond who came out to support the cause, which had become my cause.
My son was only 10 years old at the time of my diagnosis. He was an absolute champ. I showed up on the couch one day wearing a wig, which he immediately dismissed as unnecessary. 21 days of steroids every month can cause some strong mood swings, and he supported me throughout. Driving in the car one day, when it was all over, I acknowledged and thanked him for all he had helped me through…the sweet 11 year old took my hand, gave it a kiss, and that was it.
My mother created a journal of every step of my journey, printing out my emails and photos, and adding her thoughts. Since she’s recently passed, that has become even more of a treasure to me.
Acquaintances became friends, and good friends became dear friends as they shared their experiences and comfort with me. Sending cards of encouragement, homemade baked goods, sharing books and other kindnesses, I felt completely enveloped in understanding and support.
For those diagnosed, I would say – WHEN YOU’RE GOING THROUGH HELL, JUST KEEP GOING. YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK. KEEP THE FAITH.
Allow loved ones to support you. Cry when the mood strikes, but don’t be afraid to laugh, too. Remember that a positive disposition improves even the most desperate situation. We don’t have to be promised forever to find joy in the present moment.
I want people to know it’s ok to ask questions about my breast cancer journey.
I was diagnosed Stage 2A, Grade 2, ER+, PR+/HER2-, Invasive Lobular Cancer 0/2 LN with Metastatic Carcinoma at age 54, with no family history of breast cancer. Thankfully, the tumor was found during my annual mammogram appointment.
I received a second opinion then immediately began my treatment regimen. In all, I had a total of 62 appointments, spanning 20 months. It’s hard to believe as I reflect, I used to only have one annual appointment…..
I traveled downstate for treatments, usually with a close friend or my husband, but sometimes alone. I found it helpful to have someone with me to document all the dialog during various health provider visits. Often times your emotions take over or you’re suffering from “chemo brain” and won’t remember some of the discussions. Aside from being level-minded and excellent note takers, my friend and husband were part of my incredible support system.
I would advise anyone who gets diagnosed to ask questions. Ask exactly what your diagnosis is and understand it. Talk about each treatment option. Get a second opinion. Be prepared for the waiting between each appointment, as I found this to be one of the hardest things for me.
Please don’t skip your annual mammograms. I only missed one preventative appointment and that was due to Covid. My tumor was caught early. Since my diagnosis and during my treatments, I’ve made changes to my diet, eating very little sugar and adding green tea.
Specific high points during my journey have included: finding I have an amazing support team within my family and friends….and getting the last scan after radiation that read, “cancer free!”
My radiation oncologist gave me a book to read, “Finding Chika ,” by Mitch Albom. If this little girl could go through her treatments with a positive attitude, then so could I.
I love being a mom, a wife, a daughter, and grandma to many little ones with a new one on the way, due at Christmas time!
I AM definitely a survivor!
Where do you begin when asked how are you doing?
For me it is a story that began in 2022. After a routine mammogram for my physical, my PCP called and needed to talk to me in person. Now being a retired RN, you get to know the “red flags” when communicating information. As my hospital system has all tests available online to any patient, after viewing the result, and going in to talk to the PCP, we agreed a referral to the breast surgeon was needed asap which was done. As my spouse is a retired dentist, he suggested we set up a second opinion at a large University hospital and my sister, an Executive Director of a Clinical Oncology program out west agreed. The surgeon recommended a lumpectomy with a sentinel lymph node biopsy. This was scheduled in mid-November.
Over the next two months I lost track of holidays, birthdays and life outside the cancer box. Each development, the unclear borders of the lumpectomy, the need for the second opinion leading to more DCIS compromised area and the ultimate meeting with the surgeon to remove the left breast washed over into 2023. Fortunately, all lymph nodes were negative.
After the breast removal and a left mastectomy the oncology and plastic surgery consults started. the implant of the saline sac left me sleeping on my back, drainage tubes to carry around in the pockets of my undershirt/camisole, bras for my remaining breast and getting creative about how to “make my fronts look even. (Boy do I have some unique low cost ways to do this….)
Even the oncology consult resulted in recommendations for 5-10 years of oral medications, both of which have recreated hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, and joint pain.
While all this has been challenging and at times profoundly discouraging I have found some truths in this journey.
1. Friends, family and partners are essential to ones ability to over come these challenges.
2. I realize that this journey is what the Serenity Prayer refers to in the lines, “accept the things I cannot change and the Courage to change the things I can.”
3. I have learned to value the “little moments” in life, i.e.` fall colors, music to heal/soothe, little kindnesses to my self and others, and most of all, choosing to lead a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.
4. A positive outlook brings the positive to you.
5. Most important, I realized that vigilance in getting regular mammograms spotted in its early stages. I will, and recommend we ALL, get regular testing, follow up on health challenges and remain vigilant after treatment. We cannot let our guard down! No, I don’t have it all figured out but I make the best decisions I can with the feedback from my support group. In this ongoing challenge, I will savor the moments each day and, like in the song by a vocalist called SIA, “I AM INVINCIBLE!”