As Chief Patient Engagement Advisor, I would like to share my breast cancer story with you.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3C breast ER+ PR+ HER2+ cancer in January of 2016. I was 38. Even before hearing the words, "you have cancer," I was highly alert to my surroundings and had already begun a much-needed early look into what all the pre-tests might mean. When my treatment plan was created, I didn't have a lot of time to look into all my options, as the cancer was advanced and aggressive. I took on eight rounds of chemotherapy, first on adriamycin & cytoxan (A/C) and then on Taxol, both of which took me on a twisted cancer adventure for a solid four months. I experienced a good bit of side effects; severe neutropenia and two consequent hospitalizations, nausea, constipation, chemo-induced menopause, hair loss, extreme fatigue, bone and joint pain, and barely enough strength to walk even a block during my A/C cycle. Two weeks into chemo I also received the results of my genetic testing. I had tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation.
The next step was surgery about a month later. The chemo had successfully reduced the sizes of my tumors - so much so, that a lumpectomy with lymph node dissection was an option and I went for it with a full heart. Throughout, I focused on taking the kindest approach to my body on this strange path to healing. A month later, recuperating from surgery and finally able to raise my left arm over my head, I was placed under 30 rounds of radiation. During this time, I also started on an aromatase inhibitor, Femara/letrozole, and also required a few shots of Lupron to my bum. Since my cancer was estrogen positive and I was BRCA1 positive, the next step was a salpingo-oopherectomy: also known as toodles to my ovaries and fallopian tubes. That procedure took place in December, revving up permanent early menopause for me.
It's been almost a year since my last procedure. I am currently – 'NED' – no evidence of disease! I still find myself bizarrely affected by the longer-term side effects: cognitive issues and struggles with memory (which have thankfully gotten better with time! Yay!); mood changes and depression; sexual challenges; stiff joints, and I still can't fully stretch my left arm without feeling the pull of my radiated chest and the cording from the lymph node removal. Yet I will let nothing stop me from richly living each day!
I share all this because I am NOT alone with having gone through such a series of oftentimes painful and daring treatments. One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer and the young survivors/thrivers/alivers, cancer students and grads know deeply what it is to find life turned inside out. Young women tend to deal with a cancer that is more aggressive and one that plunges them into an extreme upkeep with surveillance.
I share this because from day one I promised to be as gentle to myself as possible. To truly practice self-kindness and let curiosity about my cancer be a force for good; to learn, to grow, to just be. Be simply me. A simple me that knew cancer had no bloody chance of getting away with wreaking deeper havoc. I also relied heavily on my support system and was blessed with family and friends who enveloped me with whatever I needed.
Above all the hard and dry facts about a cancer diagnosis and story, there are silver linings twinkling too and I found many as well. While aspects of my experience mirror those of many others, I also believe that there is an odd blessing in disguise for those brought into this strangely painful, yet beautiful club. Cancer brings you face to face with your mortality; it makes you feel every single pulse of life that is happening all around. For all the downright hurtful things cancer does, it also burned bright a new mission for my life. That is to give my all to helping others like myself with breast cancer, to be fully present and show up for others in pain, where the tool is compassion and the work is respect and drive. Cancer will always be a part of me, but so will this vivid version of myself born from the ashes of a year of hardcore treatments and side effects. My heart and mind go out to all currently in the folds of cancer treatments or beyond. May you know that you too, are a force to be reckoned with and that you are not alone! Let love shine from within. I'll be thinking of you.