Dealing with Cancer is not an easy thing. The diagnosis itself is life changing, and your number one focus becomes getting through treatment and returning to a normal life. For me, I just wanted everything to be done and over with. The last thing on my mind was how bad my diagnosis really was. Sure I am alive and considered a “survivor” but my life has forever been changed by this horrible disease. While each day is a blessing, it is also a struggle as I work towards my new normal, whatever that may be.
As you battle Cancer, your primary focus becomes beating this horrible disease. You are aware of the potential side effects, but you do your best to block them out, so you can survive treatment and ring that bell as a survivor. What you do not realize is the effect that a year’s worth of treatment can have on your body.
As I woke up this morning, I am sore in places that I never expected could be so sore. Sure, your first thought may be that I overdid it at the gym, but my aches and pains are caused by something so many take for granted, running errands. Prior to my advanced Stage 3A Breast Cancer Diagnosis, carrying a basket full of groceries was something that I did without giving it a second thought. But a year worth of treatments took more of a toll on my body than I could have ever imagined.
While I was in the midst of my six rounds of chemotherapy that consisted of four different medications, Herceptin, Prejeta, Docetaxel, and Carboplatin. I received these treatments every three weeks and finished out the year with Herceptin every three weeks. Chemotherapy takes a serious toll on your body. Your sense of taste gets thrown out of whack, you deal with horrible dry mouth, nausea, and fatigue that makes you barely want to get out of bed.
For me, my treatments didn’t hit me hard until a few days after they were administered. This resulted in me spending hours either resting in bed or on the couch watching TV. I had very little energy to do much of anything, and even the almost mile-long walk to my desk was a struggle. I could barely think straight most days, and I seemed to lose all strength to do the simplest of things, like opening a new jar of pickles. I also developed the “dropsies”, a case where things would fall out of my hands unexpectedly like my brain no longer had control over my reflexes to catch something that was tossed to me or to maintain a grip on something I was already holding.
Climbing stairs became a struggle as just one flight of stairs would leave my legs feeling I had run a marathon. I knew I needed to rest as much as possible to allow my body to heal, but this is extended amount of rest had the same effects on my body as that of someone who has been placed on bedrest. Without physical activity, your muscles will atrophy, or begin to waste away. This is the number one reason why tasks that were easy prior to your Cancer treatment now seem like they are almost impossible to achieve. It also explains why a simple task like grocery shopping left my shoulders feeling like I spent the afternoon lifting weights, which I guess in some ways I did.
The path to regaining your health and muscle strength is not something that will happen overnight, but there are a few things you can do to get your body back in the same if not better shape than it was prior to your Cancer diagnosis.
One of the biggest changes I made was replacing my morning scrambled eggs and an apple with a protein shake. High-quality protein, like that found in my Isagenix IsaLean Protein Shake, helps support the body in retaining and building lean muscle mass. Items like beef, pork, and poultry are also good sources, but nothing can beat the 24G of protein a shake can provide. Soy is also another option, but if you happen to have been diagnosed with cancer that is Estrogen positive, it has been recommended to avoid Soy as much as possible as some say it can mimic estrogen in the body. There is still mixed information on this, so I do my best to avoid it as much as possible.
In addition to eating healthy, it is of the utmost importance to get your body moving. For me, this was the hardest thing to do because I was constantly paranoid that my body would not be able to handle any strenuous forms of exercise. My oncologist constantly recommends 30 minutes of strenuous exercise every day to help improve memory function, but my mind kept convincing me that she was wrong. While I would love to purchase a Pelaton Cycle and a NordicTrack treadmill, I started small by working out on my Total Gym again.
But then we got a snow storm last week, while my husband was at work, so I forced myself to go out and shovel, against the better judgment of the voices in my head that kept telling me I couldn’t do it. Surprisingly enough I was able to clear our whole driveway and front walk of a few inches of heavy, slushy snow, and it didn’t kill me. Of course, I am about four months out from my last Herceptin treatment, and a few months post-op of my reconstruction surgery, so my body has had a bit more time to recoup than someone who may have just finished treatments yesterday.
It is still very important to listen to your body, and rest when you know you need to, but you also need to challenge yourself from time to time. Take that walk out to the mailbox, or climb that flight of stairs. Sure it may seem difficult at first, but with time these difficult tasks will start to become easier, proof that your body is slowly regaining the strength it had prior to your diagnosis.
Just remember that healing will take time. Your body did not get this way overnight, so your path to health will be a long journey as well. Just be patient, and with time, life will return to normal, making your Cancer treatment a distant memory.
With every Breast Cancer diagnosis, these simple words are what every single Breast Cancer fighter hopes to hear at their end of their fight.
Between chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and hormonal treatments, the targeted approach to kill the existing cancer while preventing a reoccurrence takes a serious toll on the body, both physically and mentally. For me, the term Cancer had become a household name, after my father’s diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer in 2015.
We did everything we could to help my parents during this very trying time, and no one can ever prepare you to lose a parent at the age of 36 years old. To watch first hand as your dad wastes away, not from the cancer but instead from the side effects of the Parkinson’s Disease he had been diagnosed with years earlier.
When my father finally passed in October of 2015, we thought we were done with the “C” word and tried to resume a normal life after being surrounded by death and illness. I tried my best to re-focus on my responsibilities at work, but it was a daily struggle, as a plethora of symptoms had become my constant companion.
I blamed it on all the stress we had been under while dealing with my dad’s illness, including the lump that had appeared in my breast during my dads last few months on this earth. A year later, and I finally decided to seek the assistance of a Naturopath to hopefully figure out what was wrong with me once and for all, and finally put me on my path to health.
Needless to say, I soon found myself faced with that hated word yet again, Cancer, except this time instead of dealing with someone else, I found myself faced with a very serious battle for my life. I was diagnosed in September of 2016, at the age of 37 with Stage 3A Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I was too young to let Cancer take me, and after everything our family had been through a year prior, I had to fight the tough fight that my dad was unable to.
Today I had my 3-month followup with my Oncologist since finishing my last round of Chemo. My reconstruction surgery was approximately a month ago, and I was finally able to kiss the port good-by. I thought I was finally on the path to regaining a normal life, whatever that may be, but instead, I found myself leaving the doctors office with both good and bad news.
The good was a pink folder documenting everything I had been through in the past year. My diagnosis, treatments and important informational resources which is the Oncology way of classifying you as a Breast Cancer Survivor. Of course, the bad news came when the discussion came to medications needed to keep the Cancer from reoccurring.
You see, my cancer was Estrogen positive, so in order to have the best shot at killing the cancer, you need to starve it, which meant throwing me into early Menopause with a monthly shot. Every four weeks I need to make a trip to my Oncologist to get a shot in the gut, literally, with an extended-release capsule that disables my estrogen production. I am also on Tamoxifen to target the estrogen created by other parts of the body, like belly fat.
So being someone that hates taking any type of medication, I was not thrilled with my current situation, but thought I would only need to be on the Tamoxifen for 5 years, and I could discontinue the Zoldadex after having a Hysterectomy. Well in a very short amount of time my hopes of being medication free were shattered. The 5 years I had sworn my doctor told me at my last meeting with her suddenly turned into 10 years.
Sure I understand they want to make sure there are no reoccurrences of Cancer, but in my head, I can’t help but wonder about the negative side effects of being on any medication for that long. She then advised me that it may be best to switch me from the Tamoxifen to a new medication called Aromasin. Evidently this pill works better at blocking Estrogen, but of course comes with its own side effects, like bone loss, which of course there is another shot to help counteract that, which I would need for two years. Then to make matters even worse, she told me that the hormonal therapies could also make my brain fog, and difficulty with concentrating worse.
I honestly felt like I had been punched in the gut. One minute I feel like I am finally working towards normalcy, only to find out that it has been all the medications I am on that has put me on what feels like an endless roller coaster each and every month. I go from barely being able to think straight or focus for about two weeks after my shot, which I got today, to approximately two weeks of somewhat normal functionality, only to start the cycle all over again.
I left my appointment with a mix of emotions. Sure I’m supposed to be happy that I am a survivor of a disease that has taken women younger than myself. Yes, at my office alone, they just lost a patient this week to this horrible disease, but I can’t help but be a bit self-centered as I still wonder what my new normal will be. Will I ever be able to work again? And if so doing what? I may be a survivor, but I will always have Cancer in my body, it just may be dormant, and I prefer to keep it that way cause I don’t want to fall down this rabbit hole yet again.
With Cancer, there are always good days and there are bad days. I need to remember to not let the bad days consume me, and instead focus on improving my health, and my morning Isagenix shakes are a step in that direction. I have felt noticeably better in the few months I have been using the products, and I have to remember that wellness is not a sprint, its a marathon, and each day is a little bit better than the last. I need to focus on healing my body and my mind, instead of focusing on things that I cannot control. In a year from now, I hope to be a healthier, happier and slimmer version of myself, who has kicked Cancer’s butt, and with the help of Isagenix, I know I can get there!
One of the hardest parts of the Breast Cancer journey is figuring out what exactly your new normal is. When you are first diagnosed with this disease, a plethora of thoughts and feelings go through your mind. Fear, anger, frustration, sadness, just to name a few, and that is completely fine, as well all deal with life-threatening illnesses in a variety of ways.
For me, when I was diagnosed in September of 2016, I was adamant until the day my biopsy results came back that this was anything but cancer. I had the lump for over a year and figured if it was something that bad, well then it would have taken me by now. Although it is still unknown as to how exactly my Breast Cancer came to be, was it a benign lump that had started to change, was it always cancer, and countless other questions, there was no denying the fact that I was now part of a club that I never wanted to be in. You know the pink ribbon club, the one that has a whole month dedicated to it.
It has been just over a year since I started my breast cancer journey, and there have been good days, and there have been bad. The good days where I can push through and deal with the pain, sickness and all the other side effects that came along with various treatments, and there are the days that few see, the days where the tears never seem to end, the days when you hate looking at yourself in the mirror, angry and saddened at what cancer has done to your body, as well as bit of fear at the unknown because you know you will never return to what normal used to be, but not knowing what you new normal will be.
As of September of 2017, I officially finished the last of my cancer treatments and was declared in remission. I will never truly be cancer free because I will always have the cancer cells in my body, they just happen to be dormant, or NED, which is no evidence of disease as my surgeon puts it.
I had my bi-lateral mastectomy surgery back in February 2017, and at that point, the expanders were put in to make a pocket for the implants to be put in. Six weeks after my surgery, when I was due to return to work, I found myself scheduled for five weeks of radiation. This was in addition to the Chemo maintenance I was still completing. I was hesitant about radiation, but it was a necessary step in my treatment, because there is no guarantee that all the active Cancer cells are “scooped out”, so to speak, during surgery.
At the end of radiation, I had a lovely burn, my underarm area was the worst, but I took the treatments like a champ, and was happy to have another stage in the process done.
Throughout my entire cancer battle, I still worked full time, not because I wanted to but because I had to in order to maintain the health insurance that was covering my countless doctor’s visits, as well as the much-needed income to cover our bills. Just as I was finally reaching the point of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, finally being done with all my treatments, with only my reconstruction surgery ahead of me, the rug was unexpectedly pulled out from under me in the form of losing my job.
During my entire battle, I expressed to management countless times that I needed assistance to ensure errors were not made in my job. Assistance was hit or miss because in the months leading up to my termination, management was rarely available, and began to be distracted by personal issues, which left me with little to no confidence that they would actually catch an error if there was one, as on more than one occasion I caught my own error, and when it was brought to their attention, I was told that was not something they checked anyways.
I walked into work one day and was told I was suspended, pending an investigation. In all my years, never had I been terminated from a job, and now I was being made to feel like I was the bad guy, because I had cancer. I always left on good terms, but now since I found myself battling a serious illness, with no accommodations made to assist me completing required tasks without errors, while dealing with both physical and mental side effects, like chemo brain, from all the chemicals put into my system to kill the cancer. While errors were made, they should have been caught by a review of my work, but instead, my errors made management “look bad”, so I was terminated.
While I will say that the loss of my job was a blessing in disguise as it has granted me the time needed to heal, both physically and mentally, there is still a part of me that will always hold resentment towards management and how things were handled. I should have never been made to feel like I was a criminal, instead I should have been given the support and assistance needed to be successful in my job, but in the end, I have come to peace with it, and know that Karma will have the final say.
After my job loss, I finished chemo, as well as the countless “fills” needed for the expanders to reach the maximum size that the skin would accept. Due to the amount of skin removed on the cancer side during my mastectomy, and the damage done during radiation, the cancer side was the limiting factor of how large of an implant I would be able to get.
I was told that I would more than likely end up with a B cup, my first struggle with the reality of what my new normal would be, as even with implants, I would never be the size I was prior to Cancer taking my breasts from me. I spent months living with the expanders, as we needed to give the skin sufficient time to heal before reconstruction could be done. So we “penciled in” my final surgery for November 6th.
Well, what seemed like months, suddenly flew by in an instant, and suddenly I found myself faced with the fears of surgery. Sure I wanted to get rid of the horrible expanders, which felt like rocks on my chest. They didn’t move and hurt like hell whenever you bumped into anything, so I was thrilled at the fact of getting rid of them once and for all, but at the same time the thought of another surgery, or the unknowns associated with it, scared me.
My surgery was a week ago from the writing of this post, and while surgery went well, additional damage was found, something which I would never have expected.
As I lay in the recovery room, my surgeons assistant came by to check on me. I was told later that I was apparently quite chatty, although I do not remember most of it, except for the size of the implants I ended up with. It was at my followup appointment, where the bandages were removed, that I was told about what was found.
Many know of the burns done to the skin from radiation, but never in my life would I have expected the damage it did to my bones. Apparently, as the expanders were filled, instead of it pushing outward against the skin, it instead pushed inward against my ribs, resulting in an area of my ribs that are now concave. The radiation softened the bones, so the pressure caused by the expanders took the path of least resistance, which in some ways now makes sense because some days the pain was so unbearable that muscle relaxers and ibuprofen didn’t touch it.
Needless to say, I was shocked at what radiation had done to my body, and this damage resulted in implants in two different sizes as a larger one was needed on the cancer side to fill the indentation caused by the expander. Other than that my incision sites looked good, and I was cleared to shower, the best news ever, and to come back in two weeks for another checkup.
I had taken every single step in this journey like a champ, and it was on Thursday night when all the sadness and frustration finally hit me. As I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I suddenly felt like I was mismatched, and that I would never look normal ever again. Keep in mind I was, and still am, bruised and swollen, but at that moment, none of that mattered. I felt like these lumps on my chest were not breasts, in my mind at that moment they didn’t look normal, and suddenly I was faced with a sadness that I would never look normal combined with a deep-seated anger at what cancer had done to my body, and what it had taken from me.
It was at that point that the tears started, tears of anger, tears of sadness and frustration. Sure I had survived, but at what cost? As women, our breasts are a part of our identity, and when those are taken from you, it is something that is very difficult to come to terms with. I know that this is probably my first of many breakdowns, and I have to remember that it is ok. It’s ok to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel frustrated, but do not let myself live there permanently.
With time things will get better, things will return to normal, but I just need to remember to take it one day at a time as I work on figuring out what exactly that new normal is.
With cancer treatment comes a variety of side effects. There is fatigue, nausea, and dry mouth just to name a few, but one of the side effects I never expected to encounter was the “Chemo Rash”. Not long after my first round of treatment with four different chemo medications, Herceptin, Prejeta, Docetaxel & Carboplatin in September of 2016, did the mother of all side effect start to appear. The first two medications were targeted meds, for the HER2+, or aggressiveness of the cancer, while the last two were just equal opportunity killers, as I took to calling them. Those were the ones that took their toll on me both physically and mentally, but at least those were side effects that I could hide with a fake smile and rest.
The Chemo Rash was a whole other thing. A few weeks after my first round of treatment, I had what looked like painful pimples start to appear all over my face. My first thought was, oh on top of everything else I have a bad case of acne, so I switched to using an acne cleanser every morning, thinking that would send these horrible bumps packing. Well, instead of making the situation better, it instead made it worse. Areas, where there were no bumps, got really dry, and the bumps seemed to get better instead of worse.
I was due to return to my oncologist for hydration, as that was standard practice while going through chemo. My doctor took one look at me and diagnosed what I thought was acne as a chemo rash, that was most likely as a result of the Prejeta drug. Although I knew I shouldn’t touch the bumps, they hurt so much that I took to trying to “pop” them to at least relieve the pain that they caused. This of course was a concern to my doctor, as I was opening my skin up to infection, so she prescribed a topical ointment to apply to the affected areas called Clindamycin.
I still had to work throughout my treatment in order to maintain my health insurance, as well as keep some form of a paycheck coming in to help pay the bills. This rash made the daily task of going to work very difficult. While I knew it was a rash caused by my treatments, to the unknowing eye it just looked like a bad case of acne, and I hated the ideas of the strange looks I would get from people I passed in the hall. I could have covered it with makeup, but I felt that would end up doing more harm than good, because the makeup would just end up clogging up areas that were already inflamed, and the last thing I wanted to do was do anything that would cause me to suffer from this rash for any longer than I needed to.
Prior to my Breast Cancer diagnosis, I had started pursuing the homeopathic/natural route to curing a variety of ailments. Nux Vomica for nausea, Arnica for pain and general healing, as well as a plethora of other remedies that had been used for centuries prior to the arrival of modern medicine, and the chemical concoctions that are the common form of treatment. I knew I could not be the only one who had ever dealt with this type of rash, so I embarked on a quest to find a natural cleanser that would put an end to this painful rash once and for all.
After countless Google searches, I happened across a company called Beterre. Right away, I was very interested in the products they had to offer because their goal was to use all natural ingredients, and one of the companies founders was a two-time Breast Cancer survivor herself who had developed these products to treat the side effects of cancer treatment. I took a look at the ingredients, and the biggest positive I found was that they contained Arnica, which is a powerful natural remedy for healing. Although the products offered from Beterre were not exactly cheap, nothing natural ever is, I could not tolerate the rash any longer, so I knew I had nothing to lose by giving them a try.
Classified as products designed for Dry Skin, I ordered the Deep Moisture Repair for Face, All in One Facial Cleanser, and the Deeply Nourishing Body Moisture Cream. Although I am a bit skeptical about the effectiveness of any product prior to use, I held out hope that these items would be the answer to all my issues.
My order arrived promptly, and right away I took to using the facial cleanser with my Clarisonic every morning with a sensitive brush head since my skin was so very irritated. After cleansing, I would then apply the Deep Moisture Repair for face and held out hope that the natural ingredients would help heal my skin. Within a few weeks, the rash began to subside, which made me quite happy.
I used these products religiously throughout my remaining five rounds of chemo, and the rash never returned. Of course, my doctor inquired as to what I was using, and when I told her, I was, of course, met with skepticism since it was a natural product that was delivering the results, and modern medicine tends to look negatively down on anything natural, as that is not where their training resides.
If you have happened across this post because you are suffering from the same rash as I did, I highly encourage you to give these products a try. They were truly a lifesaver to me, that I still use to this very day, and I believe that once you try them, you will surely feel the same.
Dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis is hard. But even harder is dealing with all the side effects that come with Cancer treatment. While the side effects are not fun, the hardest one to face is chemo hair loss.
My Stage III, triple positive, HER2+ Breast Cancer diagnosis came in September of 2016. The days that followed my Breast Cancer diagnosis pretty much went by in a blur. Countless tests to determine how far cancer had spread. And more tests to get a baseline to see how the tumor would respond to the treatments that were to come.
While cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, luckily it had not gone any further. You can read more about my diagnosis in my earlier post, You Have Breast Cancer.
I started my six rounds of TCHP chemo on October 11, 2016. The day after my Power Port was installed. Cancer treatment hair loss is quite common. You know it will happen, and you do your best to prepare yourself for it. But when it finally happens, you suddenly realize that all the knowledge in the world will never truly prepare you for the feelings associated with chemo hair loss.
After speaking with previous Breast Cancer survivors, as well as doing my own research, I thought my hair loss would start to occur after my second treatment. And my second round of chemo treatment was scheduled for November 1, 2016. Needless to say, the chemo hair loss fairies had other ideas.
With just one round of chemotherapy behind me, the treatment side effects began to kick in. There was the fatigue that was unlike I had ever experienced. A dry mouth, and a sense of taste that was so far off, it made it very difficult to find something that was appetizing to eat.
Many said that I could expect my hair to start thinning after the first round of chemo, but what I experienced was beyond just normal hair thinning. The chemo hair loss became noticeable during my morning routine of straightening my hair before work. Combing it resulted in more strands on the counter and the floor, but, by far the worst was when it came to washing my hair. The change felt like it happened overnight. My chemo hair loss went from a few strands falling out to large clumps getting stuck in my hands. Words cannot even express the pain and emotions that I went through in dealing with chemo hair loss.
I held out for as long as I could, but the chemo hair loss forced my hand on October 26, 2016. I didn’t want to lose my hair, to lose a part of my identity, and bald. Forced to have to wear an itchy wig for who knows how long. But I also didn’t want to go into work feeling like there were huge clumps missing in my scalp.
Apparently, my feelings regarding my chemo hair loss were more psychological than actual. Although my husband did say that it was noticeably thinning. Even just running my fingers through it caused strands to fall out and everywhere. My mom had had the idea to take me wig shopping long before I started my Breast Cancer Treatments. While everyone at work knew about my diagnosis, and I had my wig ready to go, I still was not ready to admit to myself that worst was yet to come.
Your hair is part of your identity, that which makes you, you. Chemo hair loss takes away the control you have over your identity, which is why I tried my best to hold off on using my wig for as long as possibly could. I was not ready for this stage in my Cancer journey, but I had to find some strength deep inside me to take control of the situation. After many tears, I made the tough decision to have my husband shave off what remained of my hair.
I was an utter mess during the whole process, but he was the rock and support I so desperately needed. Of course, he made some references to Sinéad O’Connor, which of course made me laugh in the middle of all my tears.
Shaving my head was hard, but the second hardest step in the chemo hair loss process still lay ahead. How would I be perceived at work? Would I get strange looks from people I barely knew? How would my co-workers treat me with my new “hair”?
I felt so self-conscious, so not myself, as I no longer had my own hair. Instead, I had to hide my nearly bald head under this wig that made me feel like an alien inside my own body. Luckily everyone at work was very kind. I received many compliments on my new do, from people I only saw in passing. Not knowing what to say, I I quietly smiled and said “Thanks.” Because how do you explain to someone that you barely know, and only see in passing, that your new haircut is not real?
While the wig made me look normal, it was the most uncomfortable thing in the world. My wig was breathable, yet every hour the wig spent on my head felt like torture. I could not wait to get home to take the thing off my head. It was itchy and made the hot flashes from the chemically induced menopause 100 times worse. I spent the rest of my time dealing with chemo hair loss by wearing fabric caps. Depending on the weather, I either put a baseball cap over it or my newly acquired Boston Red Sox winter hat.
The months passed and with it my six round of chemotherapy. The worst of my treatments were over and with it my chemo hair loss. My hair was slowly starting to return, and I had grown so tired of the wig that I couldn’t wait till my hair was long enough so I could say goodbye to it once and for all. But in my mind, I was self-conscious. I feared my post-chemo hair loss look would not be met with a positive response.
The internal nervousness of my post-chemo hair loss was so bad that I posted a picture to my personal Facebook page in May regarding my lack of hair. Luckily I received nothing but positive responses from my friends. Their support helped me put my fears aside, and while I was still nervous, I went to work on May 23, 2017, for the very first time without my wig, and now the rest is history.
The photo above, taken on August 12, 2017, shows that my hair is coming in quite nicely. Of course, it’s still growing way too slow for my taste. It’s better than nothing at all and is proof that I am moving forward towards being normal once again. Whatever my new normal may be.
Why is it that a few simple words can seem to change your life forever? At only 37 years old, dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis is the last thing on your mind.
Long before I found myself dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis, I had a lump in my right breast for about a year. It appeared in August 2015, during a stressful time in my life. In the spring of 2015, we learned that my dad had Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer. Metastatic means the disease had spread to other parts of the body. Leaving it untreatable by conventional forms of Cancer treatment. He had received a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis many years before, so the addition of metastatic cancer led to the only logical decision. He chose to enter hospice care, and spend whatever remaining time he had left in the comforts of home.
2015 went by in a blur. My husband and I spent every weekend we could at my parent’s house, helping them out in whatever way we could. A 40-hour workweek combined with our always on the go weekends took a toll on me both physically and mentally. I barely slept, and it was painful to watch my father slowly wasted away. Not because of cancer, but the fact that the Parkinson’s was beginning to take its toll. At the end my dad could no longer swallow, so he eventually starved to death. We lost my dad in October 2015.
Towards the end of my dad’s life, in August 2015, I had a lump appear in my right breast. It appeared pretty much out of nowhere. This lump was not something that slowly grew in size like you would expect. It appeared, in what felt like, overnight, and remained the same size for an entire year. We all have learned the “traditional” symptoms of Breast Cancer, and this lump did not fit any of those criteria. It was movable, and it would consistently cause throbbing, stabbing pains, so the last thing on my mind was the thought of having to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis. I believed it had to be benign as it did not fit any of the symptoms of Breast Cancer.
My dad was the primary concern at this point, so dealing with this lump was the last thing on my mind. It appeared to go through cyclical changes throughout the month, which lessened my concerns that it could be anything but a benign cyst. This lump never got any larger, and it always remained movable, until the Fall of 2016. Suddenly it started to protrude in ways it hadn’t before. I had a firm lumpiness under the nipple that was quite obvious as I lay in bed at night trying to fall asleep. These sudden changes scared me. Not knowing if it was good or bad. Scared that I might face a future where I would be dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis. Instead I kept telling myself it had to be benign, otherwise, it would have already killed me, right?
During this time I was also dealing with a plethora of other health concerns, which caused me to finally seek the assistance of a Naturopath. For years, I dealt with a variety of issues, ranging from Migraine auras to brain fog, and joint pain, just to name a few. After doing a lot of reading, research, and dietary trial and error, it seemed gluten was the culprit. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I removed all gluten from my diet, including all topical products. It had been well over a year since I embarked on a Gluten Free diet, and while I was feeling better, I still was not back to normal. I knew I wasn’t unintentionally poisoning myself, which left me feeling frustrated and unsure what to do.
One appointment, and one test later, my Naturopath determined that I had Adrenal Fatigue. My cortisol levels were low in the morning, peaked around noon, then crashed in the early evening. These results explained my low energy levels in the early morning and late in the day. As we determined a course of action to treat my Adrenal Fatigue, I also requested she check my lump. I knew I had to have it looked at sooner or later. A mix of emotions washed over me as she took me into one of the exam rooms. I kept telling myself that it was benign, and her prognosis would validate what I had been assuming it was for so long.
Mammogram at 37:
Needless to say, the look on her face, as well as her response, left me feeling anything but comforted. She was “highly concerned”, a comment I would hear countless times throughout my journey, that it was something other than a benign lump. As I lay there on the table, tears began to roll down my face, as there was no possible way that this could be cancer. I thought I was done with Cancer. Instead, I sat there facing the possibility of having to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis.
She was so concerned that she scheduled me for a mammogram and ultrasound the same say before I even left her office. As she worked on scheduling my tests, she popped in an out of the exam room to check on me. I cried as my hopes for a benign lump had vanished. Hell, I mean who wouldn’t be when faced with the possibility of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis? She mentioned that I should call my husband and see if he could go with me for the tests, for some moral support during a very scary time.
One minute I was thinking it was nothing more than a fibrocystic cyst that would fade on its own once I hit menopause, instead I was getting my first mammogram at the age of 37. As I sat in the waiting area for my test, scared, and alone, because my husband could not come into the testing waiting area with me, I fought back the tears as I the potential of dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis ran through my head.
They squished my breasts for the mammogram, which hurt like hell, and then took me into another room to complete the ultrasound. With that test completed, I laid in wait. Waiting for the radiologist to come and discuss the results. While holding onto hope that it couldn’t be Cancer. After what felt like forever, the radiologist finally entered the room. My husband and I both tried to get some form of information out of him. “Yep, that’s a palpable lump” was his only reply. They couldn’t tell me any more than I already knew. Yep, I have a lump in my breast that can be felt. Gee thanks, Captain Obvious!!
Tests, Tests, and more Tests:
My Naturopath called that night to follow up, partially to check in on me and make sure I was doing OK and to let me know that she was working on getting me in to see a Breast surgeon ASAP. I kept asking questions, but the only response I kept hearing was that she was “highly concerned.”
The weeks that followed went by in a blur. I had my first appointment with the breast surgeon. They asked us to pick up the imaging disk from my mammogram and bring it with us. I had my husband pick the disk up on his way home from work. He left work earlier than I did, and was closer to the hospital where the imaging was done.
When I got home from work, I found out that he had tried to look at the image, but never got that far before the tears started. Long story short, the dictation included on the disk perceived it to be Breast Cancer that had invaded the lymph nodes. He told me about this when I got home from work that night, bringing me to tears. I could not possibly have Breast Cancer, and I still held out hope until the very end that I would not be dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis. My travels across the internet had taught me that there were benign conditions that looked like Cancer on imaging, and the doctors only had the images to base their prognosis on.
I met with the breast surgeon, and she looked at the lump and reiterated the same thing I had been hearing all along. She was “highly concerned” and we wouldn’t know for sure what we were dealing with, without a needle biopsy. Yet another frustrating appointment, leaving me knowing nothing more then I did going in. I still held out hope that it could not possibly be cancer, even though everyone else in the world seemed to think otherwise.
An ultrasound-guided biopsy was ordered. It was the only way to truly know what we were dealing with. My lymph nodes were enlarged, but still small enough that they could not be felt by hand alone. And the test was to be performed on the lymph nodes as well as the lump. As I lay on the table during the biopsy, I tried to get a feel from the doctor as to what exactly she was getting out of the lump. What did it look like? The response, “It looks like cells.” Again, I left this appointment frustrated and anxious, while still holding onto the fact that I would not be dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis in my future. I was apparently the only one who thought this way because everyone else seemed to think otherwise.
Breast Cancer Diagnosis:
It was on September 13th, 2016, that my life changed forever. This was the day I had the followup appointment with my breast surgeon. It was the day I would learn the results of the biopsy. The day where facing having to deal with a Breast Cancer diagnosis would become a reality. As I sat in the exam room with my husband, I still held out hope that it was benign, and I would leave that appointment being able to resume some form of a normal life.
I remember saying to the surgeon when she first entered the room, “I hope you have good news for me,” but the look on her face and the first words out of her mouth said it all. “You have Breast Cancer.” My heart sank. She examined the lump once more, then stepped out so I could get dressed. It was at that point that the tears began to fall. I could not possibly have breast cancer. The thought of dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis made me feel like I was stuck in a bad dream. One I was sure I would wake up from at any minute.
When she returned, she reviewed the biopsy results, and there is very little that I can say that actually sunk in beyond ER+, PR+. There was still one test that was outstanding, the HER2 test, which is what determines the aggressiveness of the tumor. I left that appointment with paperwork and my first of many pink ribbon pins. It felt surreal, as there was no way I could be dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis at only 37 years old.
Next on the list was a Breast MRI, CAT scan, and bone scan, all to determine whether cancer had spread past the breast and lymph nodes. A Breast Cancer diagnosis also meant I would be referred to an oncologist. Yep, that is the one doctor I never had expected or wanted to have on my list.
Time is of the essence with Breast Cancer. In what felt like the blink of an eye, I was scheduled to meet with my oncologist for the first time. Yet another appointment that went by in a blur. I left that office feeling like I knew nothing more than when I walked in. I was lucky enough to have the company of my husband, mom, and a close family friend at my first appointment. They were able to digest more of the information my oncologist provided. And later advised me of what I needed to be concerned with. In the midst of all this, the HER2 test came back positive as well. So beyond just dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, I was dealing with an aggressive form as well.
On a positive note, the bone scan had come back negative, meaning cancer had not spread to my bones. The CAT scan was mostly negative, except for a spot on my liver. The doctors were 99% sure was benign, but needed additional tests to make sure. Two more MRIs were ordered. One of my brain, and one of my liver to make sure cancer had not spread to either location. Apparently the brain and liver are the two most common areas for Breast Cancer to spread to.
Both MRI tests came back negative. Stage III ER+, PR+, HER2+ Breast Cancer was my official diagnosis. Next up was to finalize a treatment plan to attack the Cancer. Herceptin and Prejeta were prescribed as targeted HER2 chemotherapy medications. Docetaxel and Carboplatin were added in as the general cancer killers. Shorthand for my chemotherapy treatment plan was TCHP. I was scared to death. My Breast Cancer diagnosis had to be a bad dream. One I would wake up from at any moment.
Breast Cancer is quite common, and it has a high survival rate. But it’s hard not be scared when you’re faced with dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis. Particularly with so many unknowns. How will I respond to treatment? Will I have negative side effects? Without realizing it, anxiety takes hold, and you find yourself fearing the worst. Especially when they review all the potential side effects of the medications you will be given. Although most are rare, it’s still enough to kick your anxiety into high gear.
As the start of my cancer treatment crept closer, the appointments I feared the most was creeping up on me. A short, outpatient surgery visit was all that was needed to place the port in my chest. This was a little bucket like device, placed under the skin. It would be used to administer my chemo treatments. In my entire life, I had never been through any type of surgery. Dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis brought a lot of firsts. This included all the tests I had been through in the past month. All of which did not help my anxiety levels.
The port surgery had been scheduled for October 10th, 2016. Followed immediately by my first round of chemotherapy, scheduled for the following day. I wasn’t sure which I feared the most, the surgery, or the chemo itself. I have to say it was a tie as they both had their own anxiety-inducing unknowns.
Surgery & Chemotherapy:
Luckily the port installation surgery went without a hitch. It was same day surgery. The only issue was an allergic reaction to the Chloraprep used to clean my skin. They closed the incisions with medical super glue, which I referred to as blue goo. And bandages placed over those areas as an added level of protection. They sent me home with pain medication, and guidance to not remove the bandages for 24hrs.
In preparation for my first chemotherapy treatment, I had to take the bandage off that was covering the port. The nurses would be inserting a needle into the port to administer my IV chemo. In order to minimize any pain felt during this process, lidocaine applied to numb the area. The bandage over the second incision was the only one that remained. It protected the incision used to insert the hose into my vein. I removed it later that night.
Despite my nerves, my first round of chemo went fine. It wasn’t until a few days after my treatment, that an itchy rash appeared. The rash was the exact shape as the bandages that had been on my skin. I took Benadryl religiously for weeks before I was finally able to get the itchy rash under control. In my entire 37 years of life, I had never gone through surgery. So I learned the hard way that I was allergic to Chloraprep. Luckily it was not a life-threatening allergy. They only used Betadine on my skin from that point forward.
Oncology scheduled me for six rounds of TCHP chemotherapy. With my treatments once every three weeks. With every round I went through, the side effects that I dealt with seemed to get worse and worse. There was fatigue that was unlike anything I have ever experienced. A facial rash that looks like acne, but much more painful, muscle fatigue, hair loss, and even fingernail separation.
I did my best to stay strong when it came to dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis. By focusing on taking things one day at a time. Being strong and positive all the time was hard. There were days where I hated what my treatments were doing to my body. I just wanted the entire process over with so life could return to normal. Of course, genetic testing was the remaining unknown in dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis.
When you think of Breast Cancer and genetics, the first thought that commonly comes to mind are the BRCA genes. The ones made famous by Angelina Joli, but there is much to genetic testing than just those two. It took approximately a month for the gene test results to come back. We wanted the results as soon as possible, so the nurse drew my blood, prior to the final round of chemo on Jan 25th, 2017. We received the genetic testing results not long after. In addition to dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, I had tested positive for the ATM gene. I was also indeterminate for two others, one being BRCA2 and the other CHEK2. That means not enough clinical documentation existed to determine whether these results were positive or negative.
Needless to say, the gene testing results meant I had to make the tough decision to have a double mastectomy. Being ATM positive puts you at a high risk for Breast Cancer. That meant, it was not a matter of if, but, when Breast Cancer would appear in the other breast. I didn’t want to go through dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis for the second time.
I know this was a long post, and I’m sorry about that. There isn’t a cliff notes way to summarize everything I have gone through in dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis. I will do my best to keep you all updated on how things are going as I feel able to. Dealing with a Breast Cancer diagnosis is scary. And if my post helps just one person feel like they’re not alone, then I have done my job. Breast cancer is scary and no one ever wants to feel like they are facing it alone.