From the girl who lost her ponytail….
Hi! My name is Steffanie, I am a single mom of my totally amazing 12-year-old daughter. We have two English bulldogs named Bruce (8yrs) and Elliot (1.5yrs). I grew up in East Tennessee in a little town called Seymour. I attended the University of Tennessee where I graduated with a Nursing degree in 2004. I then moved to the Nashville area to pursue my career in anesthesia and graduated in 2011 from Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia!
In January of 2017, I became the black sheep of the family by being the first person in my family to be diagnosed with cancer. I was 36 years old and had no family history of cancer so breast examines weren’t really on my radar. I would do them here and there but not routine. I was a healthy 36-year-old with zero family history… I couldn’t get cancer! WRONG.
Rewind to December of 2011 while studying for my anesthesia boards, I found a lump on my left upper breast. I followed up with a surgeon, DR. Lisa White, from where I would be working starting in January. She ordered an ultrasound and it came back as a fibroadenoma, a benign mass. I chose to have it removed anyways just a few days before I took boards. Crazy right?! But I wanted peace of mind that sucker was out of my body. All came back clear with the pathology…whew.
Fast forward to the fall of 2016…I always would feel around where my scar from the fibroadenoma was just out of habit. Well I noticed the tissue in that area getting harder. So I kept an eye on it and did examines every week to monitor change. It stayed just a hard, dense, band of tissue for a month or two but by the end of November/early December it was a lump. So, I called Dr. White and said hey I think that fibroadenoma is back, there is a lump about an inch or two away from the last spot, I want it out again. So, she ordered an ultrasound for December 19thand then I immediately met with he afterwards. She said “Steff, this looks funny, not like a fibroadenoma, I am concerned about it, let’s biopsy it.” Great, I am thinking. Mind you I took my daughter, who was 9 at the time, with me. So, we scheduled the surgery but it is January 9th before we could get a spot because anybody who works in the OR knows getting on the schedule at the end of the year is a nightmare, even if you have connections.
Well since it’s the holidays I decided to travel over to East TN to visit family. I kept all this on the downlow except for my sis in law who happens to be my best friend too. No sense in worrying everyone right! 2 weeks go by and I am sitting on the couch the Friday before my scheduled surgery, I feel the mass again. It has changed from a hard, dense lumpy mass into a rock in a matter of a week. I knew at that moment it was CANCER, this was the “marble” everyone talks about finding. Now we also were experiencing an ice storm here in middle Tennessee and I thought to myself, “if I can’t get to the hospital on Monday, come hell or high water, I will cut this thing out myself”. That’s how sure I was.
So Monday comes and I have my biopsy. I am glad we had the option to do this in the OR because I wanted the whole thing out! The great thing about my job is I can handpick who is in my OR room to take care of me. The bad thing is those people actually give a damn about me and when Dr. White returned back from the path lab in tears and had to tell everyone in there it was cancer, the whole room sunk. I don’t cry much but typing this makes me a little tearful. So she tells me after surgery it’s cancer, but I simply said I was expecting this report. She said the margins were clear which meant they got all the tumor out of my body, and it was less than 1cm in size! But hey, I am tough, healthy, young, I got this! Let’s slay this tumor and move on. I go pick my kiddo up from school that afternoon and she asks “well is it a good bump or a bad bump mom?” I said kiddo, it’s a bad bump, but its gonna be ok. Staying strong for her was the only mission I had during this, if I broke, she broke. That wasn’t going to happen.
January 19th I am out running errands at Target and get a call from Dr. White. “Hey Steff, I got your final path back, are you where you can talk?” yep I am at Target, go for it, “well it came back Stage 1, but all the hormone receptors are negative..” ok, what does that mean? “that means it is TRIPLE NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER, but we caught it early”. My world then changed and in the middle of the target line, I said “F#%&,, that means I have to do chemo”. So from that point on, slaying this tumor wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. This was a game changer. The hardest part was telling my kiddo I had to do chemo now. For the first time I cried. It was just us, how was I going to do this. She can’t watch her mom wither away and die in a hospital bed. Luckily, she is a strong little warrior like myself and was up for the battle. Honestly, she was most bummed that our family sailing trip had to get postponed, but I mean who wouldn’t be bummed about that! So, January 25th I got my port placed for the chemo to get infused thru and my sentinel node biopsy, which came back negative yippee! Then on Wednesday February 1, I started chemo with my fabulous oncologist Dr. Gian. My besties Brooke and Jen from nursing school took me to my chemos and took such wonderful care of me. So many friends and family sent meals and gifts for us, it was truly a blessing. To all the random people out their who paid for groceries, ice cream, or meals while eating out, Thank you!
I did chemo every other week for 4 months. I tried doing the cold caps to save my hair but they didn’t work for me. By week 3 it was so thin and my scalp hurt so bad I had to shave it. After hours of procrastinating it. It finally happened. Ahhh what sweet relief. And let’s talk about how easy it was to get ready now! I am not going to lie, it was hard to let go of my hair, it sucked, I cried more over that than the actual cancer diagnosis. Stupid right, but I did. But once it was off, I was ok with it, I was now in warrior mode. I chose not to wear a wig, they are hot, itchy, and uncomfortable. Oh, and my daughter hated them lol, she said mom you look better bald, you look like you. So, I wore some toboggans and ball caps out and about and was a bald conehead at home. I have to wear a surgical cap at work in the OR so I didn’t have to worry about work life. Honestly losing my eyelashes and brows was harder on my look than my head hair, let’s face it there are some badass sexy bald women out there! But no lashes and no brows was a rough look for me. May 18th was my last round of chemo and the peach fuzz was already starting to sprout on my head. So glad to be done with the poison that saved my life. It wasn’t a bad as I anticipated it to be. My side effects were minimal, I was able to work 3 days a week throughout treatment. Minus a setback of double pneumonia around week 10 it went as smooth as I could have needed it to go.
Typically, chemo is done before surgery with triple negative breast cancer because of its aggressive nature. It wants to destroy its host as fast and quickly as it can, getting systemic chemo in asap is key. Luckily my pre and post chemo PET scans and MRI’s were clear and unchanged so I felt a little at ease. On June 29th I had a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Dr. Lisa white and Dr. Nick Tarola were my surgeons. The surgery took about 7 hours. I did nipple sparing and went straight to implants, bypassing the expander process, so it took a little longer than most of these surgeries. The recovery wasn’t too bad. The weight lifting restrictions were the hardest part. You feel good so you have to remind yourself you just had a major surgery and can’t just jump right back in the game of life.
Shortly after my surgery I was able to meet a young patient of mine who was going thru the same thing and getting her port put in. I gave her my contact info and we stayed in touch, soon thereafter another young woman reached out on facebook to me, she was a friend of a friend. We all met up one night for dinner and were like instant sisters. Still 2 years later we talk and hang out, we do cancer retreats, fundraisers, and benefits together. This ugly seed was planted in all 3 of us yet we grew this amazing friendship out of it. So find someone to help you thru this! Reach out to Middle Tennessee Breasties on FB, we are a group of young survivors to help each other out and we meet up as well!
My genetic testing showed that I was BRCA 2 positive. This is a genetic mutation on a certain gene that puts me at a slightly higher risk for other cancers. Basically, the gene that should help protect me from breast cancer is a bit deformed and doesn’t function like it should. Because of this I opted to do a Total Robotic Hysterectomy with Dr. Chesney in November of 2017. This surgery was a breeze! Man, what technology we have these days. This was a peace of mind not to have to worry about what the organs in my body that are high risk are doing without me being able to detect it until its too late.
It’s been 2 years now post treatment and 2.5 since diagnosis. Life is good, I feel like my past is a little surreal. Besides the scars, some joint pain, and some chemo brain moments (which is equivalent to placenta brain lol) I feel the same as before. Is there ever a day I wake up and don’t think about what I have been thru?, nope. Everyday I think about it, how lucky I was, and the alternatives. You can’t let every little abnormal thing on your body get to you or you will drive yourself mad. The mental game during and after this disease is the majority of the battle. Keep a strong mind and you will battle this more victorious than with a dark mind. This is coming from a glass half empty chick here, I work in medicine, I am a logical, realistic person and know what goes down. So for me to say keep the darkness out and break the thought process cycle is huge. Cancer wants to destroy you and your life. Don’t let it. I don’t care if you have 2 weeks to live or 60 years to live.. my message is GO LIVE YOUR LIFE! Do it while you can, don’t stop. If you stop to play the “I can’t ”game then you let the cancer get what it seeks- destruction and despair. It may/will beat you down physically but stay ahead of it mentally. Mentality gets you further in life anyhow am I right?!😊 So say tata to cancer my friends!!!