Oh hey! I am happily the other half of the team of Tata to Cancer with Laura and like the other women we share stories of, I am a young breast cancer Survivor. Today I am going to share my experience with you, and like the others who have shared, I hope this helps other women who unfortunately may encounter something similar until we find a way to prevent this disease.
My story all started with an itch. Yes, literally, an itch. It was the first day in my new house in Nashville on November 1, 2017 and I woke up to an itch on my breast which led me to feel a large lump. When I took my shower that day I performed a self-exam, which I am so grateful to have learned in college, and it is then when I realized this was something I needed to get checked out as soon as possible. That morning, at 34 years old, I called my doctor whom I had just seen less than 6 months earlier where I received a clear bill of health. After a couple of days of trying to get an appt I found another OB/GYN who could get me in and then my process quickly progressed.
In hindsight I know how lucky I am that the first nurse I saw took this seriously and I went from finding a lump on the 1st to my first appt on the 6th followed by 3 days of appts to where I had an ultrasound, mammogram, MRI and biopsy which all led to my diagnosis on November 13th, it was a total whirlwind. When my doctor told me it was cancer I was in total disbelief, I really thought it was not possible. My friend and I sat in shock while my doctor quickly moved into surgical options and scheduling blood work and additional x-rays which I would be getting a mere 30 min after I heard the news. I found out quickly that this was no joke and in that moment my journey began.
The next few weeks progressed at the same rate – after my diagnosis I saw all of the specialists I needed within days; oncology surgeon, oncologist, plastic surgeon, and fertility specialist. I had genetic testing which yielded a full negative panel and therefore no indication of why I would have breast cancer so young. The first two weeks were an onslaught of information and decisions which at the time you know are serious, but how serious and what your decisions mean for the rest of your life you cannot even comprehend.
After reaching out to other breast cancer survivors (who gave me the best advice!), I decided to get a second opinion – which I believe is well worth it and highly recommended. While it could be an added expense and it does take time, for me having a third party validation gave me the piece of mind I needed at a time when everything I was hearing was not only foreign, it was crazy talk…there was no way I was a healthy and active 34 year old with breast cancer. My denial was put to bed with the confirmation of the exact same diagnosis from two full medical teams – I had triple positive (ER/PR/HER2 positive) breast cancer which required surgery, chemotherapy and years of follow-up care.
Once I started to accept the reality, I chose to enact my standard businesslike approach and get to planning. My family, from Detroit, and friends banded around and all ensured I never had to go to an appointment alone no matter what resistance I gave. I now totally recommend having a note-taker in every appointment through the process, we had a notebook which we could use to do our homework after the appointments since 90% of what was happening did not get absorbed on the first pass. It wasn’t until months later when I reread all of my paperwork that I started to understand my diagnosis and all of the notes helped me greatly in sorting through the medical jargon.
Within days of my diagnosis I started fertility to get ahead of the chemotherapy. (Side note: Fertility treatment is an important question to ask your doctor if you don’t yet have kids and was something I would have never thought about.) The egg removal procedure would be followed closely by the tumor surgery. While I was given an option for the type and extent of surgery, a double mastectomy was the overwhelming recommendation. There are a few types of mastectomies – skin/nipple sparing, skin sparing, or full removal. How and what is removed is based on the stage/type of cancer and location. In my case the location of the tumor required I had a skin sparing surgery which removed my nipples and all breast tissue. On December 14th I had my surgery and with the removal of the tumor, clean margins and clear tests of my lymph nodes, I was then cancer free! While that was the official case, I surely did not feel cancer free as I was preparing for chemotherapy to start in less than a month.
Like many cancer patients, I decided to keep working through my treatment. My work has always been a huge part of who I am and I felt that if I took time off then the cancer would have won. Luckily, I work for an amazing company and have a very supportive
leader as well as an incredible team who made the hardest days of my life possible. While my mom and friends and family showed up for my treatments and to sit with me on the hard days (the 2-4th days after the chemo), my work family kept me uplifted and feeling useful – albeit I wasn’t always able to do as much as I wanted. My first chemo treatment was the second week of January, 24 hours after having my chest port placed. I went through 6 rounds, 1 every 3 weeks, of the hard stuff which was then followed by 7 additional months of Herceptin to treat the Her2 positive diagnosis. I lost my hair, which I shaved before it fell out, and decided to go bald for the majority of the time…wigs just were not for me. One of the things that got me through chemo, aside from work, was staying active. I got a trainer to help me get my mobility back after the first surgery and then joined a fitness group. Staying busy was hugely beneficial for my recovery.
Once I finished chemotherapy I was able to get the second reconstructive surgery. This surgery, while hard to recover from due to the skin grafts of my new nipples, was a mental game changer – it helped me feel a bit more like myself. I was hesitant to have the reconstructive nipples, where the doctor makes nipples out of skin from another part of your body, but after strong recommendations I opted in and am today beyond thankful. While this isn’t for everyone, seeing myself look more similar to my “old self” helped me move forward and accept my new body.
Following chemo I continued Herceptin IV treatment and started on Tamoxifen in addition to Lupron (both of which I am still on today) to manage my hormones and prevent reoccurrence. While I take these medications, I have found that making lifestyle changes has helped me the most with my recovery and I expect with my long term health. Cancer has given me way more than it has taken from me and I am oddly grateful for the journey it has taken me on and the path it is forging for my future. I am more aware of my body as a machine I need to take great care of than ever before. My desire to learn more about how I give myself the best outcome and in turn help to spread awareness to others has become an everyday passion. Advocacy, fundraising and being a part of a community of survivors has given me an entirely new outlook and I am excited to see where this path will lead.
The last thought I want to share and leave you with is in regard to mental health. For me the physical side of cancer, while unpleasant, was the easier part. I don’t believe my recovery really began until after I was months out of chemo and fully healed from my last reconstructive surgery. I was still getting treatment and had my chest port while my hair began to grow back and I started to feel normal, gaining my energy and living a normal routine, this is the point when I realized what had actually occurred over the last year. Reflecting on what had occurred and how much my life was changed hit me harder than the actual diagnosis and has taken more time to process than I could have ever guessed. If I can share one piece of advice it would be to take the time you need to reflect and feel all of the emotions cancer can bring on. Love yourself through the good and the bad and when you don’t have energy, have the courage to let someone else’s love hold you up.
Writing my story and sharing with friends and family was therapeutic in my process. My full journey and more about life beyond cancer can be found on my blog at www.courageforgoodbetterbest.com or you can find my story on Instagram @sparty_ang.
I look forward to being a part of sharing more stories of survivors and thrivers as we all band together for support and a drive for a cure! Tata to Cancer!