My daughter and I walked in the Unite For HER Bloom Fashion Show together. The theme of the show was, “by her side,” and each model walked with someone who was with them every step of the way.
As I reflect on the past 12 months of my life, if I were to sum things up in one word, it would be: grateful. Incredibly grateful. My journey has been emotional, raw, powerful, scary. And, within all of that, there were some real moments of strength.
On October 3, 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I found out through a routine mammogram. I can honestly say that I am the poster child for early detection. This is my story.
In 2016, the year before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I went for my annual mammogram. As I was leaving my appointment, the front desk had me schedule my next annual exam. When the end of September 2017 rolled around, I saw “mammogram” on my calendar, which I had completely forgotten about since I scheduled the appointment a year ago. I went to my appointment and got on with my busy week.
When I was asked to return for an ultrasound, I wasn’t terribly worried. But, when the results of the ultrasound came back, they told me they found something small and wanted to do a biopsy. When you hear “biopsy,” it freaks you out. So, of course, I started Googling. I read somewhere that 80 percent of biopsies come back negative. I held on to that statistic and felt that the odds were on my side. I was sure they would find that everything was fine.
I remember precisely where I was and what I was doing when the doctor called with the results of the biopsy. I had just returned from walking our puppy and was standing in my front yard where I could see my children through the window doing their homework. The phone rang and time literally stood still. I don’t remember the exact words, but my doctor said in the kindest way he could, “You have breast cancer, but this is fixable.” I next called my husband, told him the news and then had to get myself together and return into the house like nothing was wrong.
I can honestly say it was an out-of-body experience, and all I could think was that this was NOT how things were supposed to be. My doctor immediately said to me, “Do not Google anything. You may only look at the Mayo Clinic website and breastcancer.org for more information. Don’t look anywhere else.” I learned that evening that I had many decisions to make in a short amount of time.
I learned that there are different types of breast cancer, and each type of cancer is fueled by something different. Some cancers are driven by hormones, but my cancer was fueled by a protein called HER-2.
Within two weeks of my diagnosis I was facing a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments, a breast MRI, and genetic testing. I spent the morning of my 46th birthday meeting with the genetic counselor and spent the afternoon meeting with a reconstructive surgeon. When you are diagnosed with cancer, you immediately have to learn a different language. You are dropped into “cancer college” and you are a freshman. You don’t know where you are going, you don’t know the rules or the language and you don’t have any friends in this new school. Now, a year later, I feel like a graduate student.
Family History and Genetic Testing
I did have a family history of breast cancer, but my genetic testing showed I was negative for the BRCA gene. Despite the fact that both of my grandmothers had breast cancer later in life, my cancer wasn’t due to genetics. Mine was different. At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of the diagnosis for someone my age; I didn’t understand the aggressiveness of HER-2.
Choosing a Treatment Plan
I first had to decide between a lumpectomy with radiation or a bilateral (double) mastectomy. I weighed the pros and cons of my choices and ultimately decided on the double mastectomy with reconstruction. I decided to meet my aggressive cancer with the most aggressive option available to me. From the day I was diagnosed, my doctor told me that I had six weeks to not only decide on my procedure, but to actually have it done. On Halloween, I underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction in a nine-hour surgery. Following the surgery, I received good news: my lymph nodes were clear, confirming that the cancer had not spread. In mid-November, I met with an oncologist who told me that he recommended chemotherapy. I honestly was surprised and scared. I thought clear lymph nodes meant I didn’t need chemotherapy. The surgery didn’t scare me, but chemo scared the hell out of me. My doctor explained that because of my HER-2 status, statistically, without chemo, my chance of recurrence was 15 percent. With chemo, I could reduce that chance to 2 percent. I couldn’t argue with those odds. On December 7, I started chemotherapy.
So far, I’ve had 23 rounds of chemotherapy, and I still have three to go. When I am finished in November, I will have had 26 rounds of chemotherapy, three surgeries, three echocardiograms, and a whole lot of time in doctors’ offices, but most importantly, a different perspective on things.
At first, the thought of going to chemotherapy once a week for four hours seemed horrible. I still hadn’t reconciled that this was happening to me. At my first treatment, I met the most wonderful group of nurses who made a very stressful and honestly sad experience welcoming. They are amazing and truly special people!
As crazy as it sounds, getting diagnosed with breast cancer was a gift. You get a new lease on life, a new perspective and your priorities change. Over the past year, I’ve been humbled by the generosity and kindness shown to me by friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, and strangers. During my diagnosis and treatment, I kept thinking, “I need to do something to give back. How can I take my experience and make a difference?”
Unite For HER
I was first introduced to Unite For HER by one of my brokers. We went to a Wellness Day together and I am forever grateful to her for introducing me to this great organization. My colleagues at Independence Blue Cross collected money on my behalf and made a donation to Unite For HER in my name. I was so impacted by Unite For HER and their mission, I met with their founder and CEO and I now serve on their board. Unite For HER helped me take control back — it gave me complimentary services, tools, and resources to bridge the gap between my medical treatments and wellness. Rather than having things done to me, Unite For HER was something I could do for myself to restore and empower me as I went through my treatment.
My Biggest Piece of Advice
My diagnosis changed me in ways I could never have imagined. My perspective and priorities are different. One of the biggest lessons I learned is how important self-care is. Don’t put off those routine doctor’s appointments. Don’t wait for a convenient time. Don’t let life get in the way. I wrote a thank-you note to the office manager where I had that routine mammogram, the person who did the screening, and the most important person, the person at the desk who insisted I schedule my next screening — the one who saved my life. I am so grateful that I can say I am a breast cancer survivor because of them.
Preventive Care Saved My Life
If I didn’t make my appointment when I did, things would have turned out differently for me. If I decided to do my mammogram in January instead of September, my cancer would have advanced past stage 1. If you take away only one thing from reading this, it’s to take advantage of preventive care services. Beginning at age 40, women are covered for preventive mammography annually1. Put yourself first, make that appointment. Use these services. It saved my life.
A year ago, I was blissfully unaware, but now, I don’t know that I’d trade this journey. I think I’m better for it. You don’t know how strong you are until you don’t have a choice. I chose to stay positive and to find the good in a difficult situation. I’m now part of a special “club” and the women I’ve met amaze and inspire me every day.
1Commercial members only. Your specific needs for preventive services may vary according to your personal risk factors. Your health care provider is always your best resource for determining if you’re at increased risk for a condition. Some services may require precertification/preapproval.
This blog was originally published on LinkedIn.