My story is intended to be one of encouragement and of strength for those faced with tremendous adversity. A little background: my paternal aunts faced breast cancer before I did. They did not survive their diagnoses. I was urged to start having mammograms at 35. This saved my life. I was also diagnosed with breast cancer, however, it was thankfully caught at stage 1.
It all started in 2014. During a routine manual breast exam by my gynecologist, nothing unusual was detected, but I was referred to have my yearly mammogram. I made that appointment for a month later.
During that mammogram, I saw the look on the technician’s face. Something was spotted. She ordered a second mammogram and then asked that I stay to have a needle biopsy. My mind was racing. Me? Was it my turn?
After that original biopsy, I was sent to have an additional mammogram (the third one) and a second biopsy. Now, I was becoming increasingly nervous. I pleaded with the technician performing the needle biopsy to please tell me everything she was seeing. My thoughts were in overdrive, my blood pressure was racing, and I needed to mentally prepare myself. She was a patient woman, but revealed that what she was seeing needed to be looked at and sent to the lab. She did tell me that in her experience, it was indicative of breast cancer and to prepare myself.
After two agonizing weeks, a diagnosis was confirmed. I received a call from the nurse at my gynecologist’s office. It was positive. I had stage 1 cancer.
Everything became a blur. I questioned: What do I do now? Where do I go from here? Names were given to me for oncologists. It took two different places before I found a surgeon I felt comfortable with. All of a sudden, I was being swabbed to see if I was BRCA+. The results came back that I was. I carried the BRCA 2+ mutation. I had no idea that I was a carrier.
I then suddenly was being showed pictures of women with lumpectomies, mastectomies and double mastectomies. The pictures were very graphic. I remember trying to keep it together in the office. Once I arrived to my car, I couldn’t stop crying. I called my sister. We cried together on the phone.
How was I to deliver this news to my own little family? I was married with two daughters. They were 2-years-old and 11-years-old at the time. I kept thinking of my daughters. They became my focus of strength. It was hard to tell the news to the rest of my family and friends. I had a few close friends cry with me and hold me up, as did my close family.
Within five weeks and after many appointments with my surgical oncologist, then my medical oncologist and my plastic surgeon, it was determined he would be beginning reconstructive procedures in tandem as my surgical oncologist removed each breast. There would be countless other appointments with nurses, medical staff, and the anesthesiologist.
I remember sitting at my plastic surgeon’s office, taking the before pictures of my breasts, not wanting to even look at them, and then deciding what type of reconstructive options I would choose. Ultimately, I chose to have implants put in, almost the same size I was before. I wanted to just appear as normal as I could, even though nothing seemed normal about this at all.
Due to the strain of everything I would be facing, I sought the help of DNA genetic counselors and medical oncology nurses. I cried for over a month – literally. I called many family members and close friends. I grieved what I would be losing – my breasts.
At the time, even though I was stage 1, my prognosis was 68% chance of developing cancer in my other breast. A double mastectomy was highly recommended, and I agreed. I never wanted to find myself in this situation again. I had my children. Take them. Yet, still, the tears flowed.
I am thankful for wonderful oncology nurses and patients who would educate me on the surgery to be performed: what to expect and amazingly strong survivors who shared their stories and their scars for me to hear and see. I was thankful for them and also, to an extraordinary counselor who I went to later on. She helped me cope with all the life changing events that unfolded and I checked in with her for years later.
Soon after that, I was prepped and laying on a hospital operating room, counting backwards, breathing in and out, looking into the eyes of my surgeons and praying. The double mastectomy and beginning of reconstruction took several hours. My sentinel lymph node was tested as well. This would determine whether I would need radiation and chemotherapy. It turns out that my cancer was localized and my cancer had not spread. It was not located in any of my lymph nodes.
After waking up from my double mastectomy, I was screaming out in pain. It was the most horrific pain I’ve ever felt. My muscles has been cut, my breasts gone and my chest scraped to get everything out. My surgeons were amazing, but I was left with empty silicone bag spacers on each side and six inch scars – no breasts and no nipples.
My oncology nurses advocated for me to stay the night at the hospital after surgery to make sure I was walking the halls before I could be released. They held me up and walked me to the hospital room bathroom, where I would see myself for the first time, flat chested and taped up, with tubes and pouches of fluid on each side. I had to be taught to empty and drain the pouches to prevent infection. They were cumbersome and painful. I had to measure the amount of fluid excreted to make sure I was healing properly.
Eventually, the tubes were removed from me by my plastic surgeon. They were six feet long each on each side. I went in every two weeks to have my temporary implants filled with saline syringes that were so painful. They looked distorted. It was all meant to stretch my skin to the desired size. Because of the size of my chest, I could only accommodate up to a certain size of implant.
My reconstruction temporary implant operation exchange was three months after my double mastectomy. Again, this surgery felt almost as painful and felt like an elephant sitting on my chest. The tight feeling wasn’t what I expected.
And through it all, I thanked God for my daughters, family and friends. I had great friends who delivered many meals and my sweet daughters came to many, many appointments, to the point that my youngest (two-years-old at the time) became a ray of light not only to myself, but to others while we sat for appointments. Even to the medical staff, who she got lots of stickers, hugs and lollipops from.
More surgeries followed those initial ones. I had a capsular contraction on one side (which was extremely painful), nipple reconstruction on both sides, and one that needed to be done again, a partial hysterectomy, and five years of Tamoxifen and AI medication (to block and lower the estrogen in my body). All to prevent a recurrence. After three years and looking at just scars, I finally had the last piece put on with areola tattoos. Ironically, this last part made me start to feel whole again after so many years.
It’s been eight years now. Life has changed tremendously. I am now a divorced mom of two daughters, 10 and 19 years old now. I take nothing for granted. I go to my oncologist yearly. I am considered to be in complete remission! Although I still, to this day, have pain to my chest and have spasms, especially when I overextend myself, I have realized it’s a small price to pay to be alive. I know others were not so lucky. My life goals include: being healthy, sitting on a porch, rocking in a chair with grandchildren giggling around me, sipping lemonade, and talking with family and friends. I hope that’s achievable. That would be a HUGE win. 💗
This story is intended to convey a personal experience and, because every person’s experience is unique, should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.