There are moments in everyone’s life when you realise things will never be the same, I refer to them as “before and after moments.” A few examples: getting your driver’s license, getting married, winning the lottery, losing a parent, etc. One I wasn’t expecting was the moment I heard those words that every woman fears: “you have breast cancer.”
Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma to be exact.
I could never have imagined how quickly my life was about to change. Mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, blood tests, scan after scan after scan. A month later I had a lumpectomy (an operation to remove the tumor from my breast) and a few of my lymph nodes were removed from under my right arm. Fortunately, I had a generous serving of boobs, so there was still plenty left over after the operation! I recently completed radiation therapy and due to the slow-growing nature of my brand of breast cancer, chemo was not necessary.
You can either stop reading here or, if you’d like the nitty gritty details (with TMI photos), keep on scrolling.
I baked these cookies for a breast cancer awareness magazine feature last month.
Monday, May 11
As I was putting my pajamas on, I walked back into the bathroom because I forgot something. I just so happened to pass a mirror when my arms were raised while putting on my shirt. That’s when I saw it… a dimple… on my right breast (lower inner quadrant). I knew what it was before I even touched it. “Stephen! I just found a fu**ing lump on my fu**ing breast! There goes my fu**ing week!”
Tuesday, May 12
The next day I called my OB/GYN’s office who said my doctor was booked, I didn’t like that answer so I waited in the lobby until they had a cancellation. Eventually they had a cancellation (or they just wanted me out of the way). When my doctor felt the lump she said, “I’m quite concerned.” That doctor told me the earliest they could find me an ultrasound and mammogram appointment was on May 18th. Yeah… no… that’s not going to work for me.
I called around all evening, found a friend who had a friend who worked at Norton’s Breast Health Center (in Louisville) as an ultrasound tech and could squeeze me in the next day.
Waiting for the doctor to return after my ultrasound.
Wednesday, May 13
I had my first ever mammogram (not as bad as I thought it’d be), a two hour ultrasound, and after being there for around five hours I was told in very direct way (which is always my preference):
“You have breast cancer.”
No tears (yet), just intensely listening.
I was then told that they didn’t think it had traveled to my lymph nodes yet (they ultrasounded my armpits to check). He says, with confidence, “this is treatable, we just have to get it out of you.” And later told, “this is going to be a long and hard journey. 2021 will be the hardest year of your life.” Come to find out, he was right about all of those things.
Remember back when I thought 2020 was the worst year? Well, that was cute. For me personally I pretty much lost 95% of my income, feared that my bonus kids’ mother was going to die from Covid (she was in the ICU for a week), was told my beloved MurphyMo (my soul dog) had cancer where multiple surgeries followed. He passed away in my lap two weeks before this all happened and it broke me (and now I’m crying), and had my Jeep stolen (with accidentally lapsed car insurance due to auto pay with an expired credit card… yeahhhhh… a hayuuuge eff up, do not recommend!).
Blue Pearl Emergency Veterinary Hospital, April 25, 2021.
However, being told I had breast cancer trumps them all, it was the worst day of my life. Being honest with you, I already knew the answer. I f***ing knew it. I’ve been saying / joking for years that I’ll get cancer one day. I just knewwww it.
That evening I had to photograph Andrew’s 8th grade graduation and act like everything was normal and happy, I hadn’t even told my husband yet because I wanted him to enjoy the graduation. If there could have been an academy award for pretending I didn’t just hear the most devastating news, I’d have won it (see the photo below).
Andrew’s 8th Grade Graduation. Also, I had no idea that I was joining a family of giants!
I was then fast tracked for a biopsy the next day where I quickly became best friends with my nurse (it’s my gift), I eventually asked her, “if I were your sister, who would you pick to be your surgeon and oncologist?”
Without hesitation, “Dr. Brown (surgeon) and Dr. Hargis, (oncologist) hands down.” She jotted it down on my chart while saying, “tell them someone else told you this, because you definitely didn’t hear it from me!”
After my biopsy, the radiologist looked down at my chart and said, “Brown and Hargis?! Wow! The dream team! How did you know?”
A few days later I made dinner for my family and then told them the worst news I’ve ever had to deliver. I gathered everyone up in the living room, while they were all kind of rustling around trying to find something to do when I just blurted it out: “I have breast cancer.” Time stood still. Everyone froze. It was surreal. Luckily, I had been training them for this for years as, like I said before, I’ve been making cancer a normal thing we jokingly talk about. I know I know, I’m the worst… but we all handle tragedy differently, right? 🙂
I had actually told my husband Stephen the night before, but I could tell then that he wasn’t ready for details yet. He looked scared out of his mind as I went through all the things I knew. Andrew was chill but concerned (he is generally not an emotional person, which in moments like these is such an asset!). Sweet Josh was a deer in headlights on the verge of an emotional breakdown at any second. Claire was scared, asked all of the questions, and was most concerned that I’d have to move away to get treatment because she didn’t want us to be apart. I was honest (as you know me to be) but hopeful (because I was). I told them that I’d fight this with everything that I had because I know how much it would break us all if anything ever happened. I’m fighting this for them. By the end of the night Claire was smiling while gathering all of the pink stuff in our home. And then when I was snuggling her up before bedtime when she proclaimed with a big cheeky grin, “I just realized that cancer has the word ‘can’ in it, so you cannnnn do it!”
Jun 4, 2021 (Stephen’s birthday)
Right before being carted off to my lumpectomy surgery.
CLEAN MARGINS! The biopsy results couldn’t have been better. For those who understand breast cancer, here they are:
- Invasive Ductal Carcinoma – Stage 2a
- HER2 negative
- Estrogen Receptor positive
- Oncotype DX score 13
- BRCA gene negative
- Tumor was 32mm
- Zero lymph node involvement (!!!)
I had my removal surgery on a Friday, by Sunday my right breast had turned black (I’m not exaggerating) and it nearly doubled in size. I went to the ER early Monday morning where they told me I’d had a pretty serious hematoma, they were all amazed that the incision had held up. On Wednesday I went in for another surgery where Dr. Brown drained over 8oz of fluid out of ONE BREAST. WHAAAAAT?!!?! That’s a cup of coffee!
Sorry for the TMI photos; I cropped as much as I could so that it wasn’t tooooo weird. Very few share this kind of stuff and knowledge is power, right?! Also, if these photos scare you into checking your boobs, then I’d call that a success! Side note: the photo in the middle was one of the first I took before the bruising had spread upwards. And for those wondering why the bruising is on both breasts, it’s because the hematoma was so large that it had spread to the other.
July 12, 2021
I met with Dr. Hargis (my oncologist) for the first time. He said that because Dr. Brown got clean margins from the lumpectomy, I was in remission. YESSSSS!!!! He also estimates that I’ve had this cancer growing within me since around 2016. When I think back on what my life was from 2015 – 2017…. Phew! Friends, please take care of your mental health. It’s a fact that acute stress can cause the mutated cells in your body that had the potential to be cancerous to flip to cancerous. That’s a way overly simplified version of that, but it makes sense to me that way.
Dr. Hargis then told me that I would have to be on hormone therapy (Tamoxifen, ifykyk) for the next five to ten years to prevent recurrence. My body thinks it’s going through menopause because the meds block my estrogen receptors from working properly. The side effects have not been pleasant, at all!
From there, the next course of treatment was radiation to clean up any of the little guys that may have been undetectable by mammogram or ultrasound.
Aug 20, 2021
Before they could get started with radiation, they ran a CT scan to find the precise location of where my tumor was so that they can identify the area on the body where I would receive treatment.
I began a daily 4-week radiation treatment on August 20th. That shiz was awful. They ended up having to shut it down a week early because my skin was reacting much more than anticipated (even factoring in that I’m a fair-skinned freckled AF redhead). I was so red so quickly they sent me back to my surgeon who put me on an intense antibiotic just in case it was an infection and he also ordered another ultrasound and mammogram (HOLY OUCH INFLAMED SKIN AND INTENSE SCAR TISSUE BATMAN!!!) which didn’t end up showing anything.
Another TMI photo. If you saw the uncropped version, you’d be even more shocked than you are now. That gash on the left side, that’s where they removed my lymph nodes. Of all of the pain that I experienced, recovering from lymph node dissection was the worst. Side note: I tried finding a plugin that would blur an image before you clicked on it, and I couldn’t find one.
I asked the radiation tech to take a photo of me so that I could show my worrisome kids exactly what I was doing every morning.
I’ve seen firsthand how ugly cancer can be; cancer has become all too familiar to me. In 2017, my dad died a horrible pancreatic cancer death that I watched literally suck the life out of him (he weighed less than 100 lbs at the end). He lived with me during that time and I was his caregiver.
On the left: my dad receiving radiation therapy for his 18 brain metastases. On the right, spitting up blood after his last treatment waiting for the doctor to come in. If dad was awake, Bob Dylan was playing on his phone, literally every waking moment. Pictured here, “Went to See the Gypsy” (the demo version) was playing and he lost it. It was the only time he showed true emotional weakness throughout his cancer prognosis. I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. The song to me seems to be about spiritual renewal, “go on back to see the gypsy, he can rid you of your fear.”
Soon after my dad died I visited my Uncle Patrick who had the same cancer that my dad had; I witnessed a man fight with everything he could to stay alive for his sons only to have lost his battle nine months later.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer I called my Uncle Pat’s family and asked if they would send me one of his bracelets. It arrived in the mail the night before my lumpectomy. I wore it proudly to surgery along with one of my dad’s Bob Dylan t-shirts. Though they did make me take both off before being wheeled off.
A month after my Uncle Pat passed, my beloved Aunt Cathy succumbed to cancer of the appendix (PMP or “jelly belly) and also left us way too soon. My father’s mother died of breast cancer in 1999 at the age of 67. Three out of seven of her kids all died of very aggressive cancers before the age of 60 (and all within an 11 month period).
Google “Camp Lejeune toxic water cancer” and prepare to have your mind blown. My dad’s family all lived in base housing for a number of years, the years the government knew of the toxic water but chose to ignore it.
United States Marine Corps service members and their families living at the base bathed in and ingested tap water that was contaminated with harmful chemicals at concentrations from 240 to 3400 times levels permitted by safety standards. An undetermined number of former base residents later developed cancer or other ailments, which many blame on the contaminated drinking water. Victims claim that USMC leaders concealed knowledge of the problem and did not act properly in trying to resolve it or notify former base residents that their health might be at risk.
My Uncle Kevin died of Lou Gehrig’s (ALS) disease three years after my dad (also barely 60 years old). “Camp Lejeune veterans have a 100% higher, or double the risk of developing ALS.”
Lastly, one of their daughters who was in utero at Camp Lejeune and born with learning disabilities. All deaths can be linked back to the list of diseases and disabilities from the toxic water. I later learned that they can pass those mutated genes on to their future children. My half brother Joe had childhood leukemia and now I too have joined the club. My dad had four biological children and now 50% of us have had cancer.
My Grandma Nancy with her seven children. She died of breast cancer at age 67. My dad is on the far right side of the log.
From left to right: Cathy (61 – appendix cancer); Patrick (55 – Pancreatic); My dad, Michael (59 – Pancreatic); Kevin (60 – ALS), and Tim, Mark, Colleen.
Early Detection Saves Lives
One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, most of them will be older, but there are still the 4% of those diagnosed that will be under the age of 40 (they estimate that I’ve had mine since I was around 35).
I’m choosing to use this experience as an opportunity to spread the word about how important it is to get screened for all types of cancers and to encourage women to do self-breast exams both by touch and by looking in the mirror. I recently learned that more women find breast cancer themselves than by a doctor.
Side note: if you, like me, have dense or fibrous breast tissue, you might think you’ll never be able to feel anything because everything feels like a lump. I’m here to tell you, when you feel it, you’ll know.
Early detection is crucial and I consider myself fortunate that I found this in the early stages and the prognosis is so promising.
I am beyond lucky to have my husband Stephen, my three beautiful bonus children, and my mom with me every step of the way. I am so thankful to have the support, wisdom, and guidance from my incredible doctors and the loving support of my family and my friends.
This is the only recent family photo we have. We should probably work on that!
I’m hopeful about my future. Cancer made me stronger. It taught me how to be happy and feel fulfilled no matter what’s going on in my life (or the world around me).
Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and today you have choices. Choose to be grateful and empathetic, choose to see the beauty in all things, choose to ask for help, choose to live intentionally, choose to get off your damn phone, choose to grant yourself grace, choose to allow yourself to cry without apology, choose to make yourself a priority, choose to live a guilt-free life, choose to focus on what matters most, choose to be happy.
Please take care of yourselves friends, there are too many people counting on you.
PS. F*ck cancer.