My breast cancer story started on Thanksgiving Day of 2017 when I wore a new underwire bra.
It dug into my right underarm all day and by bedtime there was a large swollen lump. Luckily, I had my annual physical a couple weeks later and mentioned it to my PCP despite the fact that it was virtually gone. He said it was near a lymph node so he would like to do an ultrasound just to be sure. I had an ultrasound of my right axilla a few weeks later and I could tell that something wasn’t right when multiple people were called into the room. I had to go back for a biopsy of a right axillary lymph node on January 2, 2018 and 3 days later, on January 5, 2018, a nurse navigator called to tell me that I had breast cancer while I was sitting in the waiting room of my 3 year old daughter’s gymnastic class.
Things proceeded quite rapidly from this point.
I saw a breast surgeon 4 days later who explained that my breast cancer was ER+/PR+/HER2- and described the chemo/surgery/radiation protocol that I would probably need depending on the results of future testing. I remember sitting in his office with my sister and being completely overwhelmed. It was so much information, and I was still reeling over the fact that I was fine just days ago. How was it possible that I had cancer? I had no symptoms, and I had a mammogram that was perfectly normal just months before! In order to figure that out and to find out if the cancer was anywhere else in my body, he ordered CT scans of my chest, abdomen and pelvis, a bone scan and a breast MRI. After those tests, the surgeon called me with more bad news. From a conference room at work, I learned that the CT scans showed a lot of involvement with the lymph nodes in my chest. He said I would need to get a biopsy of a chest lymph node in order to determine if it was breast cancer or lymphoma. I will never forget asking him which one I should be hoping for (1 cancer or 2) because he told me that I should be hoping to have 2 cancers because if my chest lymph nodes were also breast cancer then I would be stage IV. On January 31st, I had an MRI guided biopsy of my right breast which confirmed it was the primary site (origin) of my cancer. It was not a solid tumor but was called a non-mass-like enhancement which was described like fingers or peanut butter which is why it does not show on CT or mammogram. Before this I didn’t even know there were breast cancers that were not detectable by mammogram!
Later that day, I met with a thoracic surgeon who explained that he would do a bronchoscopy (which goes down my throat) to biopsy my chest lymph nodes. They would quickly run pathology during the procedure while I was under anesthesia. If the pathology showed breast cancer, the procedure would be stopped. If it was unclear, he would have to do a second procedure which involved cutting my throat in order access other lymph nodes. Basically, if I came out of anesthesia without a cut in my throat, I would know it was breast cancer in my chest and I was metastatic. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. I came out of anesthesia feeling sick and groggy, laying in a recovery room all alone and trying to process that my throat was not cut which meant I had stage IV cancer. No one told me. No one said the words. The results spoke for themselves. As if it could get any worse, they would not let my dad and sister back to see me in recovery because my heart rate was too high. I just remember hearing nurses on the phone saying, “they can’t come back, she’s tachy” (tachycardia) and I wanted to scream “your heart rate would be high too if you just found out you had terminal cancer now can I please see my family!”. It was a lonely and terrifying experience. With this diagnosis, I was told that I would not have the usual cancer treatments and surgery would not change my survival. Instead, I had an oophorectomy to remove my ovaries and tubes in order to reduce the estrogen in my body since my cancer is hormone driven. In addition to being put into immediate menopause, I was put on Letrozole (Femara) which is an aromatase inhibitor to minimize estrogen, Ibrance (Palbociclib) which is a CDK4/6 inhibitor hoping to delay disease progression and a monthly shot of Faslodex (Fulvestrant) which is an estrogen receptor down regulator. These drugs have horrible side effects such as joint pain, hair loss, fatigue, nausea, hot flashes, and I will be on them until they stop working (disease progression) and I need to try something else.
There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer and the prognosis for survival that I was given by my oncologist was 3 years
Statistics say that the 5-year survival rate for metastatic breast cancer is 30%. I am happy to say that I have been stable since diagnosis. I had my 5-year cancerversary this year so I am in that 30%!!! It is definitely something worth celebrating but I do not believe that it was luck! Cancer was a sign for me that I was unhealthy, and I needed to make big changes. I had to do everything in my power to be here as long as possible to raise my 3-year-old daughter. I would leave no stone unturned!
I have worked very hard to keep an open mind and explore holistic therapies and Eastern medicine to complement the traditional treatment I am getting through my oncologist. God has guided my path and I have consulted with various naturopathic doctors and professionals and read numerous books and articles centered around the belief that cancer is a metabolic disease. I have done lots of holistic treatments to support my body including high dose IV vitamin C, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, mistletoe injections, exercise with oxygen therapy, acupuncture and infrared sauna. I have made drastic diet and lifestyle changes. I filter the air and water in my home. I have switched to cleaner personal care and cleaning products. I buy organic meat and produce and have eliminated gluten. I have done the ketogenic diet and tested my ketones and glucose. I intermittent fast daily. I exercise, drink lots of water and use essential oils. I take an unbelievable number of supplements on a daily basis and get frequent bloodwork to monitor my health. I have attempted to reduce the stress in my life by seeing a therapist monthly and attempting to integrate yoga, qigong, meditation and tapping (EFT) into my life. I have made radical changes in my life in an effort to become as healthy as possible and to reduce inflammation in my body so that it has the best chance of keeping my cancer at bay.
Although cancer and these treatments have become a full-time job for me, in some ways they have also been a blessing
They have allowed me to meet many beautiful, strong and determined women. I have made lifelong friends with like-minded women through this process. While some of them have been called home to be with the Lord and I have had to deal with the resulting survivor’s guilt, I am so thankful for the extraordinary gift of their friendship. I am also thankful for the many amazing organizations, both locally and nationally, that provide support to breast cancer patients during such a difficult time.
Being a single mom and sole breadwinner for my family are stressors for me due to the large time commitment and financial burden of trying to “get well”. None of the alternative treatments are covered by insurance and they are all very expensive. Organizations that provide financial and emotional support are truly a gift from God. I have been touched personally by many of them including Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation, Cancer Bridges, The Glock Foundation, Young Adult Survivors United, Unite for Her and United Breast Cancer Foundation. It took me years to find them, and I wish there was a better way for these resources to be made known to newly diagnosed cancer patients. My own breast cancer journey has taught me many important lessons. If I were to share some of those with others faced with cancer, they would be: cherish each day, be your own advocate