At 41 years old, Lesley Nygaard was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. What could have been a devastating experience inspired her to create a naturopathic medicine company to help others.
In March 2009, I was 41 years old. I had no aunt or mother or grandmother or immediate family member that had ever had breast cancer. I saw my doctor, and she right away said, ‘I need to send you for a mammogram.’ I knew I needed to get one at 40 but there was no reason for me to have one earlier than that because I have no family history. I was just a little late getting it scheduled, but when I went in, they did the mammogram. My technologist and I were chatting away and I could see the look on her face change. I said, ‘You see something. I know you can’t say anything.’ And she said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to tell you. The radiologist today is really awesome.’
They took me in to do the ultrasound. And I can see on the ultrasound the lymph nodes in my armpit, and I was like, ‘This is not good.’ Unfortunately, I had somewhat of a science background, and that kind of knowledge is not necessarily a good thing in certain scenarios.
I had the biopsy and I was actually supposed to be leaving on an international company business trip to Canada that weekend. I was flying on a Saturday, and they said, ‘Hey, we can get you a PET scan.’ Because at that point, they already knew that I had lymph node involvement, but they didn’t know what type of cancer it was yet, and I wasn’t totally staged. I think it happened so fast that I was in shock right away. To be honest, I just didn’t really think it was going to be that. I just never pictured that it was going to be me at that age.
It turned out it was not benign, and they said, ‘We can get you in [for the scan] on Saturday.’ So, I had to call my company and I found out the only way I could change an international business flight was with the permission of the CEO. And I thought, wow, I have to tell the CEO I have cancer before I can even tell my mom and my sister.
There was part of me that thought you go and get chemo and radiation and then you just kind of pick up your life exactly where you left off. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
They did the PET scan, and I was stage III. I had invasive ductal carcinoma. I had a pretty large tumor. And I was ER positive, PR positive and HER2 negative. I was being treated at the Tahoe Forest Cancer Center, which is a small satellite facility affiliated with the University of California, Davis. They presented me to the tumor board and an awesome physician there, Dr. Helen Chew, said, ‘It’s really weird that it’s so advanced and she’s so young. We should check her for the BRCA gene.’ I was positive.
I started chemotherapy in April of 2009. I was really fortunate that I had a really great response to the chemotherapy. I did have really bad mouth sores at one point. I obviously lost my hair. Pretty much, it was about as bad as it could be, but I’m a fighter and I worked through my entire diagnosis.
I finished my chemo right around the end of July. And then they waited four weeks, and I had my double mastectomy on August 20. So technically my cancer free day, or my date that I feel like is my cancerversary, is August 20, 2009.
After the double mastectomy, I had to wait about a month or so. I got breast implants for aesthetic reasons before I had breast cancer, and they were under the muscle. When I had my double mastectomy, we tried to preserve those as a space saver so I wouldn’t need expanders. I knew I wanted reconstruction. Unfortunately, my surgeon thought there was some fluid in there and tried to aspirate it and actually punctured the implant. The cancer side had to be radiated, and because of my advanced cancer and my age, they just let it absorb to move forward with radiation.
You really have to get to know yourself in a very different and intimate way when you lose the things are somewhat a part of defining that vision of yourself.
I wanted either both breasts off or both breasts on. I never wanted to be asymmetric. That was a big thing for me, but life has a way of teaching us lessons.
I did my radiation. My skin held up fairly well compared to people around me, but I did have a lot of fatigue. After that I had to wait about a month or so, and then I had a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, because with the BRCA gene, the removal of ovaries is standard of care. Then I suggested that my sisters get checked and two of them were also BRCA positive. They have both since done the prophylactic double mastectomy and oophorectomy.
I literally had an ‘everything that can go wrong did go wrong’ scenario then. I knew that putting implants in radiated tissue was a long shot, but I begged my doctors. I had the first exchange surgery and a few months later, on a family trip to Italy, I had a massive infection. We tried it again with a smaller implant, and a few months after that, I had another infection. In that situation, it was really dire. We weren’t able to get it under control with antibiotics. I was going into septic shock and I ended up in emergency surgery. And I decided at that time to have them remove both implants.
I lost some of the chest wall of my pectoral muscle. From the infection, I had an open wound, so I did about a month of hyperbaric oxygen and wound care to try to get it to heal because it was a mess. It was very disfiguring and horrific. My doctors told me to give myself a break, but this was the only time in my entire cancer journey where I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is the answer, if this is how I want to live.’ So, I went and had free flap surgery.
I struggled a lot with the fact that I went through this huge chemical warfare on my body that has saved my life. You’re on autopilot. You don’t stop and really think about the collateral damage like: how is my life going to be changed, how is my quality of life going to be changed, how am I going to be changed by all this?
I’ve had about 17 surgeries in my lifetime, about 12 of them in the last 11 years and in some way, shape or form, attributed to my breast cancer. But I still go out and try to live a life that’s extraordinary. Every year when it’s Cancer Survivors Day or Cancer Awareness Day, I make a point to post on all my social media channels because I’ve lost a lot of people. But I was fortunate. I always tell people that if you’re a survivor, you really owe it to the people that didn’t get a second bite at the apple to really make it your best life and live your life to your fullest, not just for yourself but as an honor to the people that didn’t get that lucky.
There was part of me that thought you go and get chemo and radiation and then you just kind of pick up your life exactly where you left off. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are definitely psychological components because your body is forever changed. As a woman, most of us care about how we appear, and our hair and our breasts are very intricately linked into that self-image and you lose those. You really have to get to know yourself in a very different and intimate way when you lose the things are somewhat a part of defining that vision of yourself.
I struggled a lot with the fact that I went through this huge chemical warfare on my body that has saved my life. You’re on autopilot. You don’t stop and really think about the collateral damage like: how is my life going to be changed, how is my quality of life going to be changed, how am I going to be changed by all this? Because the one thing that I think is pretty consistent with everyone I talk to is you’re definitely changed, you’re never going to be the same person you were before this happened, and people have different fundamental makeup in their ability to deal with those aspects, whether they’re physical or psychological. It was super cool to be in support groups when I was going through it with different points of view, just the whole different way that women relate to their breasts or their lack thereof. It was enlightening and I grew a lot as a person through all of that.
[Ultimate Vitality] came out of the fact that I actually did use an integrative approach. I worked with a naturopath who was a cancer survivor. She talked to my oncologist and there were certain supplements that I took before infusions and after infusions so it wouldn’t interfere. Once other people finished treatment, they thought I was bouncing back so much better than they were and I didn’t seem to have as much collateral damage. I always remind everybody that everybody’s different and everybody’s makeup and biology and chemistry is slightly different. But they would say, ‘Hey, what are you doing, why do you seem like you’re not as fatigued and you’re feeling well?’ I would tell people what I was doing, and they wanted to do similar things.
Doctors do a great job of getting you through it, but nobody tells you how to live after. It’s all about reclaiming yourself after that and, in some cases, redefining yourself.
I think the biggest thing was that, because I had always had an interest in alternative medical approaches or integrative approaches, I noticed that I even had to do a lot of trial and error. There are some areas where women don’t have access to that kind of information and education. They think it’s not even an option. I wanted to pave the way for other people and not have them have to try as many things as I did to figure it out. I’m happy to share what I know. I wanted to make sure people knew what their choices were, and what options are available because it’s a tough time and anything that anybody can do to make it a little easier is awesome.
I really have embraced the concept of being a thriver. In the first five years, it is about surviving that five-year mark. It is a critical timeline for people. But after that, I don’t want to just have survived. I did all of that to save my life and reclaim the pieces that were important to me. I think people really like talking to me because I had stage III cancer, and I’ll be at 12 years this year. I’m kind of a huge motivating factor for people who are newly diagnosed. It just gives them a ton of hope that you can have late-stage cancer and still live. In the beginning it’s super scary and everyone knows that the first five years are so stressful. Doctors do a great job of getting you through it, but nobody tells you how to live after. It’s all about reclaiming yourself after that and, in some cases, redefining yourself.