Breast cancer thriver Tracee Cole shares her experience of being diagnosed with stage II triple-positive breast cancer a mere month before COVID-19 shut the world down.
As told to Francesca Halikias
My life before [my breast cancer diagnosis] was normal. I have three children, so I was really involved in their lives. Both of my boys were in the same college for a couple years together before my oldest had graduated. They were in choir so we would go to their choir concerts. We’d go to [any programs my daughter had at school]. I was a Wednesday evening cook at my church. Most of that changed [after my diagnosis].
When I first got diagnosed, my oncologist [said] don’t live in a bubble, but be cautious and be careful. We were hearing of COVID-19 at that time but after my first treatment, the whole world went into lockdown. I had to live in a bubble because we didn’t know much about COVID, and we had to be so careful. Pretty much the only thing I did was go to appointments.
My husband came to all original appointments, and I had a port placement surgery [that he was there for as well]. My husband and my mom got to come to my first chemo appointment, and then my daughter got to come after school. After that, I had to go by myself. My husband would drop me off and I had to go in and usually either saw the doctor or got bloodwork done. [Then] I would start my infusion.
Feb. 11, 2020 was when I got diagnosed, and from there everything went so fast [with] so many appointments. No family members could come [to my appointments during COVID.] At first it was a bit hard. [I had my chemo regimen] every three weeks. I had six total [chemo treatments] and after my infusion, which was always on a Wednesday, that following Monday and Thursday I’d be back [at the hospital] for hydration, and then that following week I’d be back there and I’d have another hydration, and then my chemo infusion again.
Right from the beginning, I went into fight mode. I still am positive, and I’ve been positive throughout it. I felt pretty good that the chemo would work because two or three years before I had gotten diagnosed—I was stage II triple-positive—it would have been a bad cancer to get. They wouldn’t have known how to cure it and my outcome probably wouldn’t have been that good.
When I went to see my oncologist every three weeks, she would always feel my lump, and we could feel it shrinking, so we knew the chemo was working. By the time I went for my surgery, it was pretty much gone. But I chose to do a bilateral mastectomy, so they removed everything, and I also had lymph node involvement. That’s why I think my regimen was harder. I know other people that are triple positive, and the paths are different. I feel like with all breast cancer patients, our stories are all very similar yet they’re all very different.
I got used to going by myself. I typically had the same nurse. They’d try to pair you with a nurse that you’ll have most of the time, so I got to know her well. That was nice. [During] my last [chemo treatment], things were starting to open up again, so my husband was able to come with me and I was allowed to bring one other person with me to that last one. [It] was nice to have him there again.
When I met with my oncologist, I also got a second opinion at Mayo [Clinic] in Minnesota, and all the paths for my cancer and my stage were the same. I had the chemo, and then bilateral mastectomy. There was a wait in between each one because you need your body to heal, and then after the mastectomy, I started radiation. I was supposed to do 25 rounds of radiation, [but] after my 15th round I got an infection [and was] admitted to the hospital.
I was in the hospital for five days with four surgeries. Then I healed from that, and I was able to finish up. [My doctor] cut my time down, [so] I only had to do eight [rounds of chemotherapy] instead of my last 10, so I finished eight rounds of radiation and then healed from that and then I had to finish out a year of my hormone therapy. I finished that in February [of this year] and then was supposed to have my exchange surgery, [but] because of my radiated breast that I had, [my doctor] didn’t feel comfortable doing the exchange surgery. I ended up having the Latissimus Dorsi Flap surgery, where they take a portion of your back muscle and move it. I had that surgery, and in July I finally finished with my last surgery. I had the exchange surgery then.
“I feel like with all breast cancer patients, our stories are all very similar yet they’re all very different.“
Hopefully I’m done. Because of having that initial infection, I am at higher risk that my body could reject the implants that I have in. That can happen any time. It can happen a year down the road, or it may not happen at all. So that’s in the back of my head. I try to watch for signs of infection.
I’m still fearful of catching COVID. I’m vaccinated, but I’ve been through so much and I don’t want one more thing. I hear how bad it is even with people who have gotten their vaccines and still get COVID, and I don’t want to deal with that. Comfortability-wise, I have to do what’s right for me. It’s hard coming out of [breast cancer]. I try to be more aware of everything around me and be grateful for things.[My breast cancer] was probably hardest on my husband because he wanted to help me, but when you have chemo going through you, he can’t take it away or do anything. [My kids and husband] were all very helpful. My boys are older, and they understood and were helpful throughout it. My daughter was 12, and I wanted her to know that I was OK. When I had my surgeries and had tubes coming out of me, I didn’t hide things from her. Same thing when I lost my hair—I just tried to show her [I was OK] throughout every surgery I had. I was thankful she could come to my first [appointment] and the end of my chemo treatment. I think that was the biggest thing for her, being younger, just knowing that I was going to be OK.
Stay as positive as you can. I know every day is hard and not every day is great, but if you can stay positive the best that you can, that’s what got me through cancer.