As told to Taylor Novak
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 a little late getting it scheduled. My technologist and I were chatting away when I got the mammogram, and I could see the look on her face change.
They took me in to do an ultrasound. I could see the lymph nodes in my armpit on the ultrasound, and I thought, ‘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 a biopsy. The oncologist my boyfriend at the time worked for tried to fast track my results. It happened so fast that I was in shock right away. I just never pictured that it was going to be me at that age.
It was not benign, and they said, ‘We can get you in [for the scan] on Saturday.’ They did a 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 finished my chemo right around the end of July. Then they waited four weeks, and I had my double mastectomy on August 20.
I did 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 the bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, because, again, 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.
Later, I literally had an ‘everything that can go wrong did go wrong’ scenario. I knew that putting implants in radiated tissue was a long shot, but I begged my doctors. I had my first exchange surgery. A few months after that, we were on a family trip to Italy and 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. I decided at that time to have them remove both [implants].
I lost some of my chest wall of my pectoral muscle on that side and 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. 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 had free flap surgery.
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. 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. You really have to get to know yourself in a very different and intimate way when you lose the things that are 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? 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 everyone 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.
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 survive. I did all of that to save my life and reclaim the pieces that were important to me. 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. 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.