I invited my good friend, Courtney to share her story of overcoming breast cancer. Her story is both powerful and inspiring and I am so grateful for her willingness to share it.
36. On February 14th, 2015 I turned 36 years old. We had so many exciting things planned for that year! My oldest daughter Rachel was starting Kindergarten, my 18-month old (at the time) Hailey would be starting preschool that fall shortly after her 2nd birthday at the same Childhood Development Center Rachel had attended the last four years, remodeling the house, Matt had an exciting year ahead at work, family trip to Disney world planned for October…..SO many plans!
One thing I didn't plan for in 2015 was fighting cancer. But on February 4th, 2015, that all changed. On that Wednesday, 10 days before my 36th birthday, I received a call that brought my world crashing down around me. On that call from my breast surgeon at 8:30 AM, as I lay in bed with my daughters watching cartoons while Matt made us breakfast, I was told I had infiltrating ductal carcinoma in my right breast. 35 years old, and I had breast cancer. To say it was shocking and terrifying would be an understatement.
Given I had a four-generation family history of breast cancer on the maternal side of my family, I knew I was at an increased risk of developing breast cancer at some point in my life. But 35? How was this happening? How was this my new reality?
We immediately went into quick survival mode and started making fast decisions. Based on the aggressive nature of my tumor, we opted for a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. That happened just two weeks after my diagnosis on February 26th.
The four weeks of recovery that followed were hands down my darkest days. I was used to running my household and life, but couldn’t do it in these weeks of recovery without help. And anyone who is a mom with young children used to doing it all on her own knows how difficult it is to ask for help! I couldn’t drive for two weeks. I couldn’t lift my 18-month old daughter onto her changing table, into the bathtub or into her carseat. She wanted me to pick her up and it was impossible to explain to her why I couldn’t and devastating to see the heartbreak on her face when I could not.
But with the help of family and friends, I navigated my way through that dark month just in time to really wrap my mind around the fact that I was facing chemotherapy dead in the face. April 7th would be my first of four rounds of Adriamycin & Cytoxan (A/C), or better known in Cancerland as “The Red Devil”. And rightfully so. I am pretty sure it was concocted at the hands of Lucifer himself.
This is the chemo that causes hair loss, debilitating fatigue, extreme nausea, plummeting white blood cell counts leading to a suppressed immune system and a barrage of other secondary symptoms. Over the course of eight weeks, I received these four infusions, which cumulatively got worse with each round.
After a debilitating bout of hypotension following round four of A/C, my oncologist gave me a three-week break before starting what would be 12 weekly rounds of a much more tolerable chemotherapy called Taxol. The most common side-effect of Taxol is neuropathy, which is tingling & numbing of the extremities. I was lucky to have been able to side-step this ailment and tolerated this part of my treatment relatively well. Aside from fatigue that required a daily mid-day nap, I was able to function like a semi-normal person. Grocery shop, play with my kids, cook dinner, etc. And bonus, my hair started growing back by about round 8! So by the time I made it to my final round on August 25, I was rocking the GI Jane look!
I learned a lot in those nearly seven months from my day of diagnosis to finishing treatment. I learned a lot about myself, my strength, perseverance and resilience. I also learned how truly resilient young children are. My five-year old daughter taught me so much though all of it. She was never scared. Her innocence protected her. She didn’t know what cancer was or the pain and suffering it could inflict. So we kept her on a need-to-know basis and never introduced the “C” word to her. As a result, she did remarkably well through it all. So much better than I ever could have hoped!
Many think that when a cancer patient reaches the end of treatment, all is well, done and you get on back to life. That is true in a sense, but every Survivor has to find a way of settling in to their new normal. Cope with the trauma of what they have gone through - whether it be one or multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation or all of the above! - and come to accept the fact that the illness could come back. And not only early-stage recurrence, but recurrence with a vengeance as metastatic disease, for which there is no cure.
I live my life to the fullest today, knowing that at this moment, I am cured of my disease. I know what my prognosis is and the percentage/likelihood my breast cancer could return as metastatic disease. But I refuse to live my life in that small percentage. I live my life in the greater percentage, hoping and praying that it doesn’t, and most likely, won’t come back as metastatic disease. I live my life by the motto my dear late friend Courtney taught me, showed me and lived her life into her final days as she was battling metastatic disease - Get Up, Dress Up, Show Up, Never Give Up!!!