What I’ve Learned as a Breast Cancer Survivor
When I first arrived at the fabulous Hawaiian location for our family vacation, I was overwhelmed with happiness and joy. Aside from the obvious reasons — being on a much-needed trip and unplugging from everything — I was feeling deep gratitude to be alive.
I had been planning this trip for five years. It was the bright light at the end of a dark, long tunnel, called breast cancer treatment.
In 2017, I sat in a doctor’s office with a radiology technician asking me if I had a loved one in the waiting room. My heart sank, but my gut knew something was not right the second I felt an enlarged lymph node in my armpit a few weeks prior. I was my own health advocate and made an appointment. My intuition was shouting, and I was listening.
I was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 2B breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes. I was age 39 with two young sons. My husband and I sat in that room together trying to take in the surreal news. It was also Valentine’s Day — our least romantic one to date.
My entire world got turned upside down. I was young, healthy and unsuspecting of a two-centimeter tumor that had been growing deep in my breast tissue. I drove home the day of that radiology appointment overwhelmed with anxiety. I thought of my kids, wondering if I was going to see them grow up.
One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. I was the ‘one.’ I also tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation. I have been described as an overachiever, but this was certainly not how I wanted to prove that adjective. The gene mutation put me at a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Knowing about the gene mutation is significant in order to make informed health care decisions.
The next few years were a whirlwind of appointments, treatments, surgeries, tests and scans. I felt like I was hit by a tsunami.
I had walked into Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health many times before the day of my diagnosis. I work on the UC San Diego Health communications team. I had spent hours in and out of the building, gathering story ideas to help promote the extraordinary work of the health system.
On March 20, 2017, I walked in as a patient for my first day of chemotherapy. I wore pink boots and even managed a smile. I learned how strong I was that day. I transformed from worrier to warrior. I learned about true empathy as I looked around at the other cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. There is always someone facing a harder challenge.
I had also walked through Jacobs Medical Center at UC San Diego Health while it was under construction. I saw it when it was just rebar and dirt. As it evolved, I walked every hallway and toured the surgical suites, learning about the state-of-the-art building and the innovative care that would be provided. Then, I found myself being wheeled down the hallway for my double mastectomy. I learned how to mourn and accept (not always in that order) parts of my body being removed.
I have experienced firsthand the most comprehensive and compassionate care by remarkable multi-disciplinary teams at the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at UC San Diego Health. I had team members wipe my tears and hold my hand.
My body went to war, and I had an army of experts throughout the entire hospital system to get me through it.
As much as my body went through physically, I have learned that going through breast cancer treatment is just as hard (if not harder, at times) on a person's mental health. The glass is not always half full. It's okay to just be okay on some days. Facing a health crisis is a marathon, not a sprint. I am forever grateful for the village of support, both personally and professionally, who lifted me up when I was brought to my knees.
After nearly two years of treatment, involving 10 chemotherapy sessions, a double mastectomy, 28 radiation sessions, a hysterectomy and breast reconstruction, there is no evidence of cancer. My husband and I learned that I was officially in remission on our wedding anniversary. It made up for Valentine’s Day.
I am now in the chapter of survivorship. I have learned that there is a new set of emotions and obstacles that come on this path. I have learned how to be in the present.
As we honor October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am passionate about sharing my story to educate and provide hope and encouragement to those newly diagnosed. I have learned that these reminders can save your life:
- Mammography is the most effective tool for screening for breast cancer
- Examine your breasts and your armpit areas
- Know your family cancer history
- Talk to your doctor about genetic testing and counseling
- Be your own health advocate
- If the disease is detected early, the survival rate is 98 percent
When I now walk inside UC San Diego Health’s hospitals and clinics, I can’t help but have mixed emotions and flashbacks of some of the hardest days of my life, and some of the most celebratory.
During the early days of my diagnosis, a survivor told me I would one day find the gifts from the journey. I didn’t understand at the time. In fact, I almost didn’t believe her. I have learned she was right.
My life is more vibrant. I have a bucket list to remind me that none of us are guaranteed another day.
I think of cancer every day, however, it no longer consumes me. It motivates and inspires me.
My greatest accomplishments are being a mom and a cancer survivor. Both have taught me the most valuable lessons that I infuse in all aspects of my life.
I hug my kids with an extra squeeze now, knowing I have been given the opportunity through life-saving care to watch them grow up.
I started planning our Hawaii trip to celebrate my five-year cancer free milestone while I was going through the thick of treatment.
As we swam in the warm ocean looking at sea turtles surrounding us, I took mental photos. My breast cancer journey led me to that special moment with my husband and kids. I will remember it forever.
I have never been so elated to cross something off my bucket list.
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