Pink. I used to love the color pink. It was a color I would wear to brighten my days. It is the color of pretty flowers, the yummy icing on a cake, and reminds me of a beautiful plumeria smell.
Pink is now a color I try to avoid when possible.
I found out I had breast cancer a few months ago. My nurse practitioner didn’t like what she saw on my routine mammogram scans and sent me to a general surgeon. That action, perhaps even a little overly-cautious, set off a chain of events that I believe ultimately saved my life. I’m forever grateful to her.
I was adopted when I was a few months old. My birth mother was 17 when she gave me up and had decided only a few weeks before I was born that she wanted me to grow up with another family. My grandmother was only in her late 30s. I only know this because it’s what I learned from some old records of my adoption that I obtained as an adult (that I had to pay $100 to receive). Those records state that there is no family history of anything out of the ordinary health wise – no cancers, no strange diseases. I never questioned this, as I have been very, very healthy my whole life. I’m very rarely sick and have never done drugs or smoked.
When the lump was detected in my breast, the surgeon told me about a test called BRCA that discovers if you are the carrier of a gene (either BRCA1 or BRCA2) that increases your likelihood of breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both. He said it would be very rare for me to test positive, as I was HER2 positive (a specific type of breast cancer) and negative for the other areas. I told him that I knew nothing about my family after the age of late 30s and I needed to know if the genetic BRCA was in me, for my daughter’s sake.
It was an easy test that they had in the office. I spit into a cylinder and the medical assistant sent it off. I would know in about two weeks or so. In the mean time, the surgeon wanted to schedule my surgery for three weeks from then. He thought a lumpectomy would be perfect as the cancer was small and he could get it out. From there, I would have chemotherapy and radiation and then reconstruction on the right side.
That night, I could not sleep. I wondered – how will I tell my daughter? What will I tell her? How will she react? Can I just hide it from her?
When we become a mom, our whole world is our new baby. We want to protect him/her, take care of him/her and love him/her until the end of time. One thing we don’t think about when babies are born is how to break bad news to them one day when they are older. The conversation does not seem imaginable. Their little lives are supposed to be about slime, playgrounds, fun play dates, and sports. Those bad news conversations seem to be so far off in the distant future. Babies grow into little people and into little adults so quickly in the blink of an eye. I never thought about how I would tell my daughter I had cancer until I did have it, and I needed to tell her.
The three weeks went by and I had nearly forgotten about the spit-test. I was at work, preparing to be out on leave for a few weeks when I got a phone call from the medical assistant at my surgeon’s office. The surgeon needed my husband and I to come in that day. I thought that we would be going over the lumpectomy for the next day. My surgeon came in, looking somber, and I knew this was not good news. He said that there must be a higher power looking over me because despite his own belief that it was very unlikely, my BRCA gene test came back positive that I was a carrier of the cancer gene. It meant that the cancer could come back and I was susceptible to ovarian cancer as well.
This meant a visit to the oncologist to see how he wanted to proceed. The surgeon canceled my procedure for the next morning. A bilateral mastectomy to remove both breasts, instead of a small portion of one, was scheduled.
I remember the day well in October when I found out I had breast cancer. My husband and I had just celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary. I had a few mammograms in the summer when the ARNP at my OBGYN’s office noticed some spots that looked out of place and a lot of fibrous tissue and referred me to a general surgeon. I met the general surgeon and he was very nice and calming. He had me do follow up tests of an ultrasound and then an MRI. When the MRI was conducted, he was shocked to see a spot that had never shown on any test before in the bottom part of my right breast. He immediately had a biopsy scheduled for me the next week. Up to this point, I was going to the appointments on my own, as I had not been too concerned. Now it was a different story.
My husband went with me to the biopsy and held my hand before I went into the surgical room. He told me everything would be okay and that he loved me. The truth is that he’s a pretty good guy. He’s always been my rock, and my daughter’s too. I felt reassured that no matter what the results showed, I would be in good hands at home. Our daughter knew I was having some health tests done but not the extent of them.
A few days later, the biopsy results were in and we went to see my surgeon. He confirmed that the spot that showed on the MRI was cancer, though it was still less than 4 mm.
My heart sank and tears started down my face. I had been running 4 to 5 days a week, training for my first marathon, going to spin class, lifting weights and feeling fine. How could this be true? I was in the best shape of my life, setting personal records for myself in races that I never thought were imaginable. It would be a few weeks before I realized that breast cancer does not discriminate. When I started doing my own research, I found out that it doesn’t matter if you are healthy or active. Breast cancer can still show up. In fact, my doctor said it had been there for 2 to 4 years! I have been exercising at least 5 days a week for the past 4 years.
In the weeks that followed, I met with a lot more healthcare professionals: My oncologist, radiologist and also the plastic surgeon. When I met with the oncologist, he told me “no” to running my first marathon in a few months. I would be in the midst of chemotherapy, he said, and it would be too much on my body. He had run marathons himself and knew the toll it takes on a completely healthy body and he was afraid of dehydration. He told me to plan for 4 weeks of absolutely no running after the lumpectomy.
Four weeks? Does he know how long that is in a runner’s world?
The day before my surgery, I went on my usual Monday run with my Fellowship of Christian Athletes group and to my surprise, the rest of my best running friends showed up too! They brought me flowers and were there to run with me my last time before my 4-week break, due to the surgery. We were all set with my mother in law staying over that night and taking our daughter to school that morning.
According to Judy C. Kneece, RN in the Your Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook, allowing the child to ask questions is very helpful. If you or your spouse/partner starts to cry when telling the news to your child, assure him/her that this is because you are sad and it is okay to be sad. Make sure your child knows that he/she won’t be abandoned and they will be looked after when you are in the hospital. Ms. Kneece also says to allow the child to be part of the treatment and to maintain the child’s social activities.
We keep our daughter busy in sports. She plays basketball in the winter and softball in the fall and spring. Keeping this active, consistent routine in her life has been really helpful to me going into this unknown territory.
Our daughter is smart and can read a person’s face and knows when something is not right. One week before the lumpectomy, she came in our room one Saturday morning and cuddled up with us. I looked at her and had tears in my eyes. This was the moment I needed to tell her.
I said, “Sweetheart, mommy is having surgery this week but everything is going to be okay.” She looked at me with those beautiful blue eyes and said, “I knew something was wrong mommy, you never have a lot of doctors appointments. You are always very healthy and you exercise.” I said to her, “The doctor found cancer in mommy’s breast and is going to take it out. We are very lucky that he found it early.” She told me she wanted to stay with me in the hospital, but I explained she would not be able to, but she could come see me and then I would be out and home the next day.
My oncologist is pretty awesome as well and when my husband and I went in to see him, he told us he recommended a bilateral mastectomy. This was hard to comprehend as I had originally planned on just a removal of the cancer and possible reconstruction. Now I had to prepare myself quickly for the full removal of both breasts. My doctor said he was worried to leave any tissue as my cancer was aggressive and I am BRCA positive.
He said I’d need three chemo drugs to combat this after removal and that would mean also losing my hair. It was very hard for me to wrap my head around all of this. I had always been healthy; very rarely ever having a cold — to breast cancer and removal of both breasts, reconstruction and chemotherapy.
I had been against a bilateral removal when I had the original diagnosis, but now I just wanted it all out and never to get it again. I wanted to get this surgery over with, as I was tired of all of the doctor appointments, tests, and stress. I am young, healthy and my doctor said if he got it all now, I have a good chance of it not coming back. Now, I had to tell my daughter, again, the new diagnosis.
This time, I chose to tell her on the way home from school. We always have great conversations in the car and I felt the time was right. I explained to her that the doctors needed to do something different and both breasts would be removed so I would be off work for about a month and having a nurse come to the house every day for two weeks or so. She was quiet, as she always has been since a little girl. She tends to think about things first, and ask questions later. I could tell she was comprehending what I was saying. I told her that I’d be getting new “summer boobs” in a few months to replace the ones coming out. She nodded her head. She seemed okay with what I was saying.
Surgery was delayed about three weeks until after Thanksgiving. I was excited to have more time to run with my friends and workout, as well as enjoy Thanksgiving and volunteering at one of my favorite races, the Space Coast Half and Full marathon. The bad news was that I was supposed to fly to Memphis to stay with friends and run the St. Jude’s Half Marathon in December; now I wasn’t able to do that and had to cancel my plane ticket. This cancer really put a wrench in things. The first person I texted was my training partner for my marathon that I wasn’t able to run anymore. I told her that I wanted to make sure we continued to train the next few weeks and I wanted to get my goal mileage of a run of 16 miles. I had only run up to 14 miles at this point. Her training plan had her at 16 the day after Thanksgiving and I was excited to be able to reach this with her and also go out strong. (we accomplished it, by the way!)
The next few weeks went by quickly. I gathered things I needed at home to get ready; we got the recliner out of the garage and set it up in my bedroom. I’d need to sleep for a few weeks sitting up while I had drains in from surgery. I had to keep my body elevated, along with my arms. I was not going to be able to drive, dress on my own or shower. I was going to need help with everything. I have always been very independent and God was going to really test my patience with needing help for two weeks.
The day before surgery came and my mother in law was staying over so she could take our daughter to school. I had to be at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. I asked our daughter if she had any questions and she said no and I told her I would see her two days later when she got home from school. I only needed to stay over one night.
Quite a few of my friends came to see me at the hospital. I hated being there, it was not quiet, the lady sharing the room with me was crazy and I just wanted to be at home. Two of my best girlfriends picked up my daughter from school the day of my surgery and took her to dinner and made sure she got her homework done. The first thing I asked when I came out of surgery was: “Did Kennedy finish her homework?”
Finally the next day about noon, the plastic surgeon came to check on me and said I was ready to go home. My husband stayed at home with me the first week and took good care of me. I had a nurse come each day to check my bandages and take my temperature and make sure I didn’t have any infections. After the first week, my husband went back to work and my best friend for the past 30 years came to stay with me from North Carolina. She was ready to cook, clean, brush my daughter’s hair, drive my daughter to school and do all the mom things I could not do. She was a life-saver. I was sad that I couldn’t take care of my sweet girl but was glad she was here to help me.
My daughter loves science and things from the body do not gross her out; she actually thinks it is all very cool. As stated earlier, Judy Kneece states that allowing the child to be part of the treatment is helpful. When the nurse would come to change my bandages, my daughter asked if she could watch. When I had to drain my drains two times a day, my daughter wanted to watch. I was afraid at first that she would have nightmares, but she thought it was cool and wanted to be a part of it each time. She asked to help me each day with whatever I needed and that was really nice.
When Christmas break began and I had appointments to go to, she went with me each time. She really wanted to be a part of everything and she was doing just fine with adjusting.
I needed to get a wig from the American Cancer Society during break and she said she wanted to go with me to make sure I picked out one that was really pretty. She told me that if I was bald, she would like for me to wear a scarf or a wig at all times when she was around. I thought, well, I can definitely honor that request.
Fast forward a few weeks and through the first chemo, my hair started coming out in clumps the week before my second treatment. I washed it and when I took the hairbrush to it, it was like a bee hive. After the bristles touched the hair, it started hanging down like a beard. I was mortified and my sweet hubby was out of town for his birthday. I didn’t want to tell my daughter what was going on so I hid in the bathroom until I could get it under control. I tried to see if I could get my hair into a ponytail and make it look normal. It was balding in a few places. The top looked like something burned the hair away and there was a big bald spot. I was able to eventually get it pulled back.
I texted my friend to tell her what happened and she invited me to go with her the next afternoon to her hairdresser’s with her to get my head shaved. I felt relief. I needed help and didn’t want to do this alone. Up until that point, I was always telling myself that maybe I wouldn’t lose my hair. But it was official — it was really coming out and there was no saving it.
The next morning, I went for a run with my Fellowship of Christian Athletes group so I could relax. When I got home, I tried to get my hair to where I would be presentable for work. My daughter came in my bathroom and I explained what happened and she helped me find a thick headband to cover the spot on the top. All I could think about was, please just let me get to 1:30 p.m. to get my head shaved and throw a wig on.
My friend surprised me at the appointment with a glass of red wine so I could get through the shaving. It turned out that the hairdresser’s mom had breast cancer years ago and she was really happy to help me and I was extremely grateful. She told me I had a cute round head. I was determined to never walk around in public with my bald head so I pulled out my wig and asked her to adjust it for me. I felt pretty and ready to conquer the world.
When I picked my daughter up from basketball practice that night, she ran to me like she did when she was young and right into my arms. I think she was relieved that I got everything fixed. That night, we were at home and she asked to see my head. She always told me that she did not want to see me bald but now that it had happened, she seemed to have a change of heart. I grabbed a hold of the scarf I had put on when we got home and started to slowly take it off. I asked her if she was sure and she said yes. When I got it off my head, she rubbed my head and told me I looked beautiful. When I heard those words from her, I knew everything would be okay and I was going to make it through the next four treatments.
Update: Since writing this, I’ve started going sans wig a few places – like a recent race I ran where I just put a hat on top of my bald head and went for it. My husband and daughter ran it with me.
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Tags: breast cancer