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Breast cancer and the unexpected

Things don’t always go as planned. Six small words which hold so much truth.

I first began to learn this lesson as a child, only made more apparent when adulting became a full-time thing. And while some might think I learned this most in the spring of 2020 when I learned of my breast cancer diagnosis, they would be wrong.

Truth be told, the surprise of life versus plans happens all the time. Regardless of your marital status, bank account balance or size of your jeans we all get greeted with not so great “life” surprises on occasion.

Being that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I felt this was the best time to share the second part of my breast cancer story.

First diagnosed in April of 2020, Stage 3, Triple Negative Breast Cancer, would be a new box to fill in on Health Forms, as well as a new title to share with those walking a similar path. We did all the things (chemotherapy — lots, radiation — also lots, as well as a bi-lateral mastectomy). Take that cancer, was my truest feeling when we completed this journey in early summer of 2021.

Supported by a team of optimists, as well as scans that showed “No Evidence Detected” the plans were made to remove my port (the device inserted in my chest to administer chemo) in early fall.

Life is funny and while it might be a taboo topic for a journalist, I’m here to share that I believe in God and He indeed showed up through this unexpected chapter.

Days prior to having my port removed in 2021, my appointment was postponed by a week as my surgeon had a more urgent case to tend to. As a cancer survivor I knew what that meant and simply sloughed it off as no big deal.

What I didn’t know was days later I would find a ball-bearing size lump in my underarm on the right side. Strange as it was, I messaged my surgeon, convinced it had to be an infection of some sort as a result of my reconstruction surgery earlier that summer.

Meeting with her that following week, was one of the more heartbreaking moments in this journey. Her words I’ll never forget and they still sting today as I share them here.

Upon checking the lump, she shared with my mom and I we’d need to do some more tests. The port “Porsche,” as my daughter and I had named it, would have to stay until then.

“We may need it again,” the doctor shared. And the tears did fall. The fear set in and the tests resumed.

In time we would learn the cancer had returned. Three months, three simple, life-filled, short months was what we were treated to and then — more cancer.

Punched in the gut and stunned beyond words, my guy and I slept on the news before making any decisions. I still remember that night very vividly as well. Sharing with him that I wasn’t ready to die. I needed to be here for my children, his children, him, my parents, my friends, what exactly was happening?

Well, as my story goes a night to think on it and a lot of prayer led us to request a referral to leave the Valley and seek treatment in the Bay Area. UCSF Mission Bay would soon be our new home for this battle and we were grateful to add them to the team.

While it is not my intention to bash Valley medicine or doctors in any way, my experience through the past two years of this journey is valid. With the cancer we were fighting (an aggressive cancer, in late stage) we learned that what was best for us was not to just have the help of an Oncologist but a Breast Cancer Oncologist, someone specialized in the field of treating patients like me.

Once again, we would go back to the table to kill this thing once and for all and return to life as we once knew it. Once a week for 12 weeks, UCSF would be my home away from home. The downside nausea and fatigue would return and yes, so would hair loss.

I chuckle as I type this because what I know now, that I didn’t know then was life never really returns to how it once was when you’ve battled cancer. Everything in life post cancer is in High Definition, which is both a plus and a minus. Then there’s the subconscious anger that must be acknowledged and dealt with, not to mention survivor’s guilt when someone you love passes from the disease you survived.

Yet, there is always a silver lining, as well as a bright side and mine would come by way of not just being in some of the best care in the nation, but also the opportunity to save my hair.

For some this is a sign of vanity at its finest and well, I’m at peace with that judgement. While I understand “it’s just hair,” it’s also something more than that. What we came to learn during the first battle was that overall, I could handle most of the treatments pretty well. For the most part, I still looked very much like myself, until I was bald. When one loses their hair however, the world knows you’re not well and wigs just weren’t my thing.

There were a number of silver linings in Chapter 2 of Breast Cancer battle. Weekly trips to UCSF with my favorite ladies in my life (and my guy for the final final), a medical team, which was truly one of a kind and the cooling cap. This invention was so revolutionary in my second chapter that I’m sharing more of it in this issue’s Full of Life feature. Thanks to this, not so simple, invention weekly scalp cooling (aka freezing) during treatment helped me retain my hair.

There were rules which made it a bit challenging, as you basically baby your hair and treat it like fine china. Specific shampoo, wash once a week only, no hair products, no blow drying, no styling tools and silk pillowcases. And yes, I did all the things. Gratefully it was winter and hats quickly became my BFF.

Late March of this year, we once again finished the battle. Another finish line in one more marathon of this amazing life. Once again, I am typing this just days before my port is to be removed.

Yet here’s the point/landing the plane in this long-winded chapter telling.

We really never know what’s to come next. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time for us as women, daughters, sons, spouses and friends to stop and remember/encourage self-care. Early detection can be so instrumental in preventing another woman from any of the path I’ve traveled and that’s a good thing. The resources are there, but you have to have the discipline to simply take the time. Trust me on this one … one day of scheduling a not so fun appointment can save you two years of “is this really happening.” Take good care.