STRENGTH AND BEAUTY AFTER THEIR BREAST CANCER JOURNEYS
We think all your stories are inspirational! Read them below and feel free to share them! Three winners will be chosen in March as Amoena Ambassadors. See our contest rules for details.
Before my breast cancer journey, I always saw myself as physically strong and capable of pushing myself to the limit. I was always very active and participated in Zumba classes as an instructor, lifted weights, and kayaked on the river on a regular basis. The diagnosis of breast cancer, its subsequent treatments and many surgeries have left me with less than ideal stamina and some evident physical limitations. I have since found that I have to focus on the inner drive that helped me to reach all of those past achievements and to channel this energy in different ways. One of the ways that I am doing this is by being a cofounder of a local YSC Face to Face support group. We currently have 15 members and have regularly scheduled monthly meetings and speaker events. I have also reinvented my strength and sense of beauty by trying to set a positive example for my young daughter, Gabrielle. I strive to show her daily that women can and will fac e many obstacles (like cancer) and can make the choice to continue to move forward and make a positive difference in the lives of others. True beauty resides within the person regardless of their physical or outward appearance. The beauty of an individual comes from how we treat and give back to others. After all, this is what has brought the greatest meaning and fulfillment to my life.
My chances were 1/20,000. Even after finding out I had a genetic predisposition towards breast cancer by testing positive for the BRCA2 mutation, I was shocked to find out I had cancer. It was just 2 weeks after my 27th birthday and I was finishing a primary care residency program as a Family Nurse Practitioner at The Community Health Center, Inc. I had spent countless hours training to become a nurse practitioner and with in a second I was thrust from the position of a provider into the position of a patient. Oddly enough, I chose primary care as my specialty because of breast cancer. Growing up, breast cancer was always a part of my life because it explained why I didn’t have a maternal grandmother. As I got older, I watched my Aunt Pat fight through years of chemo before passing away from this disease four years ago. When I was in high school my mom was diagnosed and it was through her experience I realized I wanted to be a healthcare provider. I saw the paramount importance of preventative medicine: My mom was screened aggressively and had an excellent prognosis thanks to early detection. My aunt did not have insurance or access to healthcare and was diagnosed too late. From my family’s experience and knowledge from my professional life, my mom and I pursued genetic testing, recognizing that it was an opportunity for early detection and awareness for me. We both tested positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation. Mutation is a tough word, with all sorts of negative connotations, and I found my friends and family took it hard when I told them about it. However, I was glad to know. This was part of my genetic make up whether I was aware of it or not. Knowing gave me the power to protect myself from cancer since my DNA wasn’t going to be able to. We found my cancer unexpectedly through “baseline” testing ordered by a high-risk oncologist. The baseline MRI lead to a biopsy that I was reassured would be “nothing” given the odds of breast cancer at my age. My oncologist called me at work three days later and since I was with patients of my own, we played phone tag all day. When she finally told me the news, my world spun and tears involuntarily flowed from my eyes. The first thing I said to her was, “How am I going to tell my mom?” My mom lost her mother at the age of four to breast cancer as well as her beloved younger sister, and she herself was a survivor. How much more could one woman take? After a few minutes of crying, I used my healthcare training to focus on a plan. My instinct was to tackle this head on. We set up appointments to see the oncologist the next day and I left work to go home to tell my family. The minute I walked into the house my mom knew. I didn’t even have to say anything. She hugged me and told me we would get through this together, and she, along with my entire family, never left my side. She was at every appointment and was there through thick and thin including helping me change my dressings, milk my Jackson Pratt drains and even would wear her bathing suit in the shower with me to wash my hair. She was the epitome of strength and I joke with her that although she gave me a faulty gene, she also gave me important ones like her resiliency and toughness. It was when I was on the stretcher, in my hospital gown with an IV in place, waiting for my mastectomy that those traits were put into use. I promised myself I would not let this experience me anything but positive since we found my disease early and I had much to be grateful for. I decided then and there I would join awareness groups and I felt strongly that this was meant to shape my career in some way. A few weeks after my mastectomy, I went to an information session for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. I wanted to participate for the past few years but the financial requirements and the preparation of walking 39 miles seemed arduous and I never felt I could commit. After being diagnosed with cancer, I wanted to do something this drastic and my mom and I decided to sign up for the walk. We used walking as a way to help me heal and it was great to get fresh air, to move my body, to focus on a goal larger than myself. A few weeks into training, I was asked if I would be willing to give the keynote speech sharing my story at the end of the walk. I was beyond flattered and hoped my story could inspire and bring strength to other women. Walking those 39 miles with my mom and giving the speech among the supportive community of people dedicated to breast cancer awareness was one of the most amazing moments of my life. In between my second and third surgery, I joined a newly founded group called The Pink Agenda, which focuses on raising money for research on young women with breast cancer and I am now the Secretary of the board. I also wrote articles for the Huffington Post and cnn.com iReport because I recognized it is important that people know that breast cancer CAN happen to younger women and it does! It was from my involvement with The Pink Agenda and the article in Huffington Post that I was invited to the Vice President’s house for his Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Reception as a young survivor. Shortly thereafter, I was also nominated to the Center for Disease Control Advisory for Young Women with Breast Cancer and I am waiting to see if I am selected. After my third surgery, I decided to take a risk and apply for my doctorate. This is not something I need to practice as a nurse practitioner but this degree will allow me to conduct research, which I plan to focus around early detection of breast cancer. I want to focus on those, like my aunt and my current patients, who are uninsured or underinsured. I start interviews in the next few weeks, and if accepted, I plan to research the barriers to primary care providers in community health centers identifying high-risk individuals and referring for genetic counseling. As part of my first choice program I am expected to find an issue in healthcare and present it in Washington DC to government officials and, if accepted, I plan for that issue to be breast cancer related. Although getting involved and furthering my professional goals to focus on making a change in breast cancer has been rewarding, some of the most meaningful experiences I have had come from relationships developed and people touched by this disease. An acquaintance of mine from college had seen my cnn.com article and asked me to reach out to a friend of hers who also went to our college who I had never met. She had recently found out she was BRCA2 positive and was just diagnosed with DCIS. We became breast cancer buddies and I emailed with her several times a week over the course of months to talk with her about what to expect and to support her through each of her surgeries. She is doing great and we plan to meet in person at a BRCA conference in Philadelphia this June. It felt really good to be able to calm someone’s fears, to listen to their concerns, hear her insights and to share the joys and triumphs of another woman in such a similar situation as mine. People say it’ s a sisterhood, and it is, so I feel its necessary that we are there for one another. I hope that I was a source of strength to her as my mother was for me. Looking back at this experience it’s amazing to realize the multitude of transformations that occurred in the past year and a half. I lost both breasts but I found my voice, and to me that confidence and self-assurance is more beautiful. I found out so much about myself after being put to the breast cancer test. To me, I passed the test not because I am cancer free but because of the attitude I had during the process. I am a survivor because I made it through a bad experience but I am a strong woman because of the way I went about it. In the past year and a half, I have faced things that made my heart beat fast, made me cry, intimidated me and scared me such as the multiple surgeries, starting Tamoxifen, speaking in front of a huge audience, walking 39 miles, or even meeting the Vice President and I was able to make it through. To me strength is what you do in a scary, unknown situation and breast cancer is certainly that. Along the way there were undoubtedly times of sadness and grief but through accepting the “pink-linings” that fill the path and keeping positive I emerged stronger than ever, Ironically, from being diagnosed with cancer where I have seen death, I found a new and exciting way of looking at life and that is the most beautiful pink lining of all. I may have had 1/20,000 chance of developing cancer at my age but I know I have 100% chance of making a positive impact on the disease and the amazing people it affects.
My mother had gone through breast cancer. She and I were both BRCA-1 positive. I myself was diagnosed at 33, a month before I married my husband. I began preparing for a mastectomy and facing the unknown. I was not afraid that I would be less feminine. My fear was about feeling less whole with a part of my body missing. I would likely have felt the same way had I been required to say goodbye to my arm or my foot. But this would be a different kind of loss, a more private one. One that would be hidden in the curves of reconstruction or a breast-like prosthesis, that those around me would not know about unless they were told. I have always drawn strength and support from nature, and by writing. I was newly transplanted into the fast-paced suburbs of Long Island. I turned to the sea. I found my strength and my center beside the crashing waves whose churning could transform even shards of glass into something new, something beautiful. I reclaimed my own beauty and sense of wholeness, as the sea began smoothing away my own rough edges. My medical team met with the tumor board to discuss treatment options, knowing that my husband and I wanted very much to have a child together. Having a baby post breast cancer is a controversial topic, and we were delighted to hear that recent studies appeared more favorable. We weighed out the risks with our hopes and dreams and decided to go for it. We were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. I was able, with my remaining breast, to nurse her exclusively for six and a half months and regularly for two years. Once my daughter was weaned, I had my second, prophylactic mastectomy. I also removed my ovaries, greatly reducing my risk of further BRCA-related cancers. I have decided against having reconstruction. It’s a very personal decision, and each woman faced with it must reach her own conclusions. I felt that I would be more accepting of my scars than I would of reconstructed breasts. During the four and a half years in between my breast cancer diagnosis and my risk-reducing surgeries, I lost my longest and dearest friend—my mother. Contemplative time in nature, and expressing my feelings through pen and paper provided me once again with the deeply rooted strength I needed to pull myself through. I have made peace with my scars. They are a part of me, but they do not define me. Seeing them reminds me of my strength each day, which encompasses my womanhood even without breasts. Through this strength I have reclaimed my beauty, which is manifested in the way that I live my life. I feel it’s extremely important to make the most of what I have. I have been through some difficult things in my life, but if I can help someone else who is going through something that I have been through, then my suffering was not in vain. I am writing a book, The Breast and the Sea, about the journeys of women who have come through their breast cancer experiences with courage, beauty, and inspiration. Each woman is interviewed and has her portrait taken. When I was going through cancer, I desperately needed to hear positive stories. I needed to hear how other women came out of this life-changing struggle with strength and grace. This project has been incredibly healing for me. By bringing together these stories and photographs, I feel I can truly make a difference. Together we can do so much more than any one of us can alone. My project can be viewed at: http://breastandthesea.wordpress.com/. I am grateful for my process of healing. We cannot control the outer circumstances in our lives, but we do have the power and ability to rise up to our difficulties and find our strength. When in the thick of treatment or recovery, strength can be simply reaching out when we need to connect with another soul, or when we need a ride to an appointment or the grocery store. There is strength in allowing tears to flow as we mourn our losses, and strength in drying them up and going on with another day. We find strength and healing through helping others. Strength is learning to accept and ultimately love the scars on our bodies; scars which have saved our lives. Strength lies in finding our beauty again, somewhere deep inside, and mustering the courage to let it shine.
Almost 17 months ago, I first found the lump. The moment I felt it, I knew. It was a few weeks later on October 29th, the day of Hurricane Sandy, that my doctor called to confirm the news. I had breast cancer. My world turned upside down. I was a healthy, fit, active, YOUNG woman. How could this be happening to me? During my treatment process, I discovered Are You Dense Advocacy, Inc. I knew prior to my surgery, I had dense breast tissue, but I never knew what that really meant, until coming across this site. I was angry that the tumors my surgeon said had been growing for years were never seen on the total of 4 mammograms I had. Even worse, no one mentioned anything to me about dense tissue. After contacting Dr. Capello last February, and setting up a meeting with my local representative, I was put in touch with a group of 4 women who had, just months earlier, drafted legislation in Massachusetts which would require women to be notified about dense tissue. Since then, I have been actively involved in trying to get this bill passed through the legislation before the session ends this summer. I have been getting the word out through our Facebook page and by networking at events throughout the area. I was featured in local papers in their 'pink edition' in October. Last September, along with others (in our now named group 'Massachusetts Density Awareness Coalition', MDAC), I testified for a hearing on this bill in front of the Health Care Finance Committee at the State House. I have continued to make regular trips into the State House, meeting with legislators and sharing my personal story. As of yesterday, our bill has passed through the House and is now with the Senate. This could move fast and we are very excited. I have made personal connections with many legislators and their aides. I never knew I had the strength in me to not only go through breast cancer and the treatments, but now to push for legislation to hopefully make a difference for all women in the state. I am a different person now than I was on October 28th, the day before my diagnosis. I never knew I could do what I have done. I never even THOUGHT I would be 'making the rounds' at the state house, requesting meetings with the Speaker of the House and being there so frequently, may now know and recognize me. I don't look like I did 17 months ago. I've gained 30 pounds and lost my hair. But I'm happy with who I am now. I'm stronger than I was. I believe in myself in a way I never did. I am now a much more beautiful person in and out than I ever imagined.
Ah-moenzing! That was my first thought upon seeing the announcement for this opportunity! This is a package I could truly use! I am two-time triple negative, BRCA-1 cancer survivor from St. Louis, Missouri. I was first diagnosed at the age of 28 in 1998. At that time, breast cancer was not the pink ribbon presence it is now, at least not in the Midwest. By the time I was diagnosed again in 2007 there had been a proliferation of fundraisers, awareness events and support organizations. In St. Louis, I had heard about a special support group for women diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 45. I got myself to its very next meeting and I haven't missed many since! Upon doing the usual introductions at our monthly meetings I would give my name and then add: "I am triple negative." At which point the counselor who facilitates our group would gently correct me, saying: "your type of cancer was triple negative, you are not triple negative." This went on for years but, thankfully, at some point it became more of a running joke. I seized every opportunity that organization offered – educational events, art therapy and exercise groups, sharing it all with fellow survivors. In some ways, I think I was filling a hole that was left by the first round of cancer. I then went on to attend various cancer-related conferences (including the annual YSC conferences), lobby Congress and serve as a grant reviewer before turning my focus to peer counseling newly diagnosed patients. These days I am anything but triple negative! While my upper body may be crisscrossed with scars from a dozen surgeries, I like the shorter hairstyle I've kept from chemo days. Plus, I smile and my eyes sparkle because I am keenly aware of my inner strength; I push my physical strength to the max at our weekly survivor group exercise class; my life has been strengthen through survivor friendships and helping others; and I know there is important research taking place to develop new treatments for triple negative cancer - the type of cancer I used to have but no longer defines me! In conclusion, recently, the counselor of our group wanted to nominate me for a local award for women who have overcome serious health issues to become leaders in our community. I declined, not wanting the pressure of asking family and friends to buy tickets to come see me receive an award; they've done enough for me already! A few days later I saw this opportunity from Amoena. I wish someone could nominate me for this – this is kind of treat I could use about now! You had me at "spa," and I know the Amoena garment line is awesome. Since having a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction I've found that the Amoena bras tend to fit my new upper body shape better, even though I don't need the prosthetic pockets. I've seen Amoena advertisements in cancer magazines and follow the development of the latest prosthetic and clothing materials. The chance to try on (and keep!) some of the other pieces in the collection would be incredible! I've also benefitted from travel grants to attend the YSC conferences. To be able to have a donation made to YSC in my name would mean a lot to me because I know the help it will bring for others. Thank you for giving survivors this wonderful opportunity, the women that win are very lucky indeed!