A diagnosis of breast cancer is something that no woman ever wants to hear, however, on average, one woman out of 8 is diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States every two minutes. On January 18, 2019, I experienced those “two minutes” and my doctor informed me that I had invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast. Suddenly I became the “one in eight.” The good news was there are 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, the cancer had been discovered in early stages and I was the healthiest I had ever been in my life, which gave me a running start at what my body was getting ready to endure for the next several months. My treatment plan included 6 rounds of chemotherapy, once every twenty days, and then surgery to remove the affected breast tissue. The bad news was…I had freaking breast cancer and I was getting ready to embark on the most challenging year of my life.
After my diagnosis, things moved quickly. I had my first MRI on January 24th, first Echocardiogram on February 1st, had my port put in on February 4th, and my first chemotherapy treatment was February 11th. For the next several months I had more doctor visits than any one human should have and my body experienced many hardships and changes. I had my last treatment on June 3rd (hallelujah!) and went to my follow up MRI on June 17th to assess how effective the treatments had been. On June 19th around 11:45 am, I received the call with the results, ““No evidence of residual malignancy in posterosuperior and upper inner quadrant areas of the right breast or elsewhere.” The tumors were GONE! The chemotherapy had worked! The prayers had worked! All the support and encouragement had worked! All the moments of fighting against the terrorist that had invaded my body had worked! And last but not at all the least, my God had worked on my behalf and we had won! This stage of my battle was over and my next stage would be surgery scheduled for July 8th, 2019.
After careful consideration and consultation with my oncologist and surgeon, I chose to have a double mastectomy instead of just having the right rebellious boob removed. No cancer had been present in my left breast, yet I wasn’t willing to take the chance in having to fight this battle again if ole lefty decided to rebel against me in the future. Plus, the aging process is a reality in all of our lives and what woman really wants one boob that says “hello there!” and one that is saying “see ya later alligator” as she ages?? So, a double mastectomy with complete reconstruction beginning during the same process was scheduled. I am happy to say that surgery was a success and healing came swiftly. Perhaps it was the resilience that my body had already proven time and time again; the many prayers; my stubbornness; or all of the hiking I was able to enjoy while on medical leave. I was back on the trail 12 days after surgery and enjoyed 7 trail days, a beach trip between July 20th and August 4th and I was able to return to work August 5th. My conclusion is that it was a combination of all the above! My surgeon had said that I could return to my normal activities after about a month so within one month and two days after surgery, I was back on the rock, climbing carefully, but nevertheless climbing! We even climbed one route completely blindfolded! Booyah!
Needless to say, despite all the hardships this year had brought so far, I was living and loving life! My follow up consultation with my surgeon brought unexpected news. She only had to remove 3 lymph nodes, which came back crystal clear, however one of the cancerous tumors had rested so close to my skin margin, and because she didn’t have a whole lot extra to work with (her kind words referring to my size B!) she recommended radiation to make sure there was nothing microscopic lingering around the tumor area. I would probably be okay without the radiation she said, but if I chose to have the radiation, she was confident that there would be no cancer left behind. So of course I chose to proceed with a radiation consultation and the next step in my journey would be 25 treatments, one a day for 5 weeks. We opted to allow the plastic surgeon to complete his process of stretching my muscle cavity to make pockets for my new implants before we started the treatments and this put us on a close time table. I had told my doctor during my consultation that I had to be done by October 17th because I flew out on October 18th to Utah for a much awaited out-west adventure that had been in the makings for almost a year. They weren’t that happy about the time restraint, nevertheless 2 days after my consultation my first treatment was scheduled.
Radiation began on September 12th and I had 26 days to complete 25 treatments! The first treatment was somewhat overwhelming as you walk into this huge room, a nurse stands behind you holding a hand towel to cover you up as you undress, you lay down on a table and they wheel you under this huge concoction of a machine that lines you up and shoots a radioactive beam straight to the targeted spot. After I got over the reluctance of taking my top off and standing naked in front of strangers, bearing my scarred chest that looked like it had two cement filled softballs crammed in it, the process itself was painless, a little dehumanizing, but painless. Each treatment lasted less than 15 minutes to show up, undress, lie down, get zapped, get dressed and leave. I began to get some minor skin irritation after 18 treatments, but I only had 7 to go and then I would be done and my body could enjoy a much needed 10 day vacation while healing.
On Wednesday October 16th, I completed my 25th treatment. Needless to say I was elated as I walked into the office to see the doctor and say goodbye. Treatments had gone well with minimal side effects and it was time to heal. The doctor looked at my skin, frowned a little at the irritation and then informed me that radiation side effects were about 10 days behind and I could expect more irritation. I would have to watch carefully and treat my skin with a special salve 4 times a day to avoid cracking and possible infection. When I explained to him I was going on vacation and would be hiking and camping, he explained to me that there was no way I needed to carry a backpack for at least two weeks. Yeah right, bahahaha! Inside I was screaming…what the heck! Why do you always have to rain on my parade! I am going out west and I do not have time for irritation and infection. Insert some major eye rolling and heavy sighing as I left feeling my stubbornness rising up from the pit of my stomach and as rebellious as the boob that had gotten me to this point in the first place.
Friday came and we were on a plan to Salt Lake City Utah. To make a long story somewhat shorter, we enjoyed 10 days of the absolute best adventuring a girl could have. The scenery was overwhelmingly beautiful! Mountains bigger than life! Incredible monoliths that didn’t even look real! Rocks, canyons, rivers, waterfalls! We put 1700 miles on a 15 passenger van, and almost 140,000 steps on my Fitbit. We visited Bridal Veil Falls in Provo, Utah; camped in the desert of Moab; visited Arches National Park and Canyonlands; watched the sunrise over the Mesa Arch as we rang in my 50th birthday; visited Mule Canyon and the House of Fire; drove through Natural Bridges National Monument and down the Moki Dugway (whoa what an adventure!); went through Mexican Hat, Monument Valley and Navajo Nation; stayed the night in Page, Arizona and visited Horseshoe Bend; drove to Bryce Canyon for a night of camping and exploring; and ended our trip with 3 days and nights camping in Zion National Park right behind The Watchmen. We hiked the Subway (thank the Lord and Jeremy for getting the permits!) and Angels Landing and finished up our last night at the Canyon Overlook trail. WOW!!! Needless to say the entire trip was beyond amazing. I have inserted pictures for your viewing pleasure :).
I somewhat followed the doctors’ orders and spent time treating my irritated radiation skin in a cold van in the desert of Moab and in campgrounds at the National Parks. I only had to wear a pack twice the whole time we were there (thanks to my David for carrying everything!). By the time we returned home, my skin was almost all the way healed and ready for the consultation with my plastic surgeon on November 12th. The next stage of my journey would be scheduled for November 26th – surgery #2, the removal of the concrete softballs on my chest I had been carrying around since July and the insertion of new implants. Goodbye softballs, hello noobies!
This year of my life was almost over and the hardest parts of my journey were coming to an end. As I reflect back I must say it sure has been a challenge. There were days I felt like a victorious warrior and days it took all I had within me to fight through. Through it all I’ve lived, I’ve learned, I’ve loved, I’ve collected priceless memories and have been surrounded by the most precious people. I’ve discovered I am stronger than I thought I was but yet I don’t have to be strong all the time. There is a time to persevere and push on and a time for rest and healing. I’ve learned that no matter what life throws at you, with a little faith and a lot of support, you absolutely can make it through anything. It may not always be pretty and you may not always like it, but you will prevail. I’ve learned that during the struggles, if you keep on keeping on, the day WILL come that you are better than you were during those moments.
Next step – say hello to the ‘noobies!’