There have been setbacks along the way, and by no means has it been easy, but I wake up thankful every day. Grateful for my life and those around me who continue to support me.
In January 2011, my life changed in a matter of days. If I’m honest, I knew I had cancer before the nurse called me with the news. For six months I had been feeling and watching a lump (by the time I went to the doctor, my lump was visible) in my left breast grow. At the age of 27, I hopelessly wished the lump I felt would go away on its own. I’ll never forget the day I got the news. I was standing in my dining room on a Friday, and the oncology nurse called me because she did not want me to go through the weekend without knowing. I remember standing there and feeling numb. I was 27 and embarking on the biggest fight of my life.
My initial diagnosis was stage 2; then, after my left mastectomy, I was diagnosed as stage 3 due to lymph node involvement. My doctors decided I should get a full-body CT scan to ensure there was no other disease. Then came the call I never expected. I had stage 4 breast cancer. My world was rocked. I could handle stage 3, but stage 4 was a different beast. I remember calling my sister and sobbing through the phone. What was I going to do?
Three days before I was to start chemo at Kaiser, my mom and I met with my oncologist. I asked her if she or anyone at this Kaiser location had treated anyone my age with stage 4 cancer, and her response was, “no.” Not only was her response “no,”but she also told me that I would be on chemo for the rest of my life or what life I had left. My mom and I left that appointment feeling more discouraged than ever. With my new diagnosis and bleak outlook, I hopped on a plane to Palm Springs to join my friends at a horse show. It was this weekend that changed the trajectory of my cancer journey.
It was during this trip that all the stars aligned. With the encouragement of my friends and family, I started to explore second opinions and decided that Kaiser was not the place for me. It happened to be open enrollment at work, so I moved to a different insurance provider and was connected with Dr. Rugo at UCSF by a friend. I’ll never forget my first meeting with Dr. Rugo. She looked at me and told me she was going to fight like hell, maybe not in those exact words, to fight my cancer. She was optimistic and felt there was a good chance we could beat this formidable opponent. It was after this meeting that I had hope for the first time. I share this story with you because I was initially reluctant to go for a second opinion. I was overwhelmed and tired from my first surgeries. I had minimal fight left in me, yet my friends and family encouraged me. I encourage you to let those around you support you and take on some of the burdens. They want to help.
After six months of chemo, a right breast mastectomy with reconstruction, and weeks of daily radiation, I was disease-free. I’d love to tell you the journey was easy; it wasn’t. It was hard; numerous times, I found myself on the ground crying, not knowing how I would continue, but I can promise you it’s worth it. Losing my hair, hot flashes, infections, and multiple subsequent surgeries related to my breast reconstruction; was all worth it. I make this statement knowing how fortunate I am.
After I finished chemo, I went on two HER2 antibodies, which I got via IV every three weeks for nine years, along with hormone inhibitors that I still take ten years later. These drugs and my excellent care team at UCSF have kept me disease-free for ten years. There have been setbacks along the way, and by no means has it been easy, but I wake up thankful every day. Grateful for my life and those around me who continue to support me.
The slogan, “cancer sucks,” is correct, but it sure does give instant perspective. In a moment, you truly understand what’s essential in life. I hope this story gives you hope along your journey. Please remember that you’re strong, and miracles do happen. I’m living proof.
Cancer allowed me to slow down, listen to my body, and reconnect with my voice. When confronted with the impermanence of life, all that remained was peace and self acceptance. That sense of clarity and peace continues to empower me to live a wholehearted purposeful life.
My perspective changed in the most wonderful way. Cancer is the best worst thing to happen to me.