This is where it all starts. It feels like since my cancer diagnosis I was reborn, which feels really cliche to say, but it's the best way I can describe it. Who I was before cancer was a different person. Not necessarily worse or better, but different. Who I am now is more authentic to who I aim to be. Before cancer, I was more scared of life and more scared to be myself. These days, I'm able to embrace life in a different way. I am all too aware of how brief it can be and how quickly it can change. I don't sweat the smaller things as much as I used to, and I do a much better job at not taking on other peoples' problems as my own. I'm also better at living in the present. I don't worry as much as I used to about what already happened and what could potentially happen later. It's work and doesn't always come easy, but I'm much more aware of it now, and I'm never perfect, but that's not the goal.
March 22, 2013 is the day. The day I got the call from my OB/GYN that the lump we found in my breast was, in fact, cancer. I was only about 6 weeks out from having my second little boy and assumed the issue had to do with breastfeeding. But I was wrong. On April 9, 2013 I went to the hospital for my first chemo treatment only to find out that my cancer had already spread to my liver. One tumor in my breast, 10 tumors in and on my liver. In a matter of seconds, I went from Stage 2 to Stage 4. Metastasized or Stage 4 cancer means that the original cancer has spread from its original place to other places in the body (usually the lungs, liver, or bones), and it isn't good. In fact, it's some of the worst news you can get. My medical team's demeanor went from hopeful and happy to shock and despair. They no longer looked at me with this sparkle of hope in their eyes. Instead, I was a dead woman walking. A tragedy.
The chance of survival for more than 5 years from Stage IV breast cancer is only 22%. It is much higher for women with Stage 0-3. On top of that, I had an incredibly aggressive tumor that was growing rapidly. My first oncologist went from being 100% sure I needed chemo to telling me it was optional because with my new staging, there was a good chance the chemo wouldn't do anything. At first, I was really mad about this, but as time has gone on, I realize he was just as floored as the rest of us. No one expected this. We thought we caught it early, which is usually a good thing.
But there I was sitting with Stephen feeling this giant sense of hope deflating. Was I going to die soon? What about my kids? What about Stephen? What about the rest of my family? Stephen and I had plans. We had 2 little boys to raise together and a life to live together.
I knew I had to do something else. So I completely changed doctors. I needed someone with more positivity. I needed someone that didn't look at me with that "you poor thing" look in their eyes. I knew no doctor was going to tell me we were going to cure this, but I needed someone who believed in me. So, Stephen and I quickly got a second opinion from Dr. B. He was a breath of fresh air. Even though he sat there and told me that, yes, my scans did in fact show tumors on my liver but we weren't going to plan a funeral. Instead, we were going to be positive and do whatever we needed to do to manage this. He told me I would likely never be cancer free, but we would manage it just like when someone has to manage diabetes or high blood pressure. That was the ticket! But deep inside my heart, I wanted to show him I could be cancer free. I would be cancer free.
Now, I wasn't always brave. I had lot of moments of complete breakdown. Stephen was the brave one then. He would always look me in the eyes and say, "You're still here, and you're too stubborn to let this bring you down. We're doing the right things." And for a long time, any little ache or pain would send me spiraling, and sometimes I would swear I felt a new lump. But he was always there to bring me back down to Earth and reassure me it was going to be ok.
After only a couple chemo treatments, the tumor in my breast was no longer palpable. And in that time, Stephen and I had completely overhauled our lives. We went from eating lots of processed foods and junk, dairy, and meat to eating whole food plant based (WFPB). We made smoothies and drank green juice. We started snacking on kale chips. We no longer argued over the silly things, and when tension arose, we dealt with it differently. We leaned on each other (honestly, I was doing most of the leaning and he was holding me up). I whole-heartedly do not think I could've made it through without him.
I also started meditating, even though I didn't realize that's what I was doing at the time. I always thought you had to sit a certain way, maybe chant, and make your mind go completely blank. I've learned differently since then. I started embracing a spiritual side that I never really nurtured before. I'm not the most religious person in the world, but I do believe in a higher power. God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it. I believe it's there and I believe it has a higher purpose for all of us. We're here for lessons and growth. And that's what this was. I could be consumed by it and let it drag me into a really dark place. Or I could embrace this lesson and grow from it. Not that embracing and growing is the easy option, but I just couldn't let it consume me. I wasn't just taking this road for myself. I had to do better for my kids and Stephen, my parents, my siblings, my relatives, the people who care about me.
I finished chemo in July of 2013 after 8 rounds. It was the most physically taxing thing I've ever been through. Food either didn't have any taste or it tasted like dirt. I could only drink Fiji water because everything else tasted like it had sand in it, and my bones ached so bad. At one point, my red blood cells tanked and I had to have a transfusion. Before the transfusion, I could barely walk. Just getting from my bed to the bathroom was near impossible. Of course, I lost all my hair and a ton of weight. I barely recognized myself in the mirror, and our lives revolved around doctor visits, chemo treatments, medication, and the kids. But I did it! After chemo was over in July, I had to have new scans for re-staging before undergoing a mastectomy. I was a wreck waiting for the results. I had been so confident that everything I was doing was helping and that I would get great news until the moment was here. I had this awful fear that Dr. B would walk in the room and drop another bomb on me like that first day of chemo. But all of that fear turned into one of the most exciting moments of my life!
My breast had a little residual spot that was "unremarkable" and would be removed with my mastectomy and my liver had only one spot instead of 10. That one spot went from being 4.3 centimeters to only 1 centimeter. I was ecstatic! I was really hoping for a completely clear scan, but this was just as good. And I knew that I was on the right path and if I kept going, my next scan would be even better. After that, it was a whirlwind of appointments to get me ready for my mastectomy and to start radiation, and I started working with a functional medicine doctor on supplements and diet.
By January I was due for another scan. It was the big one. I had set this one in my head to be the one with the all clear, and guess what!? It was! My scans showed nothing. A little scar on my liver where the largest tumor was, but that was it! It was one of the most exciting days of my life and probably the biggest relief I've ever felt.
These days, you'd never know by looking at me what I've been through. Since that scan in January, I've had good things and bad things happen, just like anyone else. I've had a massive blood clot in my neck, completed my cosmetology license, become a registered yoga teacher, learned reiki, became a health coach, parented like a boss, broken my foot, lost 2 dogs, gained a puppy, gained weight, lost weight, and gained weight again. I've made one of the best friends I've ever had in my life, traveled with Stephen, become a soccer mom and a band mom. Oh, and grown my hair out past my shoulders! Woot!
It's been one hell of a ride these last 6 years, and honestly, as weird as it sounds, breast cancer was a gift in a way. It was hell getting through, and sometimes still haunts me, and I hope to never experience it again, but it forced me to change my life in some of the best ways.
If you want to read about this whole experience more in depth, I kept a blog throughout that time. You can find it here: My Fight With the Big C