I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, ER+/PR-, Stage 3b. My cancer was also Double HER2 positive, which meant that it was spreading faster, but it also meant that my tumor was more likely to respond to treatment with drugs that target the HER2 protein, therefore increasing my survival rate. My diagnosis came on June 27, 2013. I was 42 years old, had just returned to the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom, and was looking forward to celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary that December. My oldest son Anthony was starting his senior year of high school. My son Shane was a freshman, and my 6-year-old daughter, Natalie, was headed to first grade.
Family history: There was no family history of breast cancer on my mother’s side. My father was adopted, and we had no information concerning his medical history. Because of that, it was recommended I undergo genetic testing. After testing 19 genes, with negative results, it was determined my cancer occurred like most breast cancers in the sense that there is usually no genetic connection.
What initiated the diagnosis? In January 2013, I discovered a lump while getting undressed. At first, I dismissed it because I had no family history. I didn’t think it could happen to me. By June, it had grown significantly, and I knew I had to seek medical treatment. A mammogram and ultrasound detected a 2.7-centimeter tumor. An MRI a few weeks later would show it was 9.8 centimeters.
“Trust your instincts. It’s your body and you know it better than anyone. The most important thing to remember is DO NOT WAIT! If you feel something, go get it checked.”
What was your treatment plan? My cancer was aggressive, so I needed to immediately begin chemotherapy. I was infused every two weeks for the first four months, and then every three weeks, for a total of 14 months. A double mastectomy was done in December 2013, followed by six weeks of radiation. I now take Tamoxifen, which is an estrogen blocker and will continue this for 10 years.
What was your biggest challenge, the most difficult part for you? At first, the biggest challenge for me was chemotherapy. I was very sick. A week after my first dose, I was hospitalized for five days in serious condition. What I didn’t realize was that radiation would become my worst enemy. I suffered second and third-degree burns. None of that compares to my recovery from my reconstruction, though. I chose a DIEP flap, and to this day, I do not regret it, however, my organs began to shut down in the recovery room after 13 hours of surgery. I spent eight days in the hospital with five in the Critical Care Unit.
Anything surprise you along the way in a positive way? The biggest surprise for me was how strong this made me. I had a rough childhood. I blamed myself for the abuse, but through cancer, as crazy as it seems, I discovered that not only was I not to blame, but I also didn’t need to worry about what others thought of me. After two brushes with death during my journey, life for me these past eight years has a different meaning.
Who were your biggest supporters? My family and friends were always there, and to this day, continue to be. My husband Johnnie not only worked 60 hours a week, but he was also there for the kids’ practices and games and school functions, as well as helping me. My mom and sister helped care for our daughter and helped with the housework. My friends set up meal plans and one drove hundreds of miles to be with me during treatments. My friend Kelly, who was diagnosed five years before me and knew what to expect, was my rock. Unfortunately, her cancer spread, and even though she was going through treatments again, she continued to be there for me no matter what time I called. Sadly, Kelly lost her fight in April 2020. I know she watches over me every single day!
What doctors can you recommend to others? My entire medical team was beyond amazing! Dr. Liang, my breast surgeon, and Dr. Bonawitz, my plastic surgeon, both from Anne Arundel Medical Center (AAMC), helped me understand my options from the beginning. I also received chemo at AAMC, and my nurses have become my friends. My oncologist is Dr. Tweed out of Annapolis. I continue to see her every six months. In her words, “We’re in this for life”; and she means it! When I had complications at a local hospital, she fought for me to get the proper care. For radiation, I chose to stay local and saw Dr. Settle in Waldorf. She, along with her entire staff, was wonderful.
One tip or piece of advice for others? The best advice I can give is to trust your instincts. It’s your body and you know it better than anyone. The most important thing to remember is DO NOT WAIT! If you feel something, go get it checked. I should have never waited five months to get my lump checked.