My story starts in 2010 after the birth of my 2nd daughter. I was 34 years old and married to the best husband (Rob) ever. My daughters were 7 months and almost 2 years old. Rob and I had been very happily married since 2006, and if life weren’t tough enough with two young children it was about to get a lot tougher. I had what seemed to be something like a clogged milk duct, although I was not breast feeding my daughter at the time. There was pain and swelling in my left breast, so I went to see my OBGYN. Since there was no history of breast cancer in my family, the doctor assumed that it was probably just fibrocystic breast tissue, but advised me to see a breast surgeon just in case. I made an appointment to see a surgeon and was asked to have a mammogram prior to my appointment. So the day I went in for my mammogram, the radiologist told me that, although I was probably fine, they did see a lot of micro calcifications so I’d have to have a biopsy. Through all this, I never thought for a second that it was cancer. Just couldn’t be. Then, I went in for a core biopsy, which was an awful experience. After the procedure, I took notice to the large amount of tissue that was removed; it was at that point I knew something wasn’t right. That moment hit me like a ton of bricks!
I was waiting for the call from the radiologist for the results which took about 5 days. On Valentine’s Day 2011, I was at work when I got the call. I remember going into a private room to hear the results. She said, “I’m sorry, Michell, we found cancer.” I was so shocked, I just went completely numb. I know she explained much more, but I was in a state of shock where I wasn’t hearing anything she said. I just kept thinking, how did this happen, I am only 34, I have 2 babies, I can’t have breast cancer!!
People always ask if it was hard to get that news at work and honestly the answer is no. I came out of the private room and my co-workers were there waiting to hear the news. They already knew because they heard me crying in the room, so when I exited they all hugged me and supported me in the worst moment of my life. If I had been at home I would have been alone and that would have been much more difficult. These fabulous people, who I consider family, proceeded to donate a full 260 sick days to me so that I could concentrate on battling cancer. These truly are some of the most generous people I know.
The very next day, my husband and I went in to see the surgeon to get the full results of the pathology report and to find out what the course of treatment would be moving forward. I was thinking, ok, a quick lumpectomy, and I will be fine. When I saw the surgeon, he said “this is very serious, you have an 8 cm tumor, Stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma that is HER 2 and estrogen positive.” He also mentioned that it is a bad cancer to have, but because of the targeted therapy, Herceptin, I would be fine. Then I asked if I have to have chemo, and he said, very bluntly, yes, you will lose your hair. I started crying. He went on to say that I will have 8 rounds of chemo along with a year of Herceptin infusion, surgery and then radiation. At that point, it hit me that I was going to have all of this treatment, for at least a year and I would be losing my job in 4 months.
The PBS television station I was working at for the last 12 years was slated to be shut down on June 30th 2011 and all the employees would be laid off. That meant that I would lose the health insurance that I carried for myself and my family at a time I needed more than ever. My head was spinning and it was hard to actually process all the information I was getting. I needed to focus on my health at this point so I tried to not worry about the job too much.
I went to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to get a second opinion the next day. I met with 2 top doctors and they both agreed on my results and the course of treatment. I really liked these doctors so I decided to stick with Penn. My Oncologist (Dr. Fox) got me started on chemo in 2 weeks. I was scared because I have 2 little girls to take care of and I wasn’t sure how I would handle being a mom to them while getting chemo. Another issue for me was the thought of losing my hair. I have naturally curly, long black hair and it was something people knew me for, it scared me to think of being bald. Two weeks after I started chemo, my sisters came over and we shaved my hair. A surreal moment for me that I will forever remember. My sister Lauren is my best friend and was a huge supporter for me in every way during my battle with cancer. She was an incredible force of positivity for me throughout the whole process. I think being positive through something like this is the only way to get through it, really, it is half the battle. If you start off thinking you can’t do it, or you are asking yourself how can I possibly handle that, then you are cheating yourself out of the benefits of sheer willpower. Your mind is a lot more persuasive than you think!
Shaving my head was so upsetting because it made me realize that I was really going through this. I always felt like I was telling someone else’s story, but now, it all seemed so real.
I had a fantastic wig that I was able to wear along with scarves all the time. I never felt comfortable being bald outside of my house, but I admire all those women who are proud of their bald head. My babies did get used to mommy’s bald head pretty quickly, their young ages really benefiting me here as they adjusted pretty quickly. They were too young to be scared or embarrassed. We had many fun afternoons playing with my scarves and putting my wig on them. They always wanted to wear scarves, just like mommy. It was a special thing that we shared.
I had family and great friends rally around me and start a meal donation program which sent at least 3 meals a week to our house for over 4 months, throughout the entire length of my chemo treatment. It was such an unbelievable show of support and love. I was so lucky to have all these special people in my life. Plus, my amazing husband who was so strong for both of us. He let me cry when I needed to cry and he pulled me up and supported me and cheered me on when I needed that. He is a very hands on dad so taking over for me was nothing he wasn’t used to and he did it without a single complaint. His support, love and friendship was the only thing that got me through this. Our amazing relationship was great before, but is now even better that we beat cancer.
After eight rounds of chemo, lots of sicknesses, a few visits to the hospital with complications such as, low blood counts and fluid around my heart, I came through it all alive and well! Next up was surgery- I opted for a double mastectomy with flap reconstruction. I wasn’t taking any chances with the other breast; I didn’t want to go through this again. Shockingly, that was the easiest decision I ever made.
On a side note, June 30th came and I was at work for the last day. It was an incredibly sad time, everyone being together again for the last time. I had tried to get transferred to another job, but as of lunchtime on June 30th I was still losing my job and all my health benefits. Thankfully, I got a call at 1:00 that day and was told I was transferred to another position and still had a job and benefits.
It was a tough surgery and recovery but the best day of this whole situation came when they called me with the results of the pathology from surgery. My 8 cm tumor had shrunken down to 2 small specks of cancer. Chemo worked really well, I was one lucky girl! Thankfully all those sick days that I was given by my gracious co-workers were going to come in handy.
Recovering from that surgery took many weeks. My family, once again, stepped in to help us take care of our girls and offered up weeks more of meals and cleaning. My girls were too young to really understand what was happening so it was easier on them than expected. They understood that mommy was getting new boobies and she would be sore for a while.
I was then able to start radiation, 5 days a week for 6 weeks. It was grueling, but easier than I expected. Once that was over I was in the clear.
I’ve beat this nasty cancer and come out on top! Everyone always ask me how I did it with two babies and all that was going on with my job during my treatment. I say that all these things were a perfect distraction from how hard each one was. I couldn’t obsess on the cancer because I had to take care of my girls and make sure I figured out my job situation, and I couldn’t dwell too much on the fact that I was about to lose my dream job of 12 years and all my health benefits because I had to beat cancer! I was focused on getting better for my husband and my girls! I am a survivor, I know I am strong, but I could have never gotten there without all the people who gathered together and rallied around our family to support and love us through this most difficult time in our lives. I think you are only as strong as you believe you can be. I knew we were going to beat this and we did!
You are so much stronger than you can even imagine. Please don’t immediately think you are going to not survive this because you will. Positive mindset is the MOST important thing you can do to help yourself.
I would also say that for women who have a hard time receiving help from others, say yes, allow people to help you. They want to do something to make life easier while you are going through this awful time. It makes your life so much easier and it helps the people who love you feel like they are helping you and feel a part of your recovery.
Lastly, if you have children, especially young ones who need you for all kinds of things still, use them to motivate you to stay strong and get better FOR THEM!