Location: Texas, USA
Diagnosis: Breast Cancer (Stage 1A), BRCA2+
Two years ago, my dad was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bizarre news to say the least. They caught it very early – stage 1 and not metastatic. He had a double mastectomy, underwent chemo treatment and has since been cancer free. Because it's so rare for a man to get breast cancer, he decided to undergo genetic testing to see if he might have a mutation.
The results came back with a positive BRCA2 mutation, which carries with it an increased risk for breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancers, among others.
We have a history of pancreatic cancer on my dad's side of the family, but never would have connected it to a risk for breast cancer. Since my dad's results came back positive for a mutation, insurance covered my sister and me getting tested. I'd had a couple of years of rough health and didn't want to mess around so I got tested immediately and unfortunately came back positive for the exact same mutation my dad had. I made the decision almost immediately not to waste any time and started making the necessary doctor’s appointments to discuss my own preventative mastectomy. In December of last year, I had the uncomfortable privilege of experiencing my first mammogram and breast MRI prior to meeting with surgeons, and thankfully both of those scans came back clear, so I scheduled my breast surgeon and plastic surgeon consultations to discuss my options.
I should take a minute to mention that I have one son who’s 2.5 years old now. We’d really like to have one more kiddo, and I mentioned this to all my doctors. Because I breastfed my son, which I’m told helps to minimise a risk for breast cancer, both my OB and my breast surgeon said that since my scans were clear, we could go ahead and try for another baby now and then do the surgery after having that baby so I could have another opportunity to breastfeed that child. I am definitely pro-breastfeeding IF that’s possible for a woman to do – which is not always the case – and I understand the great benefit in it, but what seemed like a better benefit to me was that I be alive as long as I possibly can to be a mum to the son I already have as well as for myself. And formula was created for a reason, so if I had to formula feed another child it didn’t feel like the end of the world to me. On top of all that, my biggest nightmare would be getting a cancer diagnosis while pregnant. Plus I’m 36, right at the age where this type of thing can crop up. Everything in my gut was telling me not to wait, so I went ahead with scheduling the surgery for April 2018, four months after I’d had my scans done.
Surgery went really well – no complications, and despite feeling like a huge step to take emotionally, physically it wasn’t as difficult or painful as I was expecting, so that was a relief. The week after my surgery I received a call from my breast surgeon with some surprising news: the routine pathology from the surgery showed that there actually was a small stage 1 tumour in my left breast. No spreading whatsoever and the tumour was removed entirely with clear margins. This knocked the wind out of me. Just four months prior my scans were clear. I was feeling a million things at once – first angry and scared – I had made this extreme decision so I wouldn’t have to deal with cancer, and despite my best efforts I had gotten it anyway. Then slowly and stubbornly I made my way towards feeling grateful. Especially as I started seeking out stories of other women who were dealing with or had dealt with cancer. My case has an excellent prognosis – the type of tumour (HER2+) is almost never found in early stages because it’s aggressive and spreads quickly and there are very targeted and proven treatments for it. The fact that it was completely out of my body and hadn’t spread was a blessing. The fact that I never had to know that I had cancer while it was still in my body was a blessing – I got to avoid the anxiety of waiting for biopsy results, doctor’s appointments, etc.
My oncologist and many others agreed that I should still go through chemotherapy, which I wasn’t thrilled about. My doc explained that if any of the cells had somehow gotten somewhere else in my body, it wouldn’t be somewhere as easily removable as my breasts and could be much harder to treat. So I’m doing the chemo because my main goal is to be here on this earth as long as I possibly can.
The hardest side effect of chemo to swallow in the immediate is of course the hairloss. I lost my hair much sooner than I was prepared for – only 2 weeks after my first treatment.
I realised that for some unknown reason, I was holding onto hope that I’d be one of the small percentage of people who don’t experience alopecia as a side effect of chemo. I think it was a combination of losing it so fast and feeling foolish for secretly hoping for a different outcome, but the night it started happening, I cried. A lot.
But the next day I felt a little better and called my hair stylist and made an appointment to shave it all off. Each day since has been better and better.
In the 4 months since I lost my hair, there have only been a few occasions where I felt comfortable enough to wear my bare head in public, so I was sooooo thankful to former, hair-headed Becki for taking care of new bald Becki by proactively buying some beautiful head wraps before it happened. The cherry on top for me is that having beautiful headwear that fits my personal style allows me to look and feel like a person making a bold style choice rather than looking like a person who’s sick. Making the decision to buzz my head and having the wraps ready and waiting helped me feel like I had some control in a situation where I’ve felt in many ways helpless. It gave me power, and I’d really like to share that with anyone else who needs some power of their own.
I’m now finished with chemo, and have just maintenance infusions of Herceptin left, so I’ll be keeping my port through next summer. I have some fuzz coming back on my head, which I’m extremely excited about. I’ve purchased 3 products that are supposed to help aid hair growth/regrowth – a biotin gummy by Hers, Shiny Leaf castor oil for head, lashes & brows, and Wild Growth Hair Oil, and I’m really hoping it helps the process move along quicker. If not though, it feels nice to spend a little time pampering myself at least.
Next up for me is my reconstruction surgery (foobs here I come!) and I’m so very interested and anxious to see what my boobs look and feel like after that. I’ll have had the tissue expanders in for 8 months by that point, and while I certainly don’t love them, I’ve definitely gotten used to them.
Then after that, I’ll be making an appointment with a gynaecological oncologist to discuss when I need to think about getting an oophorectomy (my ovaries removed). With my BRCA2 mutation, the original plan was to get them removed between age 40-45, but now that I’ve gotten an actual cancer diagnosis, I don’t know if they’ll advise doing it sooner than that. Chemo already threw me into a mild form of menopause – fingers crossed it was temporary – but I know for some women it can be permanent, so the thought of being thrust into permanent menopause and all that goes along with it in my 30s on top of having just gone through treatment does not thrill me, but we shall see.
It’s so much to process – the diagnosis, the decisions, the grief, the physical setbacks, the mental and emotional setbacks – I started seeing a therapist about 6 weeks ago and I’m so glad to have a place where I can both say it all out loud and then begin to sort through all the very many feelings I have about it. I love therapy – everyone should go to therapy! There’s a person out there who’s TRAINED to help you feel your feelings and to tell you that it’s okay to feel those feelings! GO TO THERAPY!
As for me right now in this moment, I’m happy to be finished with chemo, happy to have my hair growing back, happy to feel my strength returning, happy to be dealing with my feelings and I’m so incredibly happy to be here living on this earth.
One piece of advice:
After a diagnosis, there are an alarming amount of decisions you have to make (especially for a woman) in a very short amount of time. My best advice has two parts.
1. Trust your gut - YOU are your best advocate and YOU are the only one who has to live in your body.
2. Once you've made your decisions, surround yourself by people who are in your corner cheering you on, and don't be afraid to set boundaries with people who cause you to doubt those decisions, even if their intentions are good.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Brave Collective. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information.