At 36, as a “healthy-ish” wife, mom, and runner, I never thought I’d be diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but that’s exactly what happened to me. I would imagine most women don’t think they will ever be in this scenario, but the truth is, 1 in 8 women will face a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. I’m here to share my story of how a self-exam both changed – and likely saved – my life.
During the 2018 holiday season, I was performing a quick breast self-exam, and I felt something on my right breast – something that wasn’t there the last time I had performed a self-exam. For the next couple of days, I would go back and feel it, and in my head, I would say, ”Oh, I can’t find it now” or “I think it’s smaller now.” However, my gut was telling me I should probably get it checked. I called my OBGYN to schedule an appointment, and on January 9, 2019, my breast cancer “journey” started with my first mammogram and ultrasound, followed by a core biopsy two days later.
Four days after the biopsy, I received a phone call from my gynecologist at 5:56 p.m. on January 15 that completely changed my life. I never have my ringer on, it’s always set to vibrate. On this day, the ringer was on because I was waiting for this call. When my phone rang, I knew it wasn’t good news. My heart sank. I answered with confidence, but I know my voice was shaking. She asked if it was a good time to talk. I answered truthfully: not really, but I wasn’t going to hang up until she told me the biopsy results. She continued with, “The mass is malignant; you have infiltrating or invasive ductal carcinoma; more results are pending…” and then all I heard was the voice of the teacher from Peanuts talking to me. The conversation was over with the promise that a breast surgeon would be reaching out to further discuss.
The next three weeks were an endless blur of appointments, images, phone calls, tears, and prayers. Endless prayers. We made the decision to not tell our 4-year-old daughter anything until we knew what to tell her. Being diagnosed with cancer not only tests your faith, but it also tests your patience. My husband continuously reminded me that my team was gathering as much information as they could to have the most precise diagnosis so my treatment would be exactly what it needed to be. Looking back, the first month of it all was one of the hardest parts, but it also had beautiful moments of seeing my tribe of women come together. They were lifesavers from the get-go. They still let me vent and worry, and they still offer the same support and prayers they did when I first let them know.
My final diagnosis was Stage 2A – Grade 3 Triple Negative Breast Cancer. Triple Negative Breast cancer is an aggressive form of the disease and is more prevalent in premenopausal women and in Black women. I ended up with two separate masses (I never felt the second mass) and no lymph node involvement. After meeting with doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston as well as locally at the START Center for Cancer Care, I was told the same thing in terms of treatment. Both teams had found good results with neo-adjuvant (pre-surgery) chemotherapy with this specific type of breast cancer. We all agreed to throw the kitchen sink at this beast, which included four dose-dense rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan followed by twelve weekly doses of Taxol with four doses of Carboplatin every third week of that “cocktail.” I was in chemo treatment from February 18 to July 8, 2019. I feel blessed that I ended up with two care teams.
I signed up for a study at MD Anderson called ARTEMIS, which was an image study. It involved long days of images and biopsies every 4-6 weeks, but I knew that my case could possibly help future TNBC patients and that I could keep an eye on my progress during treatment more often than a typical patient.
Once I knew the plan, it was time to tell our daughter. We were honest with her but didn’t want to overwhelm her with information and terms she wouldn’t understand. We told her that mommy had breast cancer which meant that I had a “boo-boo” in my breast, and I pointed to where the mass was. We told her that I would have to take special medicine meant just for me. It would likely make me very tired, make my tummy upset, and make my hair fall out. We tackled things with her as they came and tried not to get too far ahead. I always figured, “Why worry her with something that may or may not happen?” We were always honest with her, though. She handled it all pretty well; kids are resilient. I saw a form of empathy in her that warmed my heart; I still see it now. I tried my hardest to be as present as I could. I missed a couple of things, but for the most part, we were pushing on and she was living her best “normal” life. Like anyone, adults not excluded, she did grow tired of it all. Toward the end of my treatments and also around the time of my double mastectomy, she would get upset when I wasn’t home after school because I was still at chemo. Having us away from home when my husband and I would go to Houston for appointments was also difficult for her.
Chemo was rough. I lost my hair, had nausea, and had other digestive issues. I was exhausted, and my taste buds completely changed, making everything taste like metal. It was working though, so I soldiered on.
In August of 2019, I had a double mastectomy, and in December of that year I had implant exchange surgery. Surgery revealed that chemotherapy had done exactly what I had prayed for. At the time of my surgery, my pathology showed there was no evidence of disease in my tissue, and my lymph nodes that were removed also came back clear. It was the “best case scenario” outcome. Praise the Lord!
Post-treatment life left me feeling completely raw. Like….what the heck just happened to me?! There were no meds to take, no more treatments to do. I was told, “Just go live your life!” I ended up seeing a therapist for about 8 weeks to help me digest it all. We discussed my journey, my fears of recurrence, and what would come next. I learned about mindfulness; I learned it’s okay to have these thoughts. I also learned how to let them go and move forward.
I sometimes think, “Why me?”, but not in the way you might think. There are so many women who don’t have a palpable mass that they find, who don’t have a full response to chemo, who don’t have clear lymph nodes, who have issues with their surgeries, and the list goes on. It wasn’t an easy journey, but I’m grateful for how it went for me. So why did it go in my favor? I’m honestly not sure, but what I do know is that talking about my journey gives me comfort; it makes me feel like I’m living with a true purpose like this is what I should be doing.
So here I am now. I rarely turn down an opportunity to discuss my breast cancer story; it’s something I’m an open book about because women need to understand that cancer doesn’t discriminate and can strike at any time. A self-exam saved my life. I am 100% sure of that! I hope that after Breast Cancer Awareness month is over and all the pink is put away, you still take the time to perform your self-exams. I hope you schedule your yearly appointments with your medical team and have conversations about prevention, about your family history, and about your risk factors. One of the most important things that I learned is that you are your own advocate; you have to ask the questions because you have to live with those decisions, not your doctors.
More than a year later, I still tell our daughter when I have a doctor’s appointment and that it’s important to visit your doctor for preventive measures, even if you feel fine. One day I’ll talk to her all about it in full detail, but for now, she knows that her mommy is a breast cancer survivor and, more importantly, a thriver!
A 30-something native of the Rio Grande Valley, Erica has lived in the San Antonio area since 2005. She’s a wife, mom to one spunky little lady, faith filled breast cancer survivor, runner, volunteer, and a Magical Tripcations travel planner extraordinaire. When Erica isn’t out and about enjoying all San Antonio has to offer, she’s planning her guest’s magical Disney Vacations or planning her own. She’s active on Instagram (@erica.magicaltravel) sharing as much magic as she can and has found a new appreciation to working from her laptop in the after school pick-up line at her daughter’s school.