In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to share two stories from women who were diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after giving birth. Each woman discovered what she thought was a clogged milk duct, and after bringing it up to her doctor, learned it was cancer. Their courageous stories are reminders to perform monthly self-exams, never skip screenings and doctor appointments, and always bring up any concern, no matter how small you think it might be.
The day that I felt the lump, I was about seven months pregnant with my third child. I didn’t think anything of it because I assumed that it was just my milk preparing to come in. Two months later, I had a healthy baby girl. I continued to feel the lump while nursing my daughter, but I figured that it was a clogged milk duct. After about two weeks, I decided to call my doctor. She thought it was just a cyst, but she sent me for an ultrasound anyway. While there, the radiologist came in and told me that I needed a biopsy. To be honest, cancer hadn’t even crossed my mind. A few days later, I received the call that it was cancer. That phone call will forever be ingrained in my mind because it was at that moment that my whole world turned upside down.
Here I was, a healthy 36-year-old woman who just had her third child -- how could I have cancer? This news was devastating to my family and me, especially knowing that I would have to deal with cancer treatment while taking care of three young children. Little did I know, the worst news had yet to come. Since the biopsy of one of my lymph nodes came back positive, my oncologist told me that I should have a PET scan to see if it had spread anywhere else.
I met my oncologist a few days after my scan, and the first thing he did was give me the news: the scan showed cancer in my liver, on one of my ribs, and a spot on my spine. My worst fear had come true: I had stage IV cancer. I remember my husband starting to cry next to me. I didn’t shed a tear; I felt like I was going to throw up or pass out. The only hope that we received that day is that I had limited spread of the cancer, a term called oligometastatic. That’s all I needed: just a little bit of hope.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind as I prepared to start treatment. Looking back on that time, I don’t know how I did it, as I felt suffocated by the fear and would spend much of the day crying. The hardest part was waiting. I started with chemotherapy in the hopes that it would shrink the cancer. The good news is that the chemo did its job! Within a few months, the tumors on my liver and bones were not showing up on scans! Because of my response, I was able to continue with aggressive treatment, which included a double mastectomy, an oophorectomy, and radiation.
I am happy to say that after 10 months of treatment, I am now in remission! This doesn’t mean that my cancer won’t return, but it means that it’s not active right now. Even though my active treatment is complete, I will be on cancer medication for the rest of my life. For the first few years, I will also have scans every three months to make sure my cancer is still inactive. If anything does pop up, I will switch treatments.
Being a mother going through cancer treatments is not easy, especially during a global pandemic. It was hard for my kids to see me lying on the couch and not being able to care for them. I lost my hair, was sick and nauseous for up to a week after chemotherapy, and couldn’t do anything for the first three weeks after my mastectomy. I needed a lot of help with taking care of my newborn, doing online school, meals, cleaning, and laundry. I feel so lucky that I was able to receive such wonderful help and support from my husband, family, and friends during this time.
Living with stage IV breast cancer has opened my eyes to how I was living before I was diagnosed. I now make sure that my health is one of my top priorities. With children, this can be hard because mothers tend to put their kids first. I’ve just made adjustments so that I don’t take any time away from them. Those adjustments include early morning workouts, making time for self-care, limiting stress, and being more active and present with my children. I changed all of my makeup, skincare, soap, and cleaning supplies to make sure everything had clean ingredients. My husband spent hours researching information on cancer-fighting foods that I incorporate into my diet each day. I make sure that I eat healthily and exercise each day because that is so important to help prevent a recurrence, and I am doing all that I can to be here for many, many years!
If my story teaches you anything, I hope that it is to do your monthly breast self-exams. Unfortunately, mammograms usually don’t begin until you’re about 40, and I know way too many women who have been diagnosed in their 30s. Even though the statistics for stage IV breast cancer are scary, I am living each day to the fullest, and I have a lot of hope that I will continue to be in remission for many years! I have a lot of LIVING to do!
I’d like to say that my story is unique, but as I’ve been telling it, I’ve learned that it’s really not. There are too many women like me who are diagnosed with breast cancer, but there are also many women like me who detect it early, treat it, and beat it.
On April 10, 2017, I had my second child, Julia. Her birth was normal, she was beautiful, and my husband and I were overjoyed! During her first feeding, I remember thinking, great, my milk came in, after feeling a clogged duct. I told the doctors and nurses, and everyone agreed: probably a clogged milk duct. For weeks I felt the full duct that I couldn’t massage out, but I was 34 years old and I’d just had a baby -- there was no way it was cancer.
At my six-week postpartum appointment, my husband and I asked for an ultrasound, which led to a mammogram and then three biopsies. On June 5, 2017, I was diagnosed with stage III, HER2-positive breast cancer in two of the biopsy sites.
When I was diagnosed, my OBGYN told me, “It takes a village.” I had a toddler and an infant (a two-year-old and a three-month-old to be exact). That’s hard for any mom, and now I was going to be a mom with breast cancer. I am so humbled, honored, and glad I had that village. I think they got me through it.
I was given a treatment plan. It was long, but the steps were laid out, and with support, positivity, and determination on my end, my amazing oncologist truly believed that we could beat this. I did a three-month clinical trial, Perjeta, and T-DM1 (Herceptin and Kadcyla). As promised, symptoms were mild. This was a HER2-directed treatment, so it targeted the cancer cells, not my good cells.
This was followed by a mastectomy and a six-week recovery. I missed my kids like crazy, but I got to cozy up in my sister’s apartment in Boston for two weeks. After the mastectomy, I got a call on December 5, 2017, with the results that I had been waiting to hear for the long six months since diagnosis: “You are cancer free.”
Even with clear margins and a full pathological response to chemo, I went through the standard treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer: twelve weeks of THP (Taxol, Herceptin, and Perjeta) and 16 days of intense radiation, while continuing Herceptin every three weeks. I’ll spare you the details, but it wasn’t pretty. Hair loss, bloody noses, and feeling downright crummy were a few of the side effects.
Through that year of treatments and surgeries, I made some lifestyle changes. I listened to all the podcasts and read all the books about healthy lifestyles. I changed my way of eating, as well as my family’s, focusing on how to fuel my body, rather than eat as fast I can so I could check off the next thing on my never-ending to-do list. My husband and I now prioritize what’s truly most important, not trying to do all the things. I cleaned up our cleaning supplies, our laundry detergents, soaps, and my skincare and makeup. I reduced my hours as a CPA from full-time to part-time to slow down and enjoy my family and home life.
I’d like to say it’s over, but I think for us survivors, the journey never really ends. You tell your story to encourage others, you have the scars that show what your body has endured, and you pray for cures, for more research, for preventative care for you and those you love. You hug your kids a little longer and try to live your best life while minimizing the risk of cancer for your family.
Although I love sharing my story, it’s not an easy one for me to tell. The tears still come; the pain of that time is real. But I truly believe that I’m a better mom, healthier, stronger, calmer, and more relaxed, and I appreciate that! And as I reflect on that time, it always comes back to my village: the love, support, generosity, and hours given to me by my family and friends. That’s what I remember most.