By Terri, Sr. Director, Laboratory Systems
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Terri offers her perspective on her breast cancer treatment, the positive attitude and silver-lining she discovered through her journey.
BioReference: What is your experience with cancer?
Terri: I had five masses in my left breast when I was 35. Two of them were golf ball sized. Ten months earlier, I had a diagnostic ultrasound that had been completely negative, so the cancer came fast and aggressive.
I was diagnosed with two forms of aggressive cancer simultaneously: invasive papillary carcinoma and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). I had been expecting the news for over a decade after countless exploratory surgeries and monitoring of atypical cells, so believe it or not, hearing the diagnosis in my surgeon’s office was a blessing!
I cheered in the room when my doctor gave me the news that I had stage 3 breast cancer. The doctors and nurses were surprised to hear my response, but I was genuinely excited to finally get the ok to have the double mastectomy and get rid of all my breast tissue that had been causing me such grief for so long. The doctors wouldn’t perform the surgery unless I was positive all those years and now finally I was. Woohoo!
Unfortunately, I had to first go through five months of very aggressive chemotherapy before I could undergo surgery. I remember walking into Dr. Weisberger’s office with my Pathology report and about eight prescriptions for the chemo I was about to receive to get his thoughts. He was the only person who didn’t sugar-coat anything. He explained the rollercoaster treatment regimen and even told me how I would feel each day of the week. He even predicted the exact day when I would start losing my hair!
This picture was taken after the 17th day when the weight of my hair became unbearable. I saw a large chunk of hair fall off that morning. My scalp was extra sensitive and so tingly at that point. My hair felt dead and carrying that weight was extremely painful on my scalp, so I decided to G.I. Jane-it on that 17th day. I remember thinking, “Wow he nailed it!”
The Oncologist told me she met with a tumor board to discuss my treatment. Being so young and no family history they weren’t sure what to do with me, but they ultimately decided on the toughest treatment. I recall hearing that you can tell the strength of the chemo by how red the liquid is in the syringe. I gulped when I saw the syringes they had for me that first day of treatment. There were two the size of my forearm and the liquid in them was such a dark maroon color. I had a port installed near my collar bone and all my meds were to be injected there and piped directly into my heart. I had zero time to worry about it. It was Go Time! Let’s do this!
Those five months were extremely hard. As a former athlete, it was so hard for me to accept that I couldn’t even walk up one flight of stairs without having to stop and catch my breath. I couldn’t be too far from a restroom at any given time. The nausea was constant. Everything tasted wrong. Headaches galore! Extreme daily hot flashes! My memory failed me constantly. The things that I actually loved about this experience – I was in an induced menopause the entire time and I didn’t have to do my hair every morning! Ladies, why aren’t we all bald?!
After chemo therapy was complete, I was finally able to get my double mastectomy! #Winning!
I still had to go through Radiation Therapy before I could continue the breast reconstruction process (that’s a completely different story involving about five other surgeries and a really fun Pseudomonas infection!).
I was a candidate for a new radiation study. They were able to reduce my radiation therapy time by half but only by doubling the strength of each dose. Results were better than they expected. No visible discoloring or scars. #MoreWinning!
These days, I still see my doctors every six months. I’m still on Tamoxifen for a total of 10 years.
BioReference: Did you have a role model who had a similar experience that you wanted to follow?
Terri: I did not known anyone who had been through this prior to my diagnosis. This didn’t run in my family and I was too young to have had close friends who had experienced anything like this. I was on my own.
BioReference: How has this experience helped you grow? How did it impact your lifestyle?
Terri: I tell people now that I wish everyone were diagnosed with and survived cancer at some point in their lives. It sounds morbid I know, but it really does give you a different perspective on life. It makes you appreciate time. It makes you tackle that “bucket list”. It teaches you to let go of grudges. It makes you appreciate simpler things that make you happy and not overwork yourself and stress about nonsense. It makes you want to help others going through the same thing you experienced.
BioReference: What do you wish you knew before finding out you had cancer? What resources can you share with colleagues?
Terri: It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I should’ve just paid for my double mastectomy out of my own pocket 10 years prior instead of waiting for insurance to approve it after a positive diagnosis! I probably could’ve avoided all of it.
I didn’t read books on cancer or do tons of research before my treatment. I didn’t want to know more than I needed to. What was the point in stressing about it? I had an incredibly positive attitude throughout all my time at the treatment center. The nurses would tell me how excited they were the days I was coming in because the mood there was always so bleak. I think the most important thing that helped me get through it all and recover so well was that positive attitude. Smiling and laughing through it all made it easier to bear for everyone. They even tried to get me on a popular talk show to talk about my experience.
BioReference: What advice do you have for someone who was just diagnosed with cancer?
Terri: Since my experience, I am constantly approached by friends and family that know someone who was just diagnosed and isn’t handling the news well. They ask if I’d be willing to talk to them. I don’t hesitate. I understand how scary it could be to get the news. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything though. It’s hard and you need to harden yourself to face it. I had the luxury of being mentally prepared for it after 10 years of procedures, but most people aren’t expecting it.
I tell everyone, take 5-10 minutes to cry, be sad and grieve, but no more than that. You’ve got cancer. So what? Get over it! It’s a bump in the road. Muscle through it. You have a lot of information that’s about to be thrown at you by your doctors; a lot of side effects to prepare for and deal with during your treatments. You need to be ready for all of it and staying depressed and blaming yourself isn’t going to help you process and remember it all. It also isn’t going to help those around you that will be your support group. Depression will make the days seem longer and unbearable. I believe that having a positive attitude makes a huge difference on your prognosis. Don’t let cancer beat you mentally before you even have a chance to beat it physically.
A FEW TIPS:
- Eat with plastic utensils during your time on chemo. That metal taste is otherwise nauseating!
- Don’t let them inject you with prefilled saline syringes. You oddly taste that plastic instantly. Ask them to draw a new syringe of saline for you each time.
- Enjoy the 45-minute nap when they pump liquid Benadryl into your heart. Instant snooze-fest!
- Get a cold pack to keep around your neck, because those hot flashes are no joke.
- When you shave your head, take a moment to remember that feeling when you first feel the water hitting your scalp in the shower. Ecstasy! Again, why aren’t we all bald?!