The story of a Survivor
This special post is the wonderful work of Amy Gesell, a survivor who received treatment at The Breast Place. Amy was kind enough to write about her experience, from her initial diagnosis through her recovery. What we stand to gain from listening to the accounts of survivors is a deeper understanding of how cancer diagnoses affect mental health, how community is an essential aspect of the healing process, and the importance of regular screenings. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to shine a spotlight on some of our incredible survivors. Thank you, Amy, for sharing your story!
"In January of this year, I went to my GP for a “check-in and a check-up” about my physical AND mental health. I’d been unusually moody, short-tempered, was hungry all the time, gaining weight…all things we sort of chalked up to my age (46). Having no solid history on when women in my family begin menopause, I naturally assumed that this was where I was headed.
Also, I’d been having pain in the left side of my chest, which left me wondering if I was headed for heart trouble. But there was also something else…this odd undercurrent that something was definitely NOT okay. I just couldn’t effectively communicate what that feeling was, so I was left stomping around my house, angry and frustrated, which is a complete 180 degree turn from my normal personality.
It was THAT feeling, the one that I couldn’t express, that caused my husband to encourage me to make an appointment with his doctor.
I resisted, initially. We live in a very rural area and it is a major pain to go in to town, get to know a new doctor, etc. Plus, I’d seen a different physician in that town once, years before, who was nice enough, but the follow up was lacking, so I never bothered to go back. Plus, I was sort of raised with this weird distaste for hypochondria. I had a cousin who thought she was dying every time she had a cold…she still thinks that way…and we still make fun of her for it. My point being - my belief was that if you’re not REALLY sick, don’t pester the doctor.
My husband’s encouragement and his concern over my mental health as well as my overall physical health helped me override this aversion to physicians and I agreed that he could make an appointment for me to see his physician, Dr. Gunther Rencken…who has literally turned out to be a life saver.
I walked into Dr. Rencken’s office with notebook and a litany of complaints. He patiently went through them one by one, helping me understand that I wasn’t going crazy. But, when we started to discuss my chest pain, he asked me the most important question of my life:
“When was your last mammogram?”
“Well, I had one last year. And it was normal. Well…normal for me. I mean, the guy called me back for more imaging, at which time he told me that he saw a spot that was probably just scar tissue from a previous lumpectomy of what was a benign tumor.”
And truly, I wasn’t worried at the time. I have fibrocystic breasts and for the whole of my life, had been running to physicians about the latest “lump,” only to discover it was “just a cyst.” I expected this to be the answer to all of my lumps for the rest of my life.
Besides, I’d always read that chest pain was NOT a sign of breast cancer…right?
My new doc then did something unexpected. He asked me to consider allowing him to, since I was already there, give me a breast exam (with a nurse present, of course) and especially the breast that had “the scar tissue.” I agreed and the look on his face as he palpated my left breast woke that little voice that had been begging for my attention for months: something, in fact, was not right.
He tried to reassure me by saying “Look, this could be nothing. It could absolutely be scar tissue. But rather than subject you to another mammogram, I’m going to refer you to a great doctor that specializes in this. Would you be willing to go see her? She is in Charleston, but it will be worth your time.”
I agreed. I received a phone call from Dr. Jennifer Beatty’s office at The Breast Place that very afternoon and they put me on the books ASAP.
A week later, I was in her office, oscillating between fear (OMG, I could have breast cancer) and shame (OMG, I’m making a big deal over nothing.)
Dr. Beatty and her staff did (and still do) everything within their power to alleviate you of any shame or embarrassment you may be feeling.
They also allow you to accept your fear. It’s shocking to realize how powerful you can become when you are given permission and/or the support to look into the face of your fear and say “I feel you.” Because, oddly, the minute you accept that you are afraid, the fear subsides a bit. Your heart rate slows. You breathe deeper.
And I was breathing deeply when Dr. Beatty showed me what she was seeing on my ultrasound.
I was breathing deeply when Dr. Beatty performed a painless (and when I say painless, I mean ZERO pain) needle biopsy.
And I took a deep breath when she personally called me, less than 24 hours later, to tell me that I did, indeed, have invasive ductal carcinoma.
It was really late in the afternoon and my husband was in the shower. I left him a note saying that I was going to the barn. And I did.
I swept, I cleaned the windows in the tack room, I polished the wood on the walls, cleaned some tack and watched the sun touch down on the horizon and wash everything in gold. How could this horrible moment be so beautiful? Not everyone may have this experience, and I’m sorry for that. But truly, the only thing I could do in that moment was be quiet, be gentle, and appreciate the beauty of the sun going down.
It took me four more hours after returning home to screw up the courage to tell my husband. Only two years prior, he’d lost both of his parents to cancer, 12 weeks apart, not knowing until their last days that they had cancer. (His mother, a rare and fast spreading uterine cancer and his father, a tough old Texan who’d had cancer for some time and had simply never shared that fact with his
family.) When I said the word “carcinoma” to him, he grew very pale and asked me what that meant. It took me days to realize that he thought that it meant that I was going to die…and soon. My heart broke for him more than my own. I mean, I love myself and I don’t want to die any time soon and certainly not from THIS, but it was in that moment that I realized that, no matter the outcome, he was going to suffer, too.
Dr. Beatty is a take charge, no b.s. leader and I am convinced that this is why I have fared so well. She and Dr. Rencken had me with orders for CT scans, MRI and bone scans before we made our plan of attack. Once the scans gave us the all clear, we moved forward with the plan of:
Nipple sparing mastectomy of the left breast.
Two weeks healing time (my tumor was really close to the skin, so we wanted some time to get the blood flowing to all the right places) and a replacement implant.
I’d be on the beach by the end of the summer!
But life, as we have already learned, holds lots of surprises for us. The presence of cancer cells were found in one of the lymph nodes removed during my mastectomy…so our plans had to change and another soldier was engaged to help me keep marching forward.
Dr. Beatty worked with Dr. Yannis Bellil, an oncologist in Charleston. We then changed our plan of attack. To use his terminology, we, via mastectomy, had “plucked the dandelion from the green at the Masters Course (golf reference).” Now, we had to cast about to make sure no more dandelions were going to pop up.
I engaged in four sessions of chemotherapy, each delivered three weeks apart.
Some women tough it out and it doesn’t disrupt their lives in the slightest.
Some women have days where they’re bad, but some good.
Some women stay very near a toilet and refuse food and water and have to get fluids administered to them every time they show up for chemo because…well…that’s just how their bodies handle it. (Me. I was that woman.)
To say that chemo was hard on me is an understatement. I don’t know why I didn’t handle it well, but for the three weeks between, I did not eat for two and then ate like Michael Phelps prepping for the Olympics for the third in order to maintain a good weight. I lost weight, but never so much that medical intervention was necessary. Also, I would have odd reactions two weeks in: my lips and eyes would swell as if stung by bees or something. So EXTRA steroids always had to be on hand.
There were days when I thought:
“Yep. You’re dying. This is it. They were wrong. You’re a dead duck.”
And as the chemotherapy dissipated from my system, I’d get strong again and think “What the hell was that? You’re not a dead duck! You’re a roaring tiger! A bucking, Hancock-bred chestnut mare! (Horse people will get that.) You’re FINE.”
And then we’d start all over again.
Speaking of which, I don’t ever WANT to do it again…but looking at the quality of my life right now, I would do it all over again in a heart beat.
Then came radiation! Ahhhhh! Radiation! The longest shortest treatment of one’s cancer life! Every day, I would make the 1.5 hour drive to Charleston, kick back and practically fall asleep as the radiation techs told me to “breathe in, hold it, breathe out.” (Which I still hear in my sleep…) Between my radiation oncologist, Dr. Clay’s, bright and funny attitude and the incredibly kind staff, radiation was a breeze. Costco sized tubs of Aquaphor helped my skin stay pretty unscathed, too. I’ve heard that some women suffer terribly during radiation. I am fortunately not one of those women.
I am what Dr. Rencken promised me.
I am what Dr. Beatty promised me.
I am what Dr. Bellil promised me.
I am what Dr. Clay promised me.
I am what I promised my husband I would be:
I am okay.
Do I have days where the panic hits me and I stress over whether it’s coming back for me?
Do I work myself into a frenzy over things like “toxins” in everything from my water to my cosmetics?
Am I afraid that if I indulge in a full-fat, whole milk vanilla latte, that an army of cancer cells will awaken and attack me once more?
Am I obsessing over how close to perfect my plastic surgeon can make my breasts look after having been through so much trauma?
Absolutely. (And on some days, absolutely not. If it ever came down to “Living Flat vs. Dying with Curves,” I’m choosing living flat. I understand that not everyone will understand that, but it’s my own choice.)
Do I get that awful crushing feeling in my chest when I hear that someone that I even tangentially know has died from breast cancer? Or that I get sick to my stomach when I remember that one of my “cancer buddies” has metastatic breast cancer and there’s nothing anyone can do other than what they’re already doing? Yes, yes, and yes.
Also, I need to say this: my cancer was a slow growing type and I probably had it for quite some time before I was diagnosed. I am still not fully recovered from chemo and surgeries, but I still PHYSICALLY feel better than I have in two years. I suspect that the phantom “exhaustion” I was feeling for the two years prior to my diagnosis had something to do with the fact that I had cancer. Maybe. Maybe not.
Oh! And the hair thing? Shit. I thought it was going to break my heart. It didn’t. I may never have “mermaid hair” again, but I didn’t look terrible bald, I didn’t look bad in the “GI Jane stage,” and, frankly, it’s been fun wearing wigs with hats on occasion. (Wigs alone didn’t work for me. They always looked “wiggy.” This may not be the case for everyone!)
If you’re still reading this, here are some things I want you to know:
Yes. I still hate a hypochondriac…but what I think about hypochondriacs isn’t any of your business. IF YOU FEEL OFF, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR.
If you have a family history of not just breast cancer, but ANY gynecological issues (PPMD, raging PMS, heavy bleeding, fibroids, etc.) ask your physician about what you can do for earlier screenings for breast and other gynecological cancer. Correlation is not causation, but I am convinced that my life-long hormonal issues absolutely have something to do with me being susceptible to the type of cancer I had. If I’m wrong, your doctor can tell you…BUT ASK.
Get to know your breasts. If you have a fibroid issue like I did, ask your physician to help you learn about the difference in the “feel” of a cyst vs. “something else.” And always schedule an appointment if something new pops up. Don’t feel that you’re “a bother.”
DOCTORS WANT TO HELP YOU. And they would love to help you before the situation is dire. So please, don’t forget regular check ups…hell, schedule them on your birthday as one friend of mine does. That way, you never skip it!
I will admit that I have some ways to go before I feel that I can “move on” from this. I’ll be looking into the face of fear every day for at least the next five years before I can breathe easy again. I’m on a hormone blocker, menopause hit me like a ton of bricks, but shockingly, I am not miserable.
And I will never be miserable again.
My doctors went out of their way, they worked hard, they organized, they pulled together, they DROVE ME through the scariest thing that has ever happened to me and by doing so, gave me the power to keep putting one foot in front of the other when I was weak and to swing out with every jab and punch I had when I was strong. I owe it to THEM and to MYSELF to take the life I have left and enjoy it. Despite the occasional fears, control issues and neuroses that pop up, I am still happy. I am healthier every day, and I am alive.
While Breast Cancer is something that all of our warriors experience and fight for every day, October is an opportunity to spread this awareness on an even high level and open the world's eyes to what this disease really is.
Hello, warriors! Welcome back to the blog and welcome back to part two of our blog discussing what breast cancer awareness means to us. While we are rapidly approaching the end of October and the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we hope you know how incredibly proud we are of each of you. We know this year's difficult situation has prevented us from doing what we all normally like to do to spread awareness, raise money, and gather with our fellow fighters, supporters, and warriors. 2020 can't cancel our hope, our fight, our journey, or the color pink. We all continue to stand in solidarity together, continue to fight together, and support one another. We know this year might be weighing heavy on you and your family, but please believe us when we say that we understand and we are with you. Please continue on your journey, continue with your fight, and continue using your story to prepare and educate others. Your fight can be a light in the darkness for others and for the rest of 2020 and beyond. Have you been feeling at a loss this month, that you haven't found your voice in this battle, that you're not giving back enough or doing enough? Don't be discouraged. Your voice and everything you're doing every day speaks volumes. To help give our own bit of help and support for the rest of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and beyond, we wanted to create a blog on how to make everyday Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Your voice, your journey, and how you choose to handle and battle your diagnosis is a testament in itself. Even if you aren't particularly vocal or you don't share your experience in a blog or through social media, that doesn't mean your journey doesn't impact others. When you go in for your treatments, consider the people sitting around you. This could be their very first or very last treatment. A kind smile, sharing your experiences with them, or just being a positive presence within this little snapshot of time can cause a ripple effect to those battling around you. How youR battle progresses also doesn't go unnoticed by your doctor or nurses. They find comfort, inspiration, and drive from how hard you fight and in the relationship you build together.
Your journey and battle can bring you closer to your loved ones than ever before and can create a bond that you never expected. How you live in your survivorship and how you share your experiences with a new friend or coworker leaves an impression too. Don't think you have to shout from the rooftops and put yourself in the spotlight if you don't want to. Every step of your journey affects someone. If you want to be public about your experience, that is a welcomed expression too. Writing a blog, documenting your experiences on Facebook or Instagram, being a mentor to someone recently diagnosed, participating in group meetings, and more can also help others and raise awareness. No matter how you chose to share and express your experience, both are just as important and beneficial as the other.
There are many steps you and your loved ones can take to promote awareness throughout the entire year, here are some tips and suggestions to make that possible.
We know that your voice is important. Each of your individual stories is worth telling, saving, and sharing. We know that awareness and what we need to cure breast cancer isn't at the level that it deserves and what it should be. Every day we are fighting to make your voices louder, the cure closer, and helping to educate the world about this horrible disease. While so much of the world just sees Breast Cancer Awareness Month as pink ribbons and fundraisers, we see your stories, your pain, your frustrations, and all that you go through every day. Let us stand together to make Breast Cancer Awareness month more than just a month, and finally beat this disease once and for all.
You fight so hard during your treatment while your body gets beaten up every day. What can you do to make yourself feel better in your daily regime of self-care?
As we've discussed throughout many of our recent blogs, claiming and celebrating who you are is a challenge during breast cancer treatment and recovery. Coming to terms with and allowing yourself to feel positive about how you look, feel, and care for yourself is part of your battle and survivorship journey. Self-care and self-love are just as important to your battle as your doctor's visits are. You might be rolling your eyes as you read that, but think about the days where you felt good or were truly realized through your treatment and recovery. Did you get a good night's rest? Feel like yourself again? Feel good in your skin? Did you take time for yourself and maybe had a bath and a facial?
[Mental Health and How It Feels]
These little moments of good have such a huge and positive effect on your mental health, which is one of the first things affected by your diagnosis and treatment. Improving any part of your health and quality of life during these difficult times can help strengthen your battle. So please, don't turn your nose up at self-care. Before your diagnosis, you had your beauty regime and care that was unique and so wonderfully you. That doesn't have to stop with your diagnosis. It might change and evolve, but that's ok too! In this two-part blog, we are going to be sharing some tips and suggestions on how to have and maintain a beauty regime that celebrates you and is dedicated to making you feel better during and after treatment.
The physical changes that you can see are sometimes harder than the effects that chemo and treatment leave behind. It sinks in when you can see the changes, and not see you looking back in the mirror. Your body hair can be gone, your skin is dry, blotchy and pained, your nails are weak and cracking, the shape of your body can change, and you could have pieces of you removed and then added back, with scars left behind. Every fashion item you used to come into contact with affects you differently than it did before, from how it feels to how it will affect your skin or toenails. Fashion magazines offer little when it comes to positive reinforcements or guidance. Thankfully, designers like Stella McCartney has designed bras for those who have had double mastectomies. Jewelry like statement earrings and necklaces can really pop against scars or bald heads or hide a chemo port. More and more designers are creating comfortable, flattering, and beautiful clothing pieces, head scarfs, and other garments with breast cancer patients in mind. But what about your skin and the rest of your regime?
Chemo affects your skin in so many ways and can leave your complexion blotchy and even change it completely. Chemo also affects your sense of smell, so anything overly perfumed or has a strong smell can make you sick during or after treatment. Try finding and investing in natural skincare that has little to no fragrance and is paraben-free. Nontoxic beauty products can limit the exposure to harmful chemicals and ingredients while your skin and body are so sensitive and susceptible during treatment. They are also much gentler on the skin, which could have become extremely sensitive as a result of your treatments. This goes beyond facial lotions, washes, and toners. Look into all-natural and fragrance-free nontoxic eyeliners, lipstick, lashes, lash glue, eyebrow pencils, and more. Be mindful, there are toxic ingredients that still exist in manufactured makeup and beauty products that can cause cancer. You don't want to put these in or on your body, as you are already at risk with a compromised immune system. Adding natural deep hydrating lotion and healing ointments can combat whatever chemo does to your skin and soothe it away. Add in under-eye patches, face masks, sheet masks, and at home facial kits to help you relax, care for your skin, and give it a new glow.
When washing, make sure all of your skin is cared for, and not just your face. Use very gentle soaps that also have light or very little fragrance. Avoid products that contain alcohol and put away your antiaging creams and products. Many of which, according to Everyday Health, can irritate your skin even more than it is during treatment. Cornstarch can soothe irritation on your skin, and limiting shaving can help avoid irritation as well. Make sure to limit your sun exposure, and always wear sunscreen. Don't forget to cover your head and always bring your lip balm!
In the same safe non-toxic and organic world of beauty products, you can add some fake lashes and brows too. The options are staggering when it comes to these products. You can even professionally have sets of eyelashes put in, and you have the option of stencils, stamps, pencils, and eyebrow wigs to fill your eyebrows. Using bronzers and highlight can help with a natural glow without wearing too much makeup, and quartz colors around your eyes and a bold flash of red can make your lips pop!
Please remember, the choice to do any of this is yours and yours alone. Not societies, not a family member, not a friend. Many of our patients use these tips to feel more like themselves, to feel more feminine, and to care for their skin during and after treatment. But, just like your journey through survivorship, it's unique to your personal needs. In the second part of this blog, we will be discussing tips for your nails, regrowing your hair, and hair care. If you have any questions about this any of our services, don't hesitate to reach out. Continue to fight, be proud of the journey you're on, and be well.
What Does Survivorship Look Like?
Life after treatment looks different for everyone, but what could it look like for you?
Healing, as we mentioned in our last blog, comes in may waves. Survivorship becomes a way of life, and it looks a little different for everyone. It's a daily battle to deal with but you are strong enough, wise enough, and worthy enough to live with it and through it. You are allowed to claim how you want to live your life. We do offer several services to help your survivorship feel a little easier. After life-changing events, we offer total wellness through IV therapy to help with energy, laser scar revision following surgery, skin resurfacing and rejuvenation using the latest laser technology, dermal fillers for fine lines and wrinkles, body contouring to address unwanted areas of fat with noninvasive treatment, and more. We are here for you in many ways, please never hesitate to reach out.
What else can survivorship look like? For some, it begins when you've finished treatment, and there are no signs of cancer left. For others, it begins with their diagnosis and continues through a long term treatment that helps manage their illness or helps reduce the risk of it returning. It is a different process, because how you physically and mentally respond is not the same for everyone, and that's ok. Here are some tips and suggestions on how to handle what you might be feeling and going through to provide some peace and guidance.
It is common for the first year after your treatment has finished to be the hardest of all the years to follow. Take these tips to heart, and know we're here to help you through your whole survivorship journey. If you are interested in any of our services, please contact us at your earliest convenience and visit our website to request a consultation. We are here when you need us. Your survivorship is as unique as you are, and that is ok. We can embrace it together and give you the best quality of life as possible. Continue to fight, be proud of the journey you're on, and be well.