The women in these interviews probably would not like the words “empower” or “brave” used when referring to them. Because at the start of their breast cancers they didn’t consider themselves particularly strong women. But, after having double mastectomies and staring at the “red devil” in the eye, they gained an inner peace so strongly evident when you speak to them that it’s enviable.
Chemo may have knocked them sideways, but it couldn’t touch the essence of who they are. They talk candidly about their fears, issues and how their lives were irrevocably altered. We honor them for reliving their stories in the hopes of helping others – including their own daughters.
Last year in July, Jennifer was on vacation with her family when she was putting on her swimsuit top and felt a lump, about the size of a pea, next to her nipple. She waited until she got home to say anything.
Crazy thing is, she had a clear mammogram six months prior to finding the lump. And good that she acted on her findings when she did, because it was stage 1 lobular breast cancer, hard to find with a mammogram because it develops in the milk glands.
What thoughts went through your mind when you were told you had cancer? I’m going to die. My mother and grandmother died from it (cancer). And then, even though I have a very supportive husband, it’s a maternal reaction to think, ‘Who will take care of my kids?’
What was your biggest challenge? I’m really active and involved and I didn't know how to slow down; that was the hardest part. Having no hair wasn’t easy - only because I didn’t want to be stared at, and I didn’t like wearing a wig.
What helped get you through your ordeal? People dropped off food, and transported my kids for me, people at work helped…. And, strangers would come to me and offer prayers. I don’t know how you’d go through this without faith.
What do you do to keep yourself healthy? (She’s munching on little carrots) I joined a program in Lafayette called Thrive 365, funded by Oncologics Foundation. It’s free for survivors and provides access to group exercise, a dietitian; there’s a mental health component and more. I work out six to seven days a week. It’s a positive way to interact with survivors without feeling sorry for yourself.
Is there something you wish you’d known beforehand? To ask more questions of the medical providers on the front end. It’s so overwhelming. I’m an assistant U.S. attorney, and I didn’t ask enough questions. I should have asked questions like, what it would be like after the mastectomy.
What advice would you give another woman who’s just been diagnosed? Reach out to other survivors because they understand what you’re going through more than anyone. Find a support group, like at Miles Perret. The people I’ve met have become some of my good friends.
One of the reasons breast self-exams are emphasized is to teach women to know their breasts and how they should feel. Five years ago, Aimee felt something suspicious in her right breast during a self-exam. A mammogram found nothing in that breast, but in the left one found a fibroid adenoma. She continued to keep a very watchful eye on the right breast for a year until the lump was diagnosed as lobular carcinoma. Her breast implant was actually pushing the tumor out. Two years later, the lump in her left breast was diagnosed as ductal carcinoma in situ. Interesting to note: Aimee’s family history of breast cancer included her maternal great grandfather who died of the disease.
What thoughts went through your mind when you heard the word cancer? I thought it was cancer; I’d prepared myself. The Sunday before at church, pastor preached about the steps of walking through a valley before getting on the mountain again.
What helped get you through your experience? My husband has a very giving heart. I got involved with the DIVA group a couple weeks after diagnosis, and also Miles Perret and Susan G. Komen; I could ask them anything. I was Susan G. Komen’s Cancer 2018 Survivor of the Year.
What do you do to keep yourself healthy - After cancer, you’re still drained; it’s been a challenge to find a way to stay active that’s not so hard? Through the Thrive 365 program I do Pilates four times a week and have started getting free nutrition counseling. I try to drink Fiji water because it has a low PH level.
What’s the most surprising thing someone told you during your diagnosis? Losing my hair was hard because I didn’t want to see the look on someone’s face when they think you’re dying. When I lost my hair, someone said to me, “It’s just hair.”
What advice would you give another woman who’s just been diagnosed? Trust the process and listen to your body. People get caught up in listening to others’ experiences and not listening to the doctors and it causes more anxiety than it needs to.
What have you learned about yourself through this experience? That I could keep going farther than I give myself credit for. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone in speaking to other survivors and I was asked to be a part of the planning committee for the Dodie Grove Foundation.
With a family history of breast cancer Kylie has had mammograms since she was 35. Two years ago, at 38, a pain in her left breast guided her hand to a lump that felt about an inch round. The ultrasound revealed a mass with smooth edges that she was told didn’t look cancerous, but a couple weeks later, to be safe, a biopsy was taken. The results came back as stage 2 triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma.
What surprised you most about having breast cancer? The person I would become afterwards. I left a nine-year relationship and put my house up for sale. I just wanted to start over; I didn’t want anything negative in my life.
What was a side effect of chemo that was surprising to you? Both of my big toenails fell off. My taste buds were off - even water tasted unpleasant.
What’s the most surprising thing someone told you during your illness?
“I thought you had cancer; you look fine.”
What helped get you through your ordeal? My best friend Amanda was diagnosed three weeks after me and having each other through all of this was a blessing. My family, friends and boyfriend helped financially, at doctors’ appointments, cooking, even cleaning. Two months after being diagnosed, they put together a fundraiser - a rag ball tournament - and raised nearly $30,000 to help with medical bills.
What do you do to keep yourself healthy - After 20 years of smoking, I quit two years ago.
What advice would you give another woman who’s just been diagnosed? Always keep a positive mind. Always have someone with you at an appointment to keep track of all that’s said. Trust yourself before the doctor. Tumors do sometimes hurt. A tumor with smooth edges isn’t always a good sign.
What have you learned about yourself through your experience? I’m tougher than I thought. It’s ok to live alone. Always follow my gut instinct.