My mother had breast cancer and hoped a mastectomy would save her, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. She was just 33 years old when she passed away, leaving behind a husband and three small children. My brother was five. My sister was eight, and as I said, I was only seven.
Because I was so young, there’s not much that I remember about her. My strongest memory is of the two of us sitting together on the couch, sharing an ice cream bar. I still remember her picking off the yummy chocolate coating and giving it to me, so I could let it melt on my tongue. It’s a small thing, but it’s the small things that make up some of the sweetest memories families share, don’t you think?
Through the years, my mom was always in my heart, but I missed her terribly. My brother and sister take after our dad—one look at them side-by-side and you know they’re a family. But I take after my mother’s side of the family. Without my mom beside me, I often felt alone—like I didn’t fit. Don’t get me wrong, my siblings and my dad and I were there for each other, but I always felt that I looked out of place. So I always hoped I was growing up to look and be just like my mom.
I wasn’t planning on breast cancer being one of the things we’d have in common, though. I’d just turned 35, and because of our family history was to start regular mammograms later that year. It came a little sooner than expected.
It was Mother’s Day 2008. I was enjoying one of those moments I’d lost with my own mom—breakfast in bed, prepared by my children. It may have only been a bowl of cereal, but it represented everything I’d always wanted. My daughter, then 8, was chattering away on the bed next to me and my 4-year-old son was playing on the floor. All was right with our world. Then I had an itch on my chest–and I felt the lump. I called for my husband to come into the room and asked “WHAT IS THIS?” We were both terrified, so we tried to do some research on the internet. Since it was Sunday, that was pretty much all that we could do. That is when my Journey—with a capital J—started.
A few days later, during a quickly-scheduled ultrasound, the tech called the radiologist in and it was determined that an immediate mammogram was needed. My sister was with me, and the news left us crying in the waiting room as we waited for my husband, Jason, to arrive. After that exam, the doctor said I had two “scary” lumps that needed to be biopsied. After another ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Eventually, the doctors found three masses in the top two quadrants of my right breast which meant I needed a mastectomy. In addition, we found out that my cancer was HER-2 positive, which can be particularly aggressive, especially for young women, and increases the risk of recurrence. After some discussion with my husband, we decided to do a bilateral mastectomy, which meant that I would have both breasts removed. I wanted this cancer GONE, and we also wanted reduce the risk of having cancer in the other breast. My daughter was around the same age as I had been when I lost my mom to breast cancer. I wanted to do everything I could to make sure I’d be around for my children for as long as God would allow.
So, three months after I first felt the lump, I underwent surgery to have both breasts removed. There ended up being a total of seven masses, four of which the doctors had not been aware of. Testing revealed a couple of cancerous lymph nodes, which later surgery soon removed. My doctors designated me “cancer free,” but recommended chemotherapy combined with Herceptin® (trastuzumab) therapy to kill any microcells that might be lingering and help prevent the return of the cancer. My mother in law had taped a documentary about Herceptin that we watched–we thought it was pretty neat that it was manufactured right here in our own back yard. I had to take Herceptin for a year but after I was done with my chemo treatment, I was able to start doing the Herceptin treatment every 3 weeks. Thankfully, I did not have any side effects with Herceptin, but each person is different and some people do experience nausea, fatigue, or other side effects.
In the meantime, I decided to have genetic counseling, where I received the upsetting news that I carry the BRCA2 gene, which is linked to breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Due to this link, I decided to have my ovaries removed after I finished all of my chemo treatments. Through it all, my children and husband were there for me. Walker, my little guy, would draw little pink ribbons wherever he could–on the sidewalk, in chalk; beside his name at school. They were strong and brave and I am unbelievably proud to be their mom.
It’s been three and a half years since I found my lump. I have since had reconstruction surgery to replace my breasts—I demanded perky ones!—and my hair has grown back. Life is back to normal. Because of my BRCA2 status, we have a plan in place for my daughter’s genetic testing, but right now we just want both of our children to enjoy being children. I don’t ever want my daughter to walk into her parents’ bedroom, as I did not long after my mother’s passing, and find their father kneeling in their mother’s closet, weeping into her clothes. I hope you know that THAT is what the work you do means. It means giving hope to children and families. It means allowing little girls and boys a chance to bond with their mothers, to run to them with every problem—imagined or real—and be comforted. It means love.
Everyone has bad days, days when everything seems to go wrong at work. I hope that on those days, you’ll think of me, my husband, Jason, and our children Kaylynn and Walker, and know that your work has given us our life together—and that we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
This journey has been a difficult one for my family and for me. But with our faith in God, the love and support of those close to us, we were able to get through this. The Peace that God gave us was so amazing that it can’t be put it into words.