I often am asked, "What led you to featuring cancer survivors?" The answer is simple; everyone has a story and everyone should share their story to help the next person who they might not even know! Just because an individual goes through cancer doesn't define them and I hope that this experience gives a little beauty back to the person because cancer wears a person down in so many ways. This week our Survivor is Camille a breast cancer survivor and here is her story:
1. When and what type of cancer were you diagnosed with?
I was diagnosed twice with right breast cancer after I felt a palpable lump during self breast examinations both times. The first time was in June 2004 at age 26 years old (one month before my 27th birthday) and the second diagnosis recently at age 38 in December 2015 (about a week before Christmas). I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer both times in Stage 1, but with the most recent breast cancer I learned that the cells also have a “Grade” and my pathology report showed that my Grade was a 3, which meant that the cells in my tumor were poorly differentiated and more aggressive this time around. A Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosis also meant that I had fewer options for treatment and could not be treated with hormone therapy such as Tamoxifen because it would not respond to that type of treatment. I don’t have any family history of “breast” cancer although other types of cancer does run in my family. I did genetic testing in 2004 BRACA 1 and 2 to see if I carried a gene mutation that could be passed on to my children. I have two children - a 19 year old daughter and a 11 year old son. My daughter was 8 years old at the time of my first cancer diagnosis and my son wasn’t born yet (he was born a year later in 2005). The genetic testing came back negative. I also did genetic testing after my recent diagnosis in January 2016. When I met with the genetic counselor, she told me that there were more test now then back when I had the previous testing in 2004 to check for various gene mutations that they didn’t know about back then. All the test came back negative, which was a relief for me but still didn’t answer where did the cancer came from. I decided to go with an entirely different medical care team with the second diagnosis which consisted of an oncologist, breast surgeon, plastic surgeon, and my primary care physician. Every year after I had my first breast cancer diagnosis, I had my mammograms and was clear each time with negative findings for any malignancy. Around 2010, when I went to get my annual mammogram the radiologist started seeing areas that they wanted to further evaluate and biopsy in both breast, but the findings were all benign (no cancer) until December 2015 when the cancer came back. Each year after 2010 was a very nerve wrecking experience when I went for my annual mammogram screenings. I opted to have a double mastectomy with nipple sparring breast reconstruction after my second diagnosis. I had made up my mind that I was going to do whatever I could to lessen the chances of a recurrence so I could live as long as possible. I met with my oncologist and nurse and we discussed my treatment plan. It was strongly suggested by my oncologist that I do chemotherapy this time around, which I dreaded (I will terrified of chemotherapy) but again hoped that maximum treatment would give maximum results. My oncologist during the first diagnosis felt that chemotherapy would not make too much of a difference as apart of my treatment plan due to the size of the tumor, clean margins and no lymph node activity. I was also younger and wanted to have another child. The chemotherapy drug that was suggested could push you into early menopause and cause infertility. I had a strong survival prognosis with my first cancer diagnosis. I went 11 years without a recurrence. During this second diagnosis my treatment plan included the chemotherapy drug - Adriamycin (also known as the “red devil”), Cytoxan and Taxol. This type of chemotherapy is harsh and causes alot of side effects, but my oncologist prepared me as much as possible with anti-nausea meds, nutrition plans, and other helpful resources. I read as much as I could to cope with all the symptoms and physical changes, but to actually go through it was another story. I lost every strand of hair on my head and body. My hair started coming out a lot after my second chemotherapy treatment. I tried to have some control over the situation and asked my husband to shave my head on April 20, 2016. I will never forget that day! I actually started chemotherapy on March 31st, almost a month earlier. My plastic surgeon had inserted the tissue expanders during my double mastectomy. The tissue expanders were hard and uncomfortable but their purpose is to stretch out the muscle in preparation for the breast implants. I had several complications while getting chemotherapy throughout my entire treatment which resulted in a total of 5 surgeries from Feb - Dec 2016. To make a long story short - the previously radiated skin on the right breast from my first breast cancer would not heal from my original double mastectomy surgery in February 2016. The surgeon tried all kinds of ways to get it to heal but the skin was so damaged that the wound underneath my breast just would not heal. I had to get the right tissue expander and my right nipple removed in May 2016. My surgeon and I discussed me having a latissimus dorsal flap procedure. He wanted to basically take muscle from my back to reconstruct my right breast, but suggested that we wait until I was done with chemotherapy for that procedure. He also had to insert a new tissue expander on the right side after my chemotherapy was completed. I completed my entire chemotherapy treatment plan on August 18, 2016 surrounded by the infusion center staff, my husband, and my mom. I rang that bell and got out of there as quickly as I could! It was such a relief. What a long journey, but I was finally done for real after several delays due to complications and my treatment plan had been extended at least 2 or 3 times. It had gotten to the point that I didn’t want to discuss what I thought would be my last actual date to be finished because my oncologist had to change my treatment plan due to all the issues that occured during treatment. I really had a tough time, but I made it to the end. I experinced so many side effects that included things such as a bladder reaction - frequency and urinary spasms, intense itching, skin peeling, fingernail discoloration/nail loss, neuropathy in my hands and feet, excessive weight loss - I lost around 24 pounds and really felt grateful that part was finally over and I could begin to live again. I could finally look forward to building myself back up physically and mentally. I was off from work for about 6 months and was looking forward to getting back to my “norm” again.
2. Who helped you get through your treatments?
My husband and my mom helped me get through my treatment. They were a HUGE support system for me. My mom bought vegetables, fruits, and whatever else she thought would be helpful to almost every infusion appointment. My husband cooked every meal and took care of everything at home. I never had to go to a doctor’s appointment or chemotherapy treatment alone. They sat with me during EVERY treatment no matter how irritated or unpleasant my attitude was on some days -they were there. I also got support in various ways from other family members and a few close friends and co-workers. I got text, phone calls, cards, flowers, meals delivered, and gifts which reminded me that I was being thought of almost daily or at least weekly and I wasn't alone in my fight to battle cancer. I am a very independent and a private person that would have probably tried to do everything alone but I am so glad that I accepted all the support that I received. It was overwhelming at times, but so appreciated. I am and I will always be very grateful. I even got a surprise at my final chemotherapy infusion from a friend that I haven’t seen in years. She was one of my closest childhood friends. I've known her since elementary school. We hugged and cried - that moment was so special and priceless in the middle of waiting room of the infusion center.
3. When were you given the all clear?
I was actually deemed cancer free when I had my double mastectomy on February 16, 2016. That was the big surgery where the cancer was removed. I can’t believe that it’s been almost a year already. I plan to set the tone with this 1st anniversary and do something special for myself like this Survivor photoshoot every year moving forward. Enjoy time with my family - maybe we’ll go out to a nice quiet dinner that evening. I can really celebrate on my birthday this summer in July that I made it to 40 and pray that God blesses me with many more. I am planning either a big party or trip.
4. Do you work with any charitites or have one of your own?
I am not affiliated in any special charities at this time. I hope to get involved and mentor other survivors in the near future. I have done breast cancer walks and given donations to various charities in the past.
5. What would you like to tell someone who might have been just diagnosed?
I would tell anyone that has just been diagnosed that they will get through it all. To always Have Faith, Believe, and have Hope - Do whatever to keep yourself strong spiritually and mentally because the treatment can drain you in every way. Try to do things to make yourself feel better, towards the middle of treatment, I learned that if I had the strength to dress up nice ...I felt better (Look good, Feel Good!) I would also say - Never give up and keep fighting until you can’t fight anymore! Be your own advocate when it comes to your me