So here it is…the place I’ve decided to share my experience with surviving and thriving through a breast cancer diagnosis.
When I learned that I had breast cancer, I was of course completely shocked. There was no history of it in my family, no genetic markers and no lifestyle habits that could contribute to this disease. All of the things you’re advised to incorporate to improve your health I was already doing. I couldn’t make any sense of it all; how it happened, what to do, who to listen to, what my options were – I was terrified. The incredible body I had lived in for 44 years was telling me something was terribly wrong, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I started to clunk my way through trying to heal and found grace and love in the most beautiful places; inside my own soul, in the faces of strangers, doctors, remarkable women and of course my outstanding friends.
In addition to the support of my incredible community comprised of the best friends in the world, without a doubt, one of the most helpful things I did was speak to other women who had been through it and could give me hope and guidance. They provided comfort and information I never could have found from doctors or looking online without sifting through terrifying stories and pictures (I’m one of those people who gets images burned into my brain). I decided to use my experience and healing as an opportunity to share with other women that same amazing gift those women gave me. Gaye, Laura, Lorraine, Madeleine and Charlene – I am so grateful to have had the benefit of learning through your experiences with cancer – thank you from the bottom of my heart.
If you’re reading this, I hope my words find their way deep in to the precise part of your heart that needs healing, community, love and some really good laughs.
One of the things I did before I started radiation therapy was make my own lotion, or as I called it, my Boobricant. The cream the medical profession recommended was a moisturizer. Much to my surprise it wasn’t loaded with toxins and it turns out it was a pretty decent product. However, it also wasn’t loaded with anything else to heal the skin and this elixir crafting witch wanted some healing properties for her freshly scarred tata.
I’ve been making my own deodorant for years, along with a number of other items for sore muscles, congestion from colds, bath salts, and even a line of non-toxic dog care products that I sell, PawFu (www.pawfu.ca) I had everything I needed at home already and whipped up my first batch. It contained:
1/4 cup shea butter
1/4 cup extra virgin coconut oil
1/4 cup aloe vera gel (yes, even though they tell you not to use this)
Lavender essential oil (a few drops; good quality)
Calendula flower (I used a good quality CO2 extracted paste; about a 1/16 teaspoon)
Add shea butter, coconut oil and aloe vera gel into a glass jar. Fill a medium sized pot half way with water, add the jar with its contents and bring it to a slow rolling boil on the stove until the items melt inside the jar. Remove from heat, add lavender and calendula. While still in liquid form, pour into a glass container that you can easily stick your fingers into or an applicator (i.e. tongue depresser) to reach. Chill in the fridge overnight or let set on the counter. BOOM! Boobricant.
I applied this underneath the product that was recommended by the medical team about 3 times a day with my bedtime dose being a really big blob. Mid way through the three week mark of treatment, my skin was still in near-perfect condition (I took pictures). It started to react in week 4, looking like a mild sunburn and the worst of it was 10 days after treatment in the reactionary period where it looked like a bright sunburn (I have very fair skin). After the reactionary period it took less than 2 weeks for my skin to heal completely.
This lotion is greasy and shea butter can be grainy but I didn’t give a rat’s ass. I was after it for maximum healing benefits and it worked like a mo fo. I told my oncologist about it who said “well, whatever you’re doing is working, so keep it up”. Other women I spoke with were not as lucky as I was with their skin but they were only using what was recommended. Obviously, if my skin was reacting negatively I would have stopped.
I know there are a few things that the conventional medicine world tells us about plant based products and why we shouldn’t use them for specific things, but I did my research and chose not to listen to their advice on this piece. I was told that aloe wasn’t recommended because it dries your skin from the inside out, and that there wasn’t any science that proved it was helpful for it. Just because there hasn’t been scientific research completed, does not mean it is ineffective. There is a lot of wisdom in holistic medicine and I’m a strong believer in incorporating these therapies with conventional practices to maximize results. It blows my mind when we get so caught up in ego that we completely refute one or the other. History, ancient wisdom AND actual science and technology? For the love of Pete and all things holy! We have all of it available to us – let’s use it! Applying the aloe gel in my topical boobricant worked for me, and a clinical study was not necessary for me to recognize that.
Lavender is another controversial topic. Look up lavender and estrogenic activity and you’ll find all kinds of conflicting information. I found this published study that concluded lavender and tea tree oils had estrogenic activities, but one look at it with a discerning eye and there are so many other possibilities for what could have caused an increase in estrogenic activity. What other ingredients were in the product? What was happening in the environment? How is this even classified as science? No wonder people are skeptical. I found another study that concluded that lavender did not have estrogenic potential. No wonder people are confused.
As with most of the decisions I make, I chose to trust my instincts with the application of logic. When it comes to lavender, here’s what I know for sure:
Lavender is an incredible healer for skin conditions. Chapped lips, burns, cuts, scrapes – it’s amazing. Diluted of course – straight up burns like a bee-atch.
Toxicity (if it even is toxic which I don’t believe it to be) is in the dose. A small amount diluted in a much larger base applied over a 4-6 week period is not toxic. I’m more concerned about the cancer causing glyphosate sprayed on our food supply than lavender essential oil.
Plants are awesome and while I would never depend solely on their wisdom and medicine for treating something as serious as breast cancer, I absolutely embrace their magic as a complementary treatment. They help heal our planet by cleaning water and air. They heal us through smell and nutrition and share their protective properties with us. There’s even research that displays how trees and plants talk to each other. They freaking communicate with each other! There is wisdom and brilliance within the plant kingdom that our bodies resonate with. Sure, some of them like a poisonous hemlock will kill you, so maybe don’t eat those. When used appropriately with respect and knowledge of the plant and the conditions being treated or possible contraindications, there’s a whole world of awesome in the plant world that is happy to be of assistance to us.
One of the most difficult pieces of this experience for me with being in hospitals and treatment centres was seeing others suffer. I have always been very compassionate and I have the utmost respect and admiration for nurses, doctors, technicians, first-responders and any type of worker who gives kindness and hope to those who are in their care. While I chose long ago to understand that suffering is part of the human experience and that growth and learning come from it, with the exception of those close to me that I would do absolutely anything for, I spent a lot of years trying to shut out the pain of others and just love them from a distance as best I could. Self preservation of sorts.
Each day, I would mentally send thoughts of healing and wellness for the highest good of everyone in the waiting room. Sometimes, I would block everything out around me and play Scrabble on my phone. But something happened when I started to pay closer attention to the people in the waiting room.
I started to see kindness and love in every corner of the place. There were boxes of beautiful hand made hats that some random, anonymous person left in the waiting rooms with a note that said “please help yourself”. The boxes filled up every day with new hats for patients. What a useful gift for someone who has lost their hair – can you imagine how much love they felt when they received them? There were groups of people who spent every day volunteering to drive patients to and from their treatment appointments, and wait while they were with doctors. No worries about finding or paying for parking or being too tired to drive themselves. Unbelievable kindness. There were endless examples of people accompanying their loved ones to their appointments for moral support. There were new people finishing treatment regularly who were filled with joy and hope after months of fear and anxiety. An endless supply of gifts and food being given to the staff by thankful patients who had been treated with so much kindness while under their care.
And then there was Madeleine. I met her my second week of treatment; she was in her third. We were sitting beside each other – TV on in the background with some political nonsense being babbled about – when her inside voice and candid opinion about the US President came out. She immediately looked at me and apologized, and I laughed my ass off. In fact after that, we both laughed our asses off every time we saw each other and it always made my day to see her.
What I never told this Madeleine is that just a few months earlier, my friend Madeleine passed away from cancer and it just so happens that humor; my number one medicine; was one of my favorite things about her. When she told me her name, I felt like my Madeleine was sending me hope in the form of this lovely woman who made me laugh when I needed it the most. Obviously telling her this would have been a piece of shit move so I just kept that to myself and knew in my heart how special it was. Madeleine finished her treatment and I was able to be there on her last day when she was overcome with joy and relief while I received yet another dose of love and hope through her experience.
Challenge and suffering are absolutely part of the human experience, but within those dark places is love in its many forms and light that shines through our wounds. All of these people who shared kindness, laughs, made hats, or played chauffeur had made the decision to embody that light and love to be of service to others. If I were a betting woman, I’d say it’s because they had been inspired through their own wounds. A little shift in my perspective has created a big shift in my heart.
Once I had been reassured that I was not going to die from my recent diagnosis or the liver hemangioma that was spotted during a CT scan (and then seen with ultrasound, and then an enhanced ultrasound because they wanted to be 100% sure it was the harmless blob they thought it was. Sweet Mother of God, that fucker damn near killed me with the stress alone) I was ready for the next step. You find out through this process that there are many types of oncologists you see, each of them specializing in their area of practice (i.e. surgery, radiation, or a medical oncologist who often organizes chemotherapy or oversees the patient’s care in general). My radiation oncologist was a complete gem. He was incredibly smart and comfortingly kind. When I think of how lucky I was with all of my doctors, I am still so grateful for how much grace I have been given.
Most of the women I know who had radiation after surgery had 16 treatments. I had 20. The reason for the higher number is that I was young and pre-menopausal and there are different risks associated with that, especially with hormonal breast cancers. Before treatment started, there is a simulation appointment where you’re essentially being mapped and positioned for the treatment plan that the technicians recreate every day when you come in for radiation. In addition to lying there, boobs out for the world to see including the guy who was “just here observing”, I was given 5 tiny tattoos on my chest & rib cage that I thought I would be really upset about but they’re barely visible. Just dots. Seriously though I made it 44 years without getting a tattoo and now I have some lame ass dots instead of something cool like a skull with snakes crawling through the eyes, or an angry looking pitbull. How anticlimactic.
My first week of radiation was horrible, and it wasn’t even the treatments. The staff were amazing and the most difficult part of the process really was holding my breath for 30 seconds at a time (when getting radiation on the left side, consideration to protect the heart has to be made. Holding your breath pulls the heart away from the rib cage). The hardest part was the experience. Being in a waiting room full of people who were sick; some of course much worse than others. Seeing children, even babies under 2 years old there for cancer treatment. Watching their moms barely holding themselves together while their babies struggled. It was breaking my heart to see so many people hurting so much. I couldn’t sleep at all that week and I’m one of those people who just cannot function when I am tired. I was a disaster – probably the worst and most crazy I have ever felt in my life.
Fortunately I had arranged for acupuncture with my functional medicine dude which helped my sleep and stress immensely. I connected with one of my most important villagers, got into the swing of things and sailed through treatments. Couple of bumps in the road along the way but nothing major. My skin did react but not until about half way through week 3, and it didn’t become much worse than a sunburn. I made my own lotion that I applied along with the moisturizer that was recommended by the staff. I did not feel excessively tired during or after treatments. I stayed active the whole time, drank lots of water and continued to eat really clean.
I am convinced that the level of self care that I maintain is why this was an easier experience for me than it can be for others. All that work I had put in over the years was not a waste; it was my saving grace and it paid off big time. I was 100% committed to myself and my healing throughout the process – because I had to be, and recognizing how much I deserve that dedication was part of this process and this experience. People can love you all they want and it’s fabulous and amazing but at the end of the day, the only person who can make you the number one priority is you. Self-care is not selfish. We are all sacred beings and deserve to treat ourselves as such.
After surgery, I was quite confident that it was all done. Not because I had been told otherwise but because I had convinced myself of it, and expected it. When I found out that one of the three sentinal lymph nodes also tested positive for cancer, I was fucking livid. This was not part of my plan.
I was so angry that I had taken good care of myself and yet, here I was with breast cancer. Although I had been separated nearly two years from my ex, I became furious with myself for having spent as much time as I had in such an unhealthy relationship with someone who was so mean, abusive and disrespectful and deserved repeated punches in his face for sucking the life out of me for as long as I let him (plot twist: the relationship with him was an outer reflection of my inner relationship with how I was treating myself. Further spoiler alert: It is always a reflection – if you don’t like what you’re seeing, look inside). I was angry that I had spent my life working at so-called “good” jobs that left me feeling unfulfilled personally. I was mad because it all meant further tests and scans, more stress and more sleepless nights waiting for results and thinking the worst possible outcome I was SO mad! Like Hulk mad!
But I was scared. I was heartbroken at the possibility of leaving my sweet little dog who had been so loyal and loving to me. I was scared of leaving the people that I loved so much and held so close to my heart. I felt like I had finally reached a point in my life where I was figuring it all out, and I wasn’t going to be able to experience it. It wasn’t fair and it just didn’t make any sense.
I’ve always been one of those “everything happens for a reason” people, and yes, sometimes that reason is because you were stupid. Sometimes though, if you’re looking for it, you will see the positive within the negative.
After the unbearable stress and debilitating fear of bone scans, CT scans, ultrasounds, and enhanced ultrasounds to ensure the cancer had not spread further, I met my medical oncologist – and things immediately became easier to bear emotionally. He was amazing, kind, and immediately put my mind at ease that guess what – there was no way I was going to die from this. Take that, Mom! I told YOU so! Lol! When I look back at this appointment, I am sure he was handpicked for me by God. I’m the kind of person who wants answers and explanations. I want to understand the “why” behind things, and what risks are associated with doing or not doing things, and how they happen. He spent 3 hours with me and my friend answering endless questions and explaining everything in detail. The man is a freaking saint.
As luck would have it (see: “everything happens for a reason”) because one of the lymph nodes had tested positive, I could potentially participate in a clinical trial that would randomize me for the amount of radiation therapy I would receive; either breast area only, or breast and lymph node (which was the current standard for all treatment protocols, so really, I had nothing to lose here). As part of this trial, I would have to receive an Oncotype score, which is an assessment of the tissue to determine the distant risk recurrence percentage this specific cancer had. If the percentage was low enough to be considered “low risk” (less than 18%), I could participate in the clinical trial.
Well holy shitballs. A scientific analysis of the tissue that tells you the percentage of how likely cancer is to reoccur?! Yes, sign me up for that right now!! At this point, I didn’t even care where I would be randomized in the trial. I had already decided after my previous post- surgery expectations that we are often disappointed BECAUSE of our expectations. If we can just allow the experience to unfold for what it is and not what we think it should be, as hard as it may seem it can be much easier to manage.
Had I not had a lymph node test positive, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in this clinical trial or had a clue about the Oncotype score or what it is. When you’re dealing with something like cancer, the value of having percentage confirmations, distant risk recurrence and evidence of survival rates of other patients 26+ years after diagnosis is immeasurable for the medical team and also for any patient’s peace of mind.
My score came back as being considered low risk, and I was able to participate in the trial. I was randomized and received radiation in both lymph and breast areas, and I am 100% sure that was meant to be as well. Best of all, I had the peace of mind from this Oncotype score that there was no apparent benefit to chemotherapy, so there was no reason to take further risks with my putting my body through additional treatments that would have been a really tough sell for me to begin with.
If you are ever diagnosed with breast cancer, ask for this test. I cannot stress enough how much it helped me. In Canada (Alberta specifically where I live), the cost of it is covered by Alberta Health Care in specific circumstances, so speak to your oncologist. Everything does happen for a reason.
By nature, humans are social beings. We are meant to be part of a community. Solitude, alone time, and even withdrawal are critical components of our learning and recharging, but the fact is that nobody gets through life alone.
When I received the diagnosis, the first calls I made were to my closest friends and my niece. Those people, along with many others were my most rock solid support and I knew immediately that the most important thing I needed; a strong, love-filled support system; was already in place.
I had one of my closest friends at every scary appointment with me providing humor and support while recording information and asking questions she knew I would want to have answers for. She took me in the day of my surgery, stayed the night with me afterwards and made sure I was okay on my own before she left the next day after helping me strap my boobs up with tensor bandages. You know you’ve got a friend when she’ll run around your body in circles to secure your wounded boobs in place.
I had girlfriends who made and froze soups for me ahead of surgery so I had easy meals. Others who came over and helped cook, brought tea and even gave my stinky dog a bath! My closest people helping me with things in my house, taking me out to get groceries and carry them in because I couldn’t lift anything heavy. Doing research for me to keep me off the internet, grounding me and keeping me balanced. Several coworkers who sent meaningful gifts and thoughtful messages for my recovery. Friends who picked up my dog and took her for walks when I wasn’t able to. Neighbors who carried heavy things in for me and took my garbage out. Another neighbor who also happened to be off work at the same time as me who provided endless support and company. We ended up being exactly what each other needed and she’s now one of my closest friends.
Each time I waited for results (from surgery and resulting scans, ultrasounds and tests), I had someone incredibly special in my life by my side. Some of those days were the worst of my life made better by the best people in my life.
When I was at my worst emotionally, sleep deprived and feeling crazy, my favorite person in the whole world was there in a heartbeat, helped me to become grounded again and push doubt out of my mind.
My dog! Oh my gosh, what a trooper and a comrade she is. Dogs just know when something isn’t right. She gave me so much love and support both through everything. She became very protective of my house after surgery and was extra gentle while my body was recovering. She knew when I needed more snuggles, and when I needed to get out for more walks and out of my head. Dogs are amazing beings and a continuous example of unconditional love and compassion. They should be allowed in every office every day, anyone second this? Yes – case closed! Every day is now Bring Your Dog to Work Day! (*spoiler alert* this is part of my world domination plan)
I have a freaking village! While I’m sure I would have survived this ordeal if I didn’t have my support system, I would not have thrived as I have. I cannot imagine how much more terrifying, lonely and uncertain or difficult to get things done without them it would have been than it already was. Check on your people, even the ones who appear to be the strongest and have their shit together. We often take for granted that these people will be okay, but they still need to know someone is there.
My point with all of this is simply – we are stronger together. Every single person in my village had something special to contribute, and something different than the others in my tribe. When everyone in the village contributes a little (or a lot for some of my villagers), the journey is easier and there’s a greater chance of success . We may all have different opinions or thoughts on how the world should be, but when we band together for the common good the community will thrive.
After learning that Lumpy the Unwelcome House Guest (the name I gave the lump in my boob) was cancer, I knew he had to leave. Although I’d never had surgery before, this was a no-brainer for me: evict Lumpy’s ass at once! Still, I was consumed with worry what my surgeon would recommend. I was comfortable with surgery to address the tumor, but not comfortable with additional surgery as a preventative measure.
The day I met my surgeon provided me with relief and confidence (albeit temporarily; until I found out one of my lymph nodes tested positive as well). She was a teeny, tiny lady with the most magnificent brain, skill and bedside manner. The minute she spoke, I knew I was with the exact surgeon I was meant to have. I was initially presented with two recommended options; a sectional, breast sparing mastectomy (a lumpectomy) or a mastectomy; both options included the removal of the sentinal lymph nodes that are also tested for cancer after surgery.
I chose the lumpectomy for a number of reasons:
I like my boobs and want to keep both of them
The tumor was small (1.4 cm) and my breast is larger. There were good margins surrounding the mass. During surgery, they remove the tissue immediately surrounding the tumor as well, and having more to flesh to work with meant I had more to leave with;
I am in excellent health otherwise, young, no genetic markers or family history of this disease which made the whole thing seem like total fluke to begin with;
There’s a whole lot of perfectly good reasons to keep an otherwise healthy body part on an otherwise healthy body.
As an added bonus, if the situation is straightforward the surgery is very quick (day surgery; in and out) and, depending on the situation and location of the tumor, surgeons can often remove the necessary tissue and lymph nodes in just one incision.
The decision on what type of surgery to have is very personal and women have many different reasons for their choices. Some of those reasons could be family history, genetic markers, fear about recurrence and leaving loved ones behind, fear of spreading, peace of mind, gut instinct – whatever the reasons – the possibilities for choices are endless and very personal. Every woman makes the exact right decision for her whether that is a mastectomy, bilateral mastectomy, lumpectomy or slapping a pizza on it and hoping it goes away (I’m just kidding – please do not ever expect that putting pizza on your boob and relying on hope is an effective strategy for making something this serious go away).
That said, what I was looking for when I was going through this were some helpful facts to help me decide what to do that weren’t based on anyone else’s personal choices or even misinformation. My surgeon gave me some great advice, along with explanations about mastectomy and double mastectomy which helped reinforce my decisions for ME.
Cancer does not just spread from one breast to the next. It will spread through sentinal lymph nodes and unfortunately, if not stopped can become life threatening if it spreads to bones or organs such as liver, brain, lungs etc.
Removing an entire breast or both as a preventative does not mean there is no chance for cancer in the area or for it to reoccur.
Well meaning people with the absolute best of intentions may want to help you with your choices based on their own experience or that of someone close to them. Every cancer, breast, woman, and risks are different. You must make the best decision for YOU.
Breast cancer is HIGHLY treatable and survivable when caught early. Survival rates long term are very favorable.
My surgery went extremely well and I recovered like a boss. I was running on my treadmill 5 weeks post-op. I did not have any reconstructive work done and I don’t plan to. Part of this experience (again, for me – everyone’s decisions are their own and they are correct) has been about learning to love myself exactly as I am and to be honest, I love myself, my boobs and my body more than ever before. My scar is a reminder of the love and grace I discovered in and around me during this experience and I feel more beautiful and fortunate now than I ever have in my life.
When you receive a diagnosis for a serious illness that could potentially kill you, a whole lot goes through your mind. Obviously there’s the debilitating fear that causes nightmares and wakes you up at night, but the thoughts of why, what you could have done to prevent it, how it happened and what you’re going to do completely take over. These thoughts are certainly amplified while you’re waiting for appointments for consults and results.
Personally, I never believed anything like this could have been possible for me. I had been a vegetarian since the age of 5 and occasionally vegan since my early 30s. I’ve always eaten properly with loads of beautiful disease fighting vegetables in the mix, exercised and had a solid group of amazing friends. I had turfed all toxic chemical makeups, cleaners, laundry soap and everything in between in my mid 30s. I’m huge on the importance of being responsible and accountable for our actions and situations and I thought I was doing mostly everything I could to be well. So WTF, cancer? Who invited you? I started to look for things in my life in general (environmental, dietary and relationships) and began cleaning any other sources of junk in my life. Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot to remove but what was there was pretty big.
Unimaginable and unnecessary stress was the biggest piece of shit around. That meant any relationships (friendships, exes, etc.) that left me feeling depleted instead of complete had to cease immediately. I cut that shit out faster than the surgeon cut the mass outta my boob. Surgery was almost symbolic in a way of “cutting it out”.
I turfed any foods that I knew my body didn’t like and any form of sugar, including fruit and adapted a mostly ketogenic vegetarian diet. I’ve since reintroduced low sugar fruits (i.e. berries) and I’m feeling pretty groovy.
I changed lights in my house, turfing LED bulbs and replacing them with halogen or incandescent (I will cover this in detail in a post on its own; there’s just too much to cover and it needs its own thorough explanation). And, while it looks ridiculous to those passing by my house in the evenings I even added some red lights in my bedroom and living room that I use in the evenings to help encourage my body to produce melatonin (low melatonin levels are directly related to hormonal breast cancer diagnosis, and it turns out I did have low melatonin levels).
Not honoring or acknowledging my feelings was depleting me and I didn’t even realize it. I had been conditioned to feel unsafe when emotionally vulnerable, so I had always shut feelings down and applied logic to my reactions to things instead. Humans have emotions! It’s part of our experience. I learned how to allow myself to experience my feelings.
I invested in a few very specific tests with functional medicine and holistic practitioners and incorporated additional alternative practices into my life; acupuncture and integrative chakra therapy being some of my favorite and definitely most helpful.
I made regular meditation a priority and incorporated it into my daily regime. This has been one of the most powerful tools in understanding and healing myself and has inspired me to create my own guided meditations to share with others. Stay tuned for those!
I indulged in every minute possible with my dog. I took her everywhere I could with me, went to parks at least twice every day, snuggled her in bed and mauled her as much as she would let me. While I normally do all these things with her, having the extra time off work made it possible for there to be more of that and I just can’t get enough of it. What loyal companions and healers our dogs are.
Instead of worrying that I would end up with doctors that wouldn’t support my fiercely strong belief in the importance of a combination of conventional and functional medicine to overcome disease, I put complete trust in the Universe that I would have the best doctors and practitioners I could possibly have for my situation and let me tell you – I was not disappointed. I have had the best care and attention from the most incredible medical doctors, functional doctors and holistic practitioners you could ever imagine. Like, so good, if you’re jealous I would totally get it.
Anything that depletes me no longer has a place in my life. Sure there are days when I give more than I take, but there has to be a balance and it is up to me to make sure those boundaries remain established. Anything that creates more time depleting me than it does completing me either gets punted or the amount of energy I expend reevaluated. I give a lot fewer fucks these days and I’m not about to start handing them out like free passes anywhere it’s not warranted. This is called self love and it completes me. I complete me, and I’m so thankful to have learned this important lesson.