I did not choose to have breast cancer. However, the choice I do have is how to go through my journey.
I could have been depressed when hearing the news. After all, I had a horrible year leading up to my diagnosis. All in one year: My grandmother died of old age (that I can accept). My mother went through treatment, yet died from breast cancer. My first cousin died at age 39 of breast cancer. Now, I have cancer at the age of 39.
While I could ask myself, “Why Me,” after all—I eat organic; I exercise every day. But I could also simply consider what I needed to do to take action.
I chose to look at the positive side of everything from the past year. For example, my grandma was 97 and she had a beautiful life. My mom was 67; she saw my sister and me grow up. She was with me when my son was born two years ago, and she was gifted with a granddaughter last summer from my sister. Fortunately, my own cancer was detected early.
The only reason I even got a mammogram was because I was advised to do so after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After my first mammogram in 2015, everything was clear. I didn’t feel a lump or any other signs, but in January 2016, after my routine check-up, I was called back for a follow-up ultrasound.
Then I had a biopsy the day before I flew to Europe to see my mother one last time as she was losing her battle with cancer. In only one year, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, liver, and pretty much everywhere else in her body, despite all treatments the doctors tried.
As soon as I landed in Budapest, Hungary, I called the doctor who performed my biopsy, and given my circumstances, she made an exception to her usual policy and promised to give me the results on the phone. Even before we spoke on the phone, I had a feeling. Deep inside I knew that she would say that the biopsy showed cancer. I was afraid that I would not see my son grow up. Then, I shook myself, took a deep breath and said to myself, “Let’s do this! Whatever I need to do, I will. I will see my son grow up. I have unfinished businesses here. It’s not my time to go.
After the initial shock of hearing the news that I did, in fact, have breast cancer, I knew I needed to come up with a plan. Yet there I was, with my mother who was in a hospital. Her lungs had filled with fluid and her liver was failing. Yet she and I had two days together; she was so happy to see me we even took a short walk through the hospital garden that first day. The second day, I had to push her in a wheelchair. When I left, I felt horrible; I knew that I would not see her again. But my experience with family members taught be that time was of the essence in my own case. So we said our heartfelt good-byes and I flew back to LA.
During my 11-hour return flight from London to LA, I reflected my life: I have been making inspirational jewelry for years, and now I needed that inspiration to buoy myself up. One of my favorite inspirational affirmations—and one that I use in many of my jewelry designs— is: “Never, Never, Never Give Up!” Winston Churchill said this more than 70 years ago. Yes, I reflected, that sentiment is a good place to start.
As soon as my boots touched the ground at LAX, I headed to meet my oncologist. He said he had bad news and good news. My answer was, ”I already know I have cancer, so give me the good news.” Here was the good news: My strain of cancer responds well to hormone therapy and at the time of diagnosis it was Stage 1 (since the largest of my three tumors was only 19mm and the cancer had not spread beyond the initial tumor).
After meeting with a few surgeons, I made a decision that I felt comfortable with and I decided to move forward with a double mastectomy even before I would learn that my cancer had a genetic component (from my father’s side). This surgery allowed me to avoid recommended radiation—and I would be able to get a nice boob job out of it.
Even though they removed the cancer during the surgery and it had not spread to my lymph nodes, my doctor did recommend chemotherapy based on the tumor type testing which revealed that my cancer is one of the most aggressive types. By the time of my operation, just one month after my diagnosis, my tumor had already grown to 24mm, progressing it into Stage 2 (which meant that is was locally advanced).
I don’t know any other way to say it, but overall, chemotherapy was not fun. Although there were many challenges, one of the things that hit me hardest was losing my hair. After all, looking in the mirror every day is a constant reminder—and as a stuntwoman and scuba teacher, I work with people all the time so my look is obvious. Yet, when I considered my options, I decided to be bold and be bald since the lifestyle of a scuba diver does not easily lend itself to wigs. Most importantly, however, I did not want to pretend that everything was normal.
Over the past few months, I have had good days and bad days. On every good day, I made a point of going outside for a walk, practicing yoga, and eating well. On every bad day I reminded myself that this is only temporary. To lift my spirits, I would remind myself that my cancer was detected early and I am on my way to recovery. To support my recovery, I watched movies and slept a lot to give myself time to rest.
The presence and loving care of my husband, son, and friends gave me the strength to feel better on good days, and gave me hope that that I will be better on bad days.
I’m still on my journey at this time, but I feel that I am over the hump. To celebrate, a week after my final chemotherapy treatment, I organized a girls’ day on Catalina Island. We practiced yoga, went scuba diving, and shared a chocolate circle.
I believe that it is important to have things to look forward to when going through challenging experiences. This summer my family (my husband, my son, and I) traveled to Ireland on a castle tour celebrating my 40th birthday. This birthday means a lot to me as I am glad to be done with 39. The age 39 in my family is like 27 for musicians – my father died at age 39 from cancer; my cousin died at 39 from cancer last year; and I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 39.
At this time, I’m also in the midst of reconstructive surgery that requires several weeks of recovery and in this photo, the drains are still in place that are part of the healing and recovery process. Even with these challenges, I still believe in staying strong and maintaining positive activities like my yoga practice.
In order to have something else to look forward to, we are planning to celebrate my new bikini body and my re-grown hair with a scuba dive trip to the Maldives at the end of the year.
I could feel sorry for myself, and my family, for what we have had to go through, but I choose to feel grateful. Cancer brought us closer together and made us stronger.