Breast cancer has taken many things from me, but it has given far more than it’s confiscated. Among those gifts is confidence in sharing my experience, with the hope it can help someone else avoid the path on which I’ve found myself.
I’m accustomed to telling other people’s stories, not my own. For the past two decades, I have been a journalist, first with National Journal magazine in Washington, D.C., and, for the last 16 years, The Associated Press, based in South Carolina. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know people who’ve trusted me to tell their stories to a national audience, from everyday South Carolinians to people running for president of the United States. I’m grateful for all of those opportunities.
Far more than that, though, is the enjoyment I get from being a wife and mother. Geoffrey and our three children, Alex, Hannah and Adair, are my world. (And I’d be remiss to leave out our dog and two cats, Opie, Gary and Molly.)
Growing up, I was an only child — and an only grandchild. I’ve never really wanted for anything. I’d be lying if I tried to pretend that my life has ever been anything but relatively comfortable.
That changed in February, when, at age 40, I learned I was among the hundreds of thousands of women this year diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. I was young, worked out regularly and maintained a clean diet. This didn’t seem like something that happened to people like me.
But it had apparently been happening, inside me, for years. During a self-exam in 2017, I felt something resembling a small pebble in my left breast. I was "too young" for mammograms, but I sought one. My "pebble" was diagnosed as a calcium deposit, something the doctors said I shouldn't fret about, given my age and lack of strong family cancer history. I went for periodic follow-ups, and, although my entire left breast began to hurt and became inflamed, I was told not to worry.
Fast forward to February of this year, when, finally, a radiologist ordered a biopsy of the "calcium deposit," and I was diagnosed with hormone-positive, Stage 3, invasive ductal carcinoma. It turns out the area that wasn't alarming to anyone (but me) should have been, after all. My husband and I sat in disbelief: I'd have to undergo months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, then weeks of radiation. But, I was told, I had a "very standard" breast cancer, one that was incredibly common, and curable.
The ensuing weeks were filled with tests that, thankfully, didn't reveal spread beyond lymph nodes in my armpits and neck but did detect another smaller tumor in my right breast. I was anxious to get on chemo, terrified that every delayed day could mean the cancer would fan out across my body, seeding itself in distant organs and tissue. Thankfully, a doctor friend rushed my tests and biopsies, thus allowing me to start chemo only three weeks post-diagnosis. This would not have been possible without that connection; COVID-19 had begun to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.
Despite the earlier misdiagnosis, I still trusted my doctors. Close friends and family, however, pressed me to seek a second opinion, intent on ensuring my diagnosis and treatment were precise, with the best chance for good outcomes. A week after my first chemo, my husband and I traveled to Houston to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the country’s largest and most prestigious. Following exhaustive diagnostics, we were told by my team of medical, surgical and radiation oncologists that my case wasn’t “very standard" at all — but, in fact, that I had inflammatory breast cancer, one of the rarest and most aggressive forms of the disease. It's possible that my South Carolina doctors had never treated a case of IBC, so they didn't recognize its hallmark red, bumpy skin, or know it grows so quickly that, had I not been able to accelerate my treatment timeline, I might have progressed to Stage 4 — or died — according to my new team.
Thankfully, I could do my four months of chemo at home, on a new, weekly protocol directed by MD Anderson. But my Texas doctors said I'd need to return to Houston for surgery and radiation, as well as interim follow-ups, since my tumors needed to shrink in order to be operable. The notion of moving 1,000 miles from my family, to a strange city, at a challenging time, seemed unfathomable. But this was to be my new reality if I wanted to fight my belligerent breast cancer with an equal measure of force. To live more of the life with which I've been blessed. To see my children grow into amazing adults. To grow old with my marvelous husband.
So, that's the plan we adopted. I stayed the course on chemo, which fortunately didn't cause me severe side effects, thus allowing me to maintain my career, workout regimen and family activities. Every few weeks, I flew to Houston, where my doctors monitored my cancer. With six weeks of chemo remaining, we worried the main tumor hadn't shrunk enough for surgery, something that would have meant I’d have cancer forever, taking medication to hopefully stall the tumor's growth, but not eradicate it. I requested a consultation with a nutritionist at MD Anderson and kicked my cancer-fighting diet and rigorous exercise routine into high gear, determined to do everything I could to make my body the best vessel for the remaining medicine. In late July, I was green-lit for surgery, which meant the cancer could be removed. It also meant I'd be relocating to Houston for nearly three months, leaving my family behind temporarily so that I could ultimately return to them, permanently.
In mid-August, I had a double mastectomy and the removal of all 64 lymph nodes under my arms. The surgery took 12 hours, much of which was due to the numerous tissue samples sent to pathology, so my surgical oncologist could achieve "negative margins," meaning no cancer was left behind. She had to take so much tissue from the left side, where my inflammatory tumor and cancerous skin had been, that the plastic surgeon didn't have enough left to close me up. Instead, he used a collagen patch to cover my wound, something that will be removed after my skin has healed from radiation, and replaced with skin grafts. He also performed microscopic surgery on six of my veins, rerouting my lymphatic system to hopefully avoid the arm swelling that can follow lymph node removal. Ten days after that surgery, I was whisked back into the OR for an emergency procedure to remove a massive hematoma, a collection of blood that could have caused necrosis if not caught in time.
The final phase of active treatment at MD Anderson is five weeks of specialized radiation, twice a day. It's an intensive protocol intended to kill off any invisible cancer left behind by my surgeons, and also to treat the cancerous lymph nodes in my neck on which surgery was deemed too dangerous. Almost every day, there's physical therapy, intended to help me regain range of motion. There's also, at age 41, menopause, thanks to a 5- to 10-year regimen of hormone-blocking medications to keep cancer from returning.
The treatment is difficult but not nearly as strenuous as the extended absence from my family. My husband flies back and forth between South Carolina and Houston weekly, so he can tend to our children, and to me. All of them came to visit for Labor Day, a restful time in which my soul was at peace. The weeks that Geoffrey is home, my mother and a devoted circle of friends have taken turns flying out to be with me, helping with errands and tasks but more than anything else, keeping me company. I am so thankful for them all.
Hopefully, by the end of October, I will be back home with everyone, leaving cancer behind in Texas. I'll return to MD Anderson for checkups for the rest of my life. According to my team, my surgery was so complex it couldn't have been successful anywhere but the nation's leading cancer center. As it turns out, MD Anderson is one of only three dedicated institutions for the rare type of cancer that I have.
To say I'm thankful for the opportunity to be treated here is a dramatic understatement. This is the place that will save me, and I truly believe this personal challenge was sewn into the fabric of my life so that I could work to make this opportunity a reality for more women.
I’m also armed with determination to do what I can to equip women with information to harness their own health care journeys, and to push for answers when they're dissatisfied with what they're told by their medical teams. Nearly every social media post or interview I've given about my experience includes a mantra of "Self-exam. Get a mammogram. Advocate for yourself."
So, yes, I'm thankful for that "pebble" I felt all those years ago, because it's become the catalyst to grow stronger in my faith, appreciate the beautiful life I have, and, I hope, make even a small difference in the community around me. I may have lost physical pieces of myself in this journey to wellness, but I’ve made new friends and gained gratitude, inspiration and resolve.
Life is still good. Perhaps, even better now.