Breast Cancer in the Age of Covid-19: My Personal Journey to Becoming Healthy Again and Finding Love Along the Way.

Home / Hump Day / Breast Cancer in the Age of Covid-19: My Personal Journey to Becoming Healthy Again and Finding Love Along the Way.

On February 14, 2020, I received the best news of my life and the worst news of my life: The best news was that my best friend asked me to be his lady…of course I said yes! My best friend was truly a friend who loved me for me and I could completely be myself around. The worst news was that my doctor called me and told me that I had breast cancer.

I always have been consistent with getting a mammogram every year since I turned 40. I always had a normal mammogram (and ultrasound) even as recent as 2019, but in 2020 things were different: I went to a routine appointment for a breast mammogram/ultrasound in late January and the technician who was handling my ultrasound asked a physician to come in and review what she saw on the screen which looked suspicious. The physician felt that I needed a biopsy. I agreed and came back for a biopsy a couple of weeks later on Feb 12.

It only took two days for a pathologist to confirm my breast cancer. My doctor told me that I was in an early stage with my breast cancer. I asked her if I had an aggressive type of breast cancer and she said no, she also told me that I could beat cancer. I decided that she was correct, I WAS GOING TO BEAT CANCER.  I asked for next steps and she referred me to a breast cancer surgeon. I promptly made an appointment for the next week. All I could think about was that I felt no pain, I was otherwise healthy with no other major medical issues, I felt no lumps, had no illness at all (not even a cold), but I WAS DIAGNOSED WITH A LIFE THREATENING CONDITION that I needed to handle ASAP. I have always been a socially active person and my calendar always stayed full: All I could think about was how this would change my life and if I had to shut down my social activities due to illness indefinitely.

The first person I told about my cancer was my boyfriend who provided the best moral support I could have asked for.  I also shared the news with my sister who was not surprisingly very concerned for me since we did not have much information about my actual prognosis and course of treatment. I knew that I had to share the news with my mother which was a hard conversation I was so worried about having: my father recently died around Christmas time in 2018 and although it had been more than a year, my mother was still very grief stricken as her and my dad had been married close to 54 years. The last thing I wanted to do was have her be worried about me.

The timing of finding out about my breast cancer was a thunderbolt: in late 2017, my sister was very ill and I helped her to recovery; my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive heart condition that he passed away from in 2018, a year after his diagnosis. Shortly after my dad died, I started hands on caregiving for an elderly aunt which took up my time two days out of the week in early 2019 for an entire year. My aunt’s health deteriorated and by January, 2020 she was hospitalized with pneumonia and passed away a few days before I received my breast cancer diagnosis. The mandatory stay at home order for the Covid-19 pandemic was just weeks away with many people facing delays in elective surgeries and routine procedures.

My boyfriend advised me to wait until after my aunt’s funeral and to see the breast cancer surgeon first so that I would have better and more informed information to share with my mother. It was truly the best advice. When I met with the breast surgeon, she gave me a pathology report which had the information about my breast cancer: I had Stage 2 Breast Cancer that was Estrogen Positive and Her2 Negative (Her2 is a gene found in Breast Cancers that causes the cancer to be aggressive). It was considered to be one of the most treatable, manageable, and curable types of breast cancers if it was caught early. My recommended course of treatment was to have surgery, chemotherapy (if necessary), radiation, and then hormonal therapy for five years. I would not know if I needed chemotherapy until after my surgery once my lymph nodes were biopsied and the Oncotype DX test could be done on my cancer tumor. The Oncotype DX test is a test to see the activity of certain genes that can affect the cancer’s outcome and how likely it is to grow and spread. The Oncotype DX  test was so important as it would determine whether or not I needed chemotherapy and how likely the cancer would return after treatment.

After I had my first visit with the breast surgeon, I told my mother. My mother has never had breast cancer and she was shocked to hear my news and naturally she was concerned about my prognosis. I assured her that I would be ok as long as I kept things moving: My breast cancer surgeon had me do pre tests (Breast MRI, CT Scan, EKG) which all proved to be valuable before the actual surgery. Once my pre-tests were done, my mother came with me to my appointment with my breast surgeon to discuss the results and decide on the plan for my surgery.

The Breast MRI actually detected another lump in my other breast that I had biopsied. The biopsy did not indicate any sign of cancer but I decided to have the lump removed as a precaution along with the initial lump that was found.

So, I had a double lumpectomy scheduled within a month of my diagnosis. Again, this was right when the Covid-19 stay at home orders were happening, but my situation was considered to be top priority so I had no delay in my surgery being scheduled. I was the only patient at the surgery center the day of my surgery. My mother, sister, and boyfriend were not allowed to see me or wait in the waiting room for me. I had to be dropped off, then picked up later that evening once my surgeries were complete. A couple of days after my surgery, my breast surgeon called me with the surgery results. There was no sign of cancer in my lymph nodes and my Oncotype test showed that I was at low risk of the cancer returning with hormone treatment and chemotherapy was not needed but…she told me that the lump found on the MRI actually did indeed have cancer. This made my case a little complex but gratefully not dire. I also got tested for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes and tested negative for both.

Most women typically have breast cancer in one breast and only about 2% of women have breast cancer in both breasts simultaneously.  I belonged to a rare group indeed! Not only did I have breast cancer in both breasts, but I had two different types: One breast had a Stage Zero Triple Negative Cancer and the other was a Stage 2 Breast Cancer that was Estrogen Positive and Her2 Negative. Both were considered early stage, treatable breast cancers.

The Triple Negative Breast Cancer that was found, thankfully, was at Stage Zero. Triple Negative Breast Cancers are the most aggressive, harder to treat breast cancers as there are no hormone receptors for hormonal therapy and it can only be treated with aggressive chemotherapy along with surgery and radiation. It’s survivable, but as mentioned, the treatment is more aggressive when diagnosed at Stage 2 and above. For me, the treatment after surgery was Radiation, then Hormonal Therapy.

Once I knew my prognosis, I started to share my medical condition with close friends and other family members who were shocked and quite supportive. I felt more confident in being able to share the shocking but grateful news that I was going to be fine.  I also had a team of nurse navigators and case managers who guided me through each course of my care.

After I healed from my surgeries, the Covid-19 lock down orders were in full swing, but I was able to continue my course of getting healthy again by starting Radiation Treatments. I started reading about the side effects of Radiation and began preparing myself for the physical changes and fatigue I would feel with each treatment. The experience was undoubtingly memorable: I had to spend 25 days straight (I got weekend breaks) receiving Radiation treatments and I met other cancer patients who had breast, lung, brain, colon cancer, and other cancers who had been through way more than I had been through. I realized that while I was part of a club that no one wants membership in, I was still fortunate that I had way less steps than my fellow patients in getting well.

I am now taking a prescription drug to prevent breast cancer from recurring. I have experienced some of its side effects, but overall I am tolerating it fine: It’s a part of my life for the next five years.

While I was healing from my surgery, I took it easy and did not resume my physical fitness activities for a few weeks. My boyfriend has been so supportive, he was also very protective and put my needs first: my medical condition made me quite vulnerable for Covid-19.  Once my radiation treatments were over, he and I would take walks by the beach every weekend. I find that the beach calms me and has had healing power for my soul.

As I look back on my experience with getting well, I feel like I was existing in another world when I was in the middle of my cancer surgeries and treatments: I was on a mission to get well and a journey that really put me in another dimension. While the ravages of the Covid-19 shut down were unfolding and manifesting, I took advantage of the opportunity I was given to proceed without major interruption with getting well from Cancer. While I was getting well, I still worked from home, and stayed sheltered.

I am grateful each time I wake up each morning as my life has changed completely.

Unfortunately, many Black women face a trifecta of issues that negatively affect their breast cancer outcomes: They tend to be diagnosed younger and at later stages; they too often experience difficulty accessing quality care; and they are at above-average likelihood to develop the Triple Negative, aggressive type of breast cancer.

I am sharing my story as I know this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it was time to go public to help women (and men) realize the importance of getting a mammogram each year. Anything can happen at any time and it certainly did for me. I always had a normal mammogram for 13 years and boom…look what happened to me!

Breast Cancer is diagnosed more commonly these days due to the fact that mammograms have created a means of early detection. More women (and men) are surviving it due to early detection. Please stay on top of your overall health, even in these COVID-focused times.  Unfortunately, Cancer isn’t cancelled just because Covid-19 is around.

To my fellow Lady Keepers please get your mammograms and ask for an ultrasound if you are told you have dense breasts (like me). In California, by law, since 2013, it’s required that women be told if they have dense breasts so a woman can have further testing (ultrasound, MRI) to rule out cancer. Do the additional testing. Your life depends on it.

To my fellow Male Keepers, think about all the ladies you love in your life (Mother, sister, wife, cousins, friends, etc.), even yourself, remind them that mammograms are lifesaving procedures. It’s best that breast cancer is caught during a mammogram and not by actually feeling a lump first.

I wish you all a peacefully journey in staying healthy,

Just Keeping it 100,

Stephanie

Breast Cancer Survivor

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