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Told to Margot Adams by Vaishalee Howey.
I was diagnosed [with Triple Negative Breast Cancer] at 32, and, prior to that, I was one of those people where, if something was bothering me, I would just ride it out. Once I had this happen to me, I realized how much of an active role you have to take in your well being. If something doesn’t feel right, go to the doctor. If something comes out of it, you’ve caught something in time. A big lesson for all of us is that we have to take a more active role in our health.
Before being Diagnosed, I was working at AMEX [in New York City]. I had been doing that for 10 years when I had my kids, and I really wanted to take a break. I had always had high stress, demanding jobs and a ton of stress in my life. My son was actually born early due to stress. In August of 2018, I decided to take time off to spend time with the kids. My kids were one and three at the time that I left AMEX in 2018.
When I look back, there were definitely signs that something was going on in my body and I just didn't pick up on it. I was getting really sick a lot, much more frequently than I would have previously. I would get colds with fevers, which was not my typical as an adult, but I just attributed it to the fact that I was around the kids more.
Then, in January 2019, I felt a lump, and it was kind of painful, in my right breast. I had attributed it to my period since your breasts normally get sore before your period. I was a little over a year out of postpartum, so a lot of changes had been happening to my body. I thought maybe I pulled a muscle or something. Towards the end of January I felt like the lump was getting bigger.
I went to my primary care physician and she said it was probably something benign, but I needed to go and get a mammogram and ultrasound. One of the reasons that they don't recommend mammograms for younger women is because we have denser breasts. When your breasts are dense it's a less accurate screening, so when you're less than 40 years old you have to get a mammogram with an ultrasound. From there I went to a breast surgeon who ordered the biopsy, because I had something on my lymph nodes by my armpit.
The breast surgeon called me on February 22, 2019 and was like, “The biopsy results… you have breast cancer… and it has spread to your lymph nodes.” And at that point, your world just comes crashing down.
I remember what I was wearing, that I was outside with my kids, with my neighbor, the temperature, all these things. My first thought I had was “Oh my god, my kids. What's gonna happen to my kids?” Because when you hear that you have cancer, the first thought is “I’m gonna die.”
I go to my next appointment and the doctor said it was triple negative breast cancer, which makes it harder to treat. He said it’s rapidly growing and I needed to do chemo ASAP. At this point, you're just kind of taking it step-by-step, because, now, you've gone from being in control of your life to having zero control.
At this point I'm still going within our local hospital system. I went to the medical oncologist and I’m literally the youngest person [there]. Everybody there is old. It’s depressing. I didn’t like the doctor’s bedside manner, so I went to Sloan for a second opinion. My experience at Sloan has been amazing.
The breast surgeon sent me to do genetic testing. When young people get diagnosed with cancer we have to wonder why, and for women that have no genetic predisposition or family history, why me? Especially when you're young, seemingly healthy and doing all the right things. Results came back and I had nothing [that would have lead to the cancer diagnosis].
I did chemo at [Sloan]. I did four rounds of what we like to call “the red devil”, which is the really intense chemo, and 12 weeks of taxol. I started in March of 2019 and ended August of 2019. Chemo is just what you imagine it to be. It was intense, it sucked. I lost my hair. I lost my eyebrows. I lost my eyelashes.
My second chemo, I remember, knocked me on my ass. I was just like in bed, I couldn't get out of bed and I just felt shitty by myself. I just felt like so bad for myself. The hard part was, because we had [at home] childcare, my kids were home. I remember my son, who was just shy of two, was at the bottom gate crying for me. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I was just dead.” This would be so much easier for him if I was just gone. He knows I'm here, and I felt so crappy that I wanted to die in that moment.
My friend reached reach out, she didn't know that I was struggling at the time, and recommended I watch the documentary called “Heal” on Netflix. I watched the documentary, and it was such an informative documentary talking about the mind-body connection and how powerful it is. How people have healed themselves from traumatic injury by meditation, by focusing and doing all these things. I was like, all right, I'm gonna change the narrative. I'm going to start saying to myself these mantras.
I am strong."
I’m going to survive."
My body can handle this."
I will see [my daughter] Sophia go to kindergarten."
I will dance at their weddings.”
And, I kid you not, after that, my third and fourth rounds of chemo went much better.
I decided to focus on the things that were in my control versus out of my control. Like whether or not the cancer responded to chemo, not in my control. My attitude and my perspective, that is in my control. So I had this epiphany, and I carried that with me. When you’ve had such a big thing happen to you, like cancer, it is such an eye-opening experience - in terms of how I lived my life prior and how I live my life now.
I finished chemo in August, and 6 weeks later I had my double mastectomy in the city at Sloan. I went double mastectomy to flat. I just said, “I don't want any more surgery.” I knew I needed radiation because it had spread to my lymph nodes. Even if you have a complete response to chemo, you have to do radiation. I did 26 sessions of radiation and ended December 16 right before the holidays. I had a complete response to chemo, so I didn’t have to do any more after radiation.
The mental and physical tole was tough, but, a lot of positive came out of it. Its given me a community, and I’ve met so many amazing people. I got rid of the things that don't serve me or don't bring me happiness. The material things, the money, those things don’t necessarily matter. It’s quality time. Things that people always say, but, when you’ve had something like this happen to you, that's when you're like, “Sh*t, that's real life.” Life is super freaking short. None of us know when it's going to end. So, it's given me that kind of clarity which I don't think I would've had otherwise.
The inner power we have to be able to not only I think survive, but then thrive, I think that there's a distinction, and why so many people say survivor versus thriver. It's one thing to survive something, and it's a different thing to be thriving after it. Survival, to me, means you're barely skating by and hanging on. Thriving, despite what's happened to you, [means] you’re truly living again. [You’re] the best version of yourself, thriving in your environment and in your body.
Another thing thing that was really hard for me afterwards was my relationship with my body. I started dressing my body “flat”. How I dress my flat chest now versus how I did when I first became flat is so different. I always just assumed that I had to wear a pleated top or something less form fitting. I want to shop at the stores that I love, which is what I do. I just know what to look for. Now, I wear more high waisted [bottoms] and stuff that kind of minimizes the way that it looks.
I started The Flattie Fashionista because I struggled so much in the beginning. I was like, “How do I still look and feel young when I don’t have boobs?” It was really created for a place for other women like me who felt like they were struggling to dress their new bodies.
I started interacting with TNBC Foundation through Kelly [Thomas]. I was so desperate to find people like me when I was going through cancer and going through treatment, but specifically TNBC and young. I came across TNBC Thrivers and started to attend the virtual chats. I was freshly out of treatment, and I remember going to the first few chats and feeling like, “Oh my God, it's people that understand. It's people that get it. It's people that truly get the in’s and out’s.” Like how painful it is to put your hands on ice during chemo, the Benadryl sleepy nap or like allergic reactions.
It opened my eyes to the fact that there's so many people [in this] community of thrivers. Also, I could give something back. I could help people going through [treatment] that don't see the end in sight like I didn't see the end in sight. I can be the inspiration.
Look, I'm thriving. I'm living. This will be you. If you're in it, it sucks. No one's gonna be able to change that, but there is hope.”