Marissa Thomas featured on Cancer Grad
Originally published on Cancergrad.org.

Originally published on Cancergrad.org.

“People would say, I am one of the strongest people they know and at the time, I wasn’t sure what that meant or how to take it. In my mind I was just doing what I was supposed to do (insert Kobe shrug here). But finally now, coming up on two years being cancer-free I think I understand. I remember when I was diagnosed, I thought I should just take a bunch of pills and die so I don’t have to endure the pain and struggle coming my way. Hearing that may sound shocking to most but, you would be surprised how many think this way.

Name: Marissa Thomas

Age at Enrollment: 35

Major: Breast Cancer, Stage II High-Grade Invasive Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ (DCIS), 35% ER Positive, no lymph node involvement

What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? Absolutely none! The only “symptom” I would say I had was I was very tired, but who isn’t?? I honestly thought I had been working too much and just need to slow down. I think that was God’s way of telling me, my body needed to rest to prepare for the fight I was about to endure.

What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? As I hopped out of the shower and prepared to get ready, putting lotion on I felt the lump in my left breast. I knew right away something was wrong because I don’t have lumpy breasts as some women do. What’s funny is two weeks before, at my annual physical, during my breast exam my doctor thought she felt something; mind you at this time it was probably the size of a small dot. We both shrugged it off like no couldn’t be, but leaving the office it bugged me. I remember texting my sister after I left my appointment saying my dr thought she felt something but we just shrugged it off. She reminded me that sometimes we can get lumps around our cycle so maybe it was that. Two weeks later when I felt it on my own, it grew to 4 cm in size!! Thank God I happened to come across it again because if not, who knows what my situation would have turned out to be.  

Courses completed: Because my Breast Cancer was so advanced, I went through aggressive treatment and the whole gamut. I had surgery first: Partial Mastectomy on my left breast, meaning they went in to remove just the tumor itself and some surrounding tissue and I also had 5 lymph nodes removed. About six weeks later I started Chemo, two cycles of Adriamycin/Cytoxan, aka The Red Devil or AC. I had AC once every two weeks and four cycles. Then I started Taxol weekly for 6 weeks. After a 3 week break, I started Radiation daily for 6 weeks as well which is a beast in itself. And this past year I had breast reconstruction surgery. Fingers crossed, this will be my last surgery for a long time. Since I was diagnosed, I have had 5 surgeries in the past two years.

What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? I would say one of my hardest moments was looking into the mirror and not recognizing the person I was. Also, the onset of depression took a toll on me. I learned during this process is that when most hear the word Cancer, they think of the physical changes that will happen or death. But no one talks about the depression that sets in. In general, I am a quiet person but during treatment I retreated in even more and would hardly talk. To get through this, I met other women online surprisingly who could relate to the struggle on a much different and intimate level. I would say, don’t be like me lol be open to sharing your journey and meeting others who understand. Trust me it helps!

What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed? What advice would you tell them to ignore? My advice to someone who is newly diagnosed is this is your journey so you direct how you want it to go. Meaning for myself, I was told by a few doctors that I should do chemo first to shrink the tumor because it was so large. But in my mind I wanted to get this cancer out of me now! So I fought and told them NO! I want to do surgery first, then chemo and in the end they agreed it was the best decision. My tumor came out with clear margins and my surgeon put me back together nicely. Second advice would be to ask any and every question you have. And if you leave your appointment and have more questions, either call or make another appointment to get those questions answered as well. No question is a dumb question when it comes to your health. Also, record your initial appointment with your oncology team. There is so much information to take in and you will leave feeling overwhelmed, defeated and just want to lay down. It’s a lot to process so having something to refer back to when you get home is great. Don’t be afraid to seek out alternative medicine or treatment. During chemo I did massage and acupuncture and I honestly believe it helped me with some of the side effects I endured during the process. I also saw a naturopath towards the end of my treatment who recommended supplements to take that helped me get back on my feet. Again, everyone has their reasonings for doing and/or not doing something. This is your life and your health. Do your research and do what will work for you!

How did your family and friends respond? My family was devastated which is understandable. I always say, not only is the person diagnosed but their family and friends are too. My friends and family stepped up in a big way and I had/have a great support system; I would not have been able to make it without them. Shoutout to my Rissa Rhyders!! Y’all are the real MVP’s! Also, anyone with young children, you’re kids are more resilient than you think they are. I used to hide that I was bald because I knew that people would know I was sick and look at me different or ask questions I didn’t want to answer. One day I was having an extreme hot flash (thank you chemo for menopause, NOT!) I ripped my scarf off my head and in walks my son. I almost grabbed my scarf to put it back on, because in my mind I was protecting him by not looking/acting sick. I finally asked him if it bothered him seeing me bald and he said nope, it’s you right now and I still love ya! Kids man, we try to protect them from so much but in fact they are protecting and help us.

Are there any bad platitudes/bad recommendations that you’ve heard from other people regarding your diagnosis? Oh my goodness there are so many LOL! The usual ones are, “You look so good for someone who has cancer!” or “I can’t even tell that you’re sick”. Recommendation wise is what you should do with your hair before it falls out, or changes in diet with a diagnosis, the list goes on. What I will say is that most people mean well so try not to take offense to what they say. But as I said before everyone's journey is different and what may work for you may not work for me. Honestly, at the end of the day I’m just trying to survive.

When you feel overwhelmed or anxious, what do you do? If you want me to be honest, Xanax was my friend lol along with asking others to pray for me.

What do you wish more people knew/understood about the type(s) of cancer you were diagnosed with? The one thing I learned after being diagnosed is that there are many different types of Breast Cancer and no treatment regimen is the same. Also that breast cancer is not and probably never was and “older woman” disease. I have seen too many young women recently diagnosed with this awful disease who are dying from it everyday. One other thing is that just because someone is finished with treatment and declared “Cancer free” doesn’t mean that they are not still dealing with the effects left over from treatment. Whether that be physical or mental changes/scars, these can last for years if not a lifetime.

Have you created any meaning out of this experience? If so, what was it/how did you do it? I have developed great relationships with women who in any other circumstance I would not have.

Since your diagnosis, what new belief, habit or behavior has most improved your quality of life?Self-care!! I have taken the time to make time for myself and not feel bad about it, whatever that may look like. Whether that be lounging on the couch all day or just turning down invites so I don’t run myself ragged, I take time for ME. I used to say yes to everything and spread myself thin trying to make it happen. Now a simple “No, sorry I can’t make it” will suffice and there’s no need for an explanation. I think we as people feel bad for saying no but in the long run most understand. And if they don’t, oh well!

Did you learn anything about yourself or your life? If so, what was it? I learned to slow down and be present in the moment. We take for granted being able to do small things like listening to others or even walking for that matter. We’re in such a rush to move to the next thing but you should ask yourself: Did you take a deep breath in and experience what you’re doing? I recently had one of the greatest weekends where I met some awesome people and I realized not one picture was taken! I was upset thinking, I don’t have any physical memories to look back on. But then a friend reminded me that just means we were all in the moment, enjoying it for what it was at that time.

Do you have a life goal or passion moving forward? My passion now is to help any person who comes behind me and has to fight this horrible disease. I don’t have all the answers, but I will try to point them in the right direction if I can. I also want to be a champion for minority women who have breast cancer. For whatever the reason may be, we lag behind when it comes to research studies and new treatment options. Especially when it comes to Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TPNBC). Just looking at the women on Instagram, more than half of them who have TPNBC are women of color. I want someone to research this and find out why!! TPNBC is the most deadliest forms of BC to have and in my opinion, not enough is being done to figure out why.

People would say, I am one of the strongest people they know and at the time, I wasn’t sure what that meant or how to take it. In my mind I was just doing what I was supposed to do (insert Kobe shrug here). But finally now, coming up on two years being cancer-free I think I understand. I remember when I was diagnosed, I thought I should just take a bunch of pills and die so I don’t have to endure the pain and struggle coming my way. Hearing that may sound shocking to most but, you would be surprised how many think this way. I work in healthcare and have treated patients who are going through cancer treatment. So knowing what was about to happen to me was a gift and a curse, at least I thought at the time. Now, looking back I think it just prepared me to put my head down and make it through the storm. I was in control the whole time when it came to my care and treatment. The doctors were just there as a guide and to give advice when needed. Even looking back on the last two years, none of it seems real and most of it is a blur. For whatever reason, this was to be apart of my journey and I am finally comfortable to talk about it and share candid moments with everyone. This is why I am so adamant in telling others you are in control of your health. No one knows you like you! Take control!! At the end of the day, who do you want to tell your story? 

If you could write anything you wanted on a billboard in NYC’s Times Square that would reach millions of people, what would it read? There will be times you looked at shit you survived, and you know you can’t take any credit for it because you gave up on you long ago, but God……

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Meet the breast cancer baddie

Marissa Thomas, co-founder of “For the Breast of Us”, is a two-year breast cancer survivor. Her goal is to help young women of color, try to navigate the healthcare system, all while learning and defining along the way, what “life-after cancer” looks like.