Metastatic cancer: my mother and me
At the beginning of 2016, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. She was previously diagnosed ten years prior at the age of 58 with stage IIB. From January to July, my mother's health deteriorated and she passed at the end of July at 68 years old from an aggressive form of cancer.
My doctors never mentioned I was high risk because my mother received her initial diagnosis in her late fifties.
I was 33 years old at the time of my mother’s stage IV diagnosis. I was shocked and I was stressed about the entire experience.
In August, I felt a lump in my breast. I had large, lumpy breasts, but this was distinguishable. I went to my OB/GYN and after an ultrasound, mammogram, MRI and biopsy, they reported I had DCIS/stage 0 breast cancer in my right breast. They stated a mastectomy needed to be done because of how extensive the DCIS was.
So, there I was 33, just about to turn 34 years old at the time. Ironically, I was in the same hospital where my mother received treatment just months before.
It was traumatic.
Since I was the only one in charge of managing my cancer treatment, I decided to get a second opinion. My mother had passed and I really did not have any other family around to help me make decisions about my care. I saw two oncologists and two surgeons for opinions. If I did not consult with two oncologists at the beginning, I would not have gotten as much info I needed to make an informed decision. For example, the option to freeze eggs vs not, oncotype testing, info re: clinical trials shared and genetic testing.
I decided on immediate reconstruction and a bilateral mastectomy because I did not want to deal with the anxiety of the other breast. At the time of surgery, they found that I had stage IIB breast cancer and more treatment would be needed. They did a DIEP for both breasts.
I remember after my mastectomy, I was in the hospital and I just started to cry. It wasn't a little cry, it was coming from the depths of me and was a release of everything that I had gone through. Prior to that, I did not get a chance to really process much.
I had dose dense chemo AC/T (every two weeks for four months) and thirty-three rounds of radiation. I worked the entire time during chemo and radiation and that was rough. It was just me. I had bills to pay and I did not like the idea of staying at home.
During my diagnosis, I felt overwhelmed. I had a lot happen in a couple months: my relationship ended, my mother passed and I got breast cancer. I think I just went numb to a certain extent. My stress and anxiety were at an extreme high. I don't come from a large family, so when my mother passed away, that was pretty much my anchor. Thankfully, I had my godmother, a couple of my mother's friends and my mother's sister (my aunt) to help me during that time.
The active part of treatment left me feeling very isolated and sad. I looked forward to it ending because I had a lot of grief to work through. Therapy and keeping busy with work helped. I also allowed myself to get angry and/or sad and to this day still do, but I try not to dwell too long in that space.
I want more young women to speak to their families regarding family history of ANY type of cancer. My family did not share much until AFTER the fact. My mom had passed, my aunt had stage IV breast cancer and then, I start hearing all these stories of other family members with cancer. It's frustrating because there is an opportunity to address this before it becomes a bigger issue.
The impact of my family, primarily mom, not discussing the history of cancer in my family tree was frustrating. As a result, I had to learn this on my own. If I would have known more, I could have possibly been more proactive with asking to be placed in the higher risk category. But, I am pretty sure that my family did the best they could, with what they knew — it was a different culture (Jamaica), generation and experiences. So I try not to blame them.
I tell my 16 year old niece about breast exams. If I ever have a child, I will educate them about breast cancer and other health issues. I will stay on them about breast exams and just knowing their bodies. That was something, unfortunately, I had to learn on my own.
I would not want anyone to go through this alone. So knowledge and awareness is so important. My ultimate goal is to help others in my community become more aware of self-breast exams as well. To encourage them to just be as consistent and thorough as they can, perform exams both sitting up and lying down, and remind them to not disregard anything abnormal.
meet the breast cancer baddie
Beth Shields is a young breast cancer survivor from Chicago