Breast Cancer Awareness

Officially, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but it is always the right time to be aware of your body. About 1 in 8 U.S. women (roughly 12.4%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Back in September, I had the opportunity to meet a group of some of the strongest women I’ve met to date: seven (yes, seven) women all diagnosed in their 30’s and 40’s. Some have beat it. Some are in the process. All are fighters. These are their stories.

Susie

Age at diagnosis: 40

Diagnosis: stage 2, grade 3, triple positive breast cancer

Journey/Status:

  • April 10, 2018: Hubby found lump at age 40
    • My lump grew from 2cm to 6cm in three weeks – that is how aggressive my cancer is
  • May 7, 2018: Diagnosed with stage 2 grade 3 triple positive breast cancer, lump was 7cm
  • May 31, 2018: Started chemo
  • September 13, 2018: Finished 6 rounds of chemo
  • October 18, 2018: Will have a bilateral mastectomy
  • October 23, 2018: I got the news that I was officially cancer free
  • November 26, 2018: Starting 28 rounds of radiation
  • May 2019: Will be done with Herceptin and Perjeta, ending my treatment

Twaney

Age at diagnosis: 40

Diagnosis: stage 1 breast cancer

Journey/Status: 2 year survivor | mammograms every 6 months

“I don’t have time to deal with this!”

Those were the exact words I said to myself when I felt a hard, mass in my left breast.  Just three months after I turned 40, I was standing in the shower convincing myself that I was too busy to deal with this. Denial wasn’t the issue – I knew what it was – I just didn’t want to deal with it. As a wife and mom working at a job I loved, I didn’t want to disrupt my life for cancer!
Cancer, however had another plan for me. Over the next few months my mass changed my breast shape. The constant pain gave me no choice but to make the time to take care of myself. I went for my first mammogram on August 16, 2016.
On September 6, 2016 at 10:47 AM – exactly one month before I turned 41 – I received the call that changed my life forever.

Time actually stood still when the nurse on the phone said, “You have Stage 1 breast cancer.”  It was time to deal with this.

I met with an awesome team of doctors that would fight with me to save my life, completed six rounds of chemotherapy, lost all of my hair, but not my positivity. This was a battle that I knew I’d win! I had a lumpectomy and then went through six weeks of brutal radiation.  I did it with a smile on my face and a new outlook on life!
There is always time to take care of yourself. If anyone reading this has ever been in my shoes and doesn’t want to deal with it, please make the time to take care of yourself. It might just save your life. Mammograms are a part of self-care that no one talks about. Let’s get this conversation started.

Leah

Age at diagnosis: 30

Diagnosis:

  • infiltrating ductal carcinoma
  • grade 3
  • stage II
  • ER negative
  • Her 2 positive

Journey/Status:

  • October 2017: Found hard, small lump during self breast exam at age 29
  • February 1, 2018: Diagnosed
  • Almost 3 months cancer-free since left side mastectomy in July | continuing active treatment until February 2019

Melissa

Age at diagnosis: 38

Diagnosis: stage 2 triple begative invasive ductal carcinoma

Journey/Status: 6 month survivor

What does it feel like to be told you have breast cancer when you are just 38?

Well on December 1st I learned how it felt. The uncontrollable tears – the inability to stand while hearing the news over the phone minutes after walking out of an OR case. It felt as if the moment lasted forever, but was over in minutes. I sobbed like I’d never sobbed before – crying out to the surgeons I worked with, “My kids are 3 and 1! My kids are just 3 and 1!”

I would learn 5 days later that I had stage 2 triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive cancer that either responds to chemo or doesn’t. It wasn’t a choice to have chemo for me…if I wanted to live I would do chemo.

I shared the news with my chief at work who took me aside and said, “You have one week to fall apart, to feel sorry for yourself, to gather information. Then come Monday you fight like hell,” and hell is what I brought.

“You have one week to fall apart, to feel sorry for yourself, to gather information. Then come Monday you fight like hell.”

My oncologist told me I would lose my hair after my first round because of how potent the drugs were. I didn’t. I cold capped my entire treatment. You want to know what -30 degree celsius caps on your head feel like, while getting pumped with chemo drugs…crazy – but I put a spin on it.

I themed each chemo treatment with a favorite color or pattern to make me focus on something positive. Even my oncology office supported my themes. I had groups of friends and family just waiting to hear what Mel’s kicking cancers ass Wednesday theme was. 16 different themes are hard to find, lol.

Chemo ended May 2nd with a bilaterally mastectomy to follow just three weeks later. What I learned was that there was no cancer in my lymph nodes and my 2.5cm tumor responded very well to chemo and was now gone. Out of my body.

Cancer is hard. It hurts…and not just you, but everyone around you. Your husband now has a wife with cancer, your kids now will have to accept their mother had cancer, your best friend fears losing you to cancer as does your sister, mother, coworkers, friends. It hurts.

But I guess the light in all of this is that if I can fight it I’m certainly going to help someone else fight it – and that’s what I’ve done for the women I’ve met along the way.

As of now I’m a 6 month survivor. Will it come back? The statistics say my chances are 30%, but I don’t think about that. I live my life as best I can without focusing on fear. I’ve learned to see the big picture, to see the little signs that it’s going to be alright, to make time for myself, and to make a difference for someone. It can only get better from here.

Zujey

Age at diagnosis: 34

Diagnosis: HER2 positive, stage 2, invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3

Journey/Status:

  • November 2017: Found lump on my own at the age of 34
  • December 19, 2017: I was diagnosed with the right breast cancer stage two on my mom’s birthday.
    • Invasive ductal carcinoma
    • BRCA 1/2 negative
    • Tumor size 2.7 cm
  • January 24, 2018: Right nipple mastectomy, SLNB with immediate reconstruction. Zero lymph nodes involved. No radiation.
  • March 6, 2018 – May 8, 2018: I had four cycles of chemo (my last day of chemo was my dad‘s birthday). I would go every three weeks for chemo.
  • July 30, 2018: I had my implants. On letrozole and will be on it for five years.

Kaytlan

Age at diagnosis: 32

Diagnosis: HER2 positive, stage 2, invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3

Journey/Status:

  • April 8, 2018: Found lump while putting essential oils on chest at night
  • April 18, 2018: Diagnosed HER2 positive, stage 2, invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3
  • May 30, 2018: Mastectomy
  • July 2, 2018: Started chemo, 7 rounds completed, 9 more rounds of chemo to complete
  • November 28, 2018: Last day of chemo!

Nicole

Age at diagnosis: 48

Diagnosis: stage 1, hormone +, HER2 -, grade 3, 1cm lump (3/30/18) / BRCA2 (4/20/18)

Journey/Status:

  • February 2018: Mammo (call back for follow up)
  • March 30, 2018: Diagnosed stage 1, hormone +, HER2 -, grade 3, 1cm lump, age 48
  • April 20, 2018: Diagnosed BRCA2
  • May 24, 2018: Double mastectomy
  • July 12, 2018: Began 4 rounds of chemo
  • September 20, 2018: Last chemo!
  • Waiting for reconstruction and removal of ovaries, fallopian tubes, and hopefully all those other cancer prone internal lady parts!

In February of 2018, my best friend and I went for our yearly mammogram. They only became “yearly” for me about 3 years ago, even though I’d had my first baseline mammo at age 39, and I’m now 48. We both got called back for a follow up. I wasn’t particularly worried because my mom is called back every year due to dense breast tissue, and I also have been told the same. In fact, I waited 2 months to go back in – as a teacher, I had spring break coming up anyway.

My friend’s follow up came back clean, just as I expected mine to do. However, after the mammogram, the doctor recommended an ultrasound, which did they immediately. To my shock, she told me she saw something that needed to be biopsied. I came in the next day for the biopsy, and 3 days later, on March 30th, life as I knew it stopped.

CANCER.

Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma in the right breast, 1 cm tumor, estrogen positive, progesterone positive, HER2 negative, grade 3. I didn’t know what any of that meant. Fear was all I knew at that point.

Am I going to die at age 48? What will happen to my 13 year old son?

Over time, I learned many things about this cancer. Some good, some bad. I wasn’t going to die. And it was a simple procedure. Lumpectomy with some radiation to follow. My sister-in-law had just gone through this exact thing two years earlier. I can to this, I thought.
Then, on April 20th, four days before my surgery, the other shoe dropped. My genetic results were positive for a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, one of the dreaded breast cancer genes. That revelation destroyed all the hope and courage I had just built up to deal with this.
Lumpectomy was now out of the question. The thought that I STILL had a 40% chance of developing another breast cancer tumor was more than I could bear. And on top of that, I now was told that I have a 20% chance of also developing ovarian cancer. I was distraught and terrified, but I knew that a double mastectomy was the only choice I could make. I was only 48 years old with a child who still needs his mother.
And I had a boyfriend, a man who told me on the day I was diagnosed that he would be by my side through anything, but he wanted to go through this with me as my husband. What a blessing!!

So now, there was a wedding to plan, and quickly.

On May 19th, we were married, and on May 24th, I had both breasts removed and expanders put in for reconstruction. The surgery and recovery was not fun, plenty of pain and discomfort, but nowhere near as horrific as I had made it out in my mind to be. I couldn’t imagine what my chest would feel like. Well, it feels like I have heavy saucers strapped to my chest.
In the beginning, my chest wall felt like sandpaper was rubbing against it, and the weird tingly feelings going across what remained of my breasts was very disconcerting. But my plastic surgeon reassured me that this was the healing process. It has become more tolerable, but I can’t wait for my exchange surgery on December 5th!
Because I am BRCA positive, I will also be having a complete hysterectomy after the first of the year, to further reduce my chance of cancer in any of my “lady parts.”
This has been a long road, even though it’s only been 6 months. And it isn’t over, but my outlook today is so much better than when I was first diagnosed. It may sound cliche, but I honestly have a new outlook and new appreciation for my life. It has reinforced my belief in my internal strength and ability to withstand adversity.
The support that I have is amazing. I’m blessed a husband who has held my hand every step of the way. I know who I can count on to be there for me when I need them. Though, sadly I’ve also learned who I can’t count on. Strange as this may sound, I sometimes refer to this event as a gift. In the big picture of my life, what I’ve gained is so much more than what I’ve lost. And for that, I’m very thankful.

The strength these women have is incredible, and the support they give each other is inspiring. I am so honored to be a part of their journey and help them tell these important stories.

If you would like to sponsor a session for someone in need, please feel free to reach out to me with your idea.

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My name is Kelly Aoki, and I would be honored to capture life's most precious moments for you. Shortly after I had my senior portraits taken in 2012, the photographer, who is now a good friend, taught me how to shoot in manual on a DSLR. Since then, my passion and knowledge for photography has only grown, and thus Mizue Photography was born.

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