Athletes get cancer too

Last summer, I felt a lump in my breast and immediately made an appointment with my primary care doctor to get it checked out. She was confident that it was “just fibrocystic tissue”, aka not cancer, but wanted me to schedule a mammogram just in case. I was 39 so it was almost time to start getting them regularly anyways.

4 mammograms, 2 ultrasounds, and 9 painful biopsies later, I received the call that my lump was invasive ductal carcinoma – aka cancer. I’ll never forget that phone call which came on a beautiful day in October.  I was home alone and fully expecting the doctor to tell me that everything was fine.  The same doctor that literally said “it’s probably benign, but let’s do a biopsy just in case.”

At my first mammogram appointment - approximately 2 months after I first found my lump.

Instead of calling me with the news that it was benign, I received a firehose of information about next steps and what other information was needed to determine my treatment plan.   Treatment plan?!?  I’ve never needed one of those for anything in my whole life.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I waited a few minutes before calling my husband because I was certain they had mixed up my results with someone else.  There’s no way I could have cancer. I’m an athlete. I take care of my body. I’m only 39!

She never called back. 

It took me a while to fully understand what was happening to me. In the beginning there were so many unknowns and SOOOOO many appointments. I had a very hard time finding the words to tell people that I have cancer. I still have a tough time talking about it if I’m being honest.

Once all of the test results rolled in and I had data to support what was happening in my body, I immediately assembled my medical team and started on a treatment plan. The results indicated that the cancer cells that formed my tumor were triple positive (Estrogen Receptor+, Progesterone Receptor+ and HER2+). This means that my cancer was using my body’s own estrogen and progesterone to grow, and was overproducing a protein (the HER2 protein) that regulates cell growth.

About 5% of diagnosed cases are due to hereditary reasons which was the case for me. I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation which significantly increases my risk of breast cancer.  

A woman without this mutation has a 13% chance of developing breast cancer at some point during their lifetime. This means that 1 in 8 women will get it – which is likely why you probably already know of several woman who have been diagnosed. 

As a woman with a the BRCA2 genetic mutation, my chance of developing breast cancer is between 45 and 69%.  I also have an elevated risk of developing ovarian cancer.  Mine is 15-30% compared to a non-mutated female which is only 1.3%.  Lucky me.

Thankfully, my biopsies, MRI and CT scan all concluded that my cancer hadn’t yet spread to my lymph nodes or any other organ.  But my type of cancer can be very aggressive and had the potential to spread very quickly so I didn’t have much time to waste.  I needed to attack this thing from multiple angles including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery and hormone therapy.  I also opted to receive ovarian suppression injections during chemo in order to protect my ovaries and leave the door open to conceive a child naturally.   This threw me into menopause overnight, and my body aged about 15 years within a few days.

I chose to take an integrative approach to my treatment which included leaning on a combination of conventional medicine to battle the cancer and alternative medicine to manage many of the side effects.  

At my third (of 6) chemotherapy treatment. I was cold capping during chemo so at this point I still had a fair amount of my hair.

My conventional approach included 5 months of chemotherapy and targeted therapy followed by a bilateral mastectomy. The last thing I wanted was to treat the awful side effects of drugs with more drugs that other side effects. So, when it was reasonable according to my oncologist, I used natural remedies to help manage side-effects and to help with recovery after surgery.  Many of these approaches I actually wrote about in my Healing Green Athlete E-book, which you can download for free below.

Thankfully, I didn’t experience much nausea during chemo but I did experience most of the other common symptoms.   This included: fatigue, joint pain, extreme diarrhea, mouth sores, bloody noses, heartburn, super dry skin, poor appetite, loss of taste, dizzy spells, pale skin and brain fog.  And I had recurrent eye infections which were so annoying.  Silver lining: I didn’t have to shave for 6 months because I lost ALL of my body hair.  Kinda miss that part.

On top of the chemo side effects, I experienced several side effects of the ovarian suppression injections which included joint pain, muscle fatigue, insomnia, depression, hot flashes, night sweats, hair thinning, mood swings, and headaches.  All typical symptoms of menopause.

During chemo, I didn’t feel at all like myself and felt like so many things were out of my control. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself either.  I cold capped during chemo which helped to keep some of my hair.  Unfortunately, a few weeks after my last chemo treatment I had lost so much of it that I decided to buzz it a couple days before surgery.  

I had a lot of fear and sadness before and after my surgery but it all went well and as planned. While under anesthesia, my breast surgeon removed all of my breast tissue and 3 of my lymph nodes to test for cancer.  Then my plastic surgeon came in and began my reconstruction process.   I chose a phased implant-based reconstruction.  The first phase of my reconstruction includes having  tissue expanders sewn into my chest wall.  Then the next phase was to gradually fill these expanders with saline to slowly stretch my skin to make room for implants.  Yes, it’s as uncomfortable as it sounds.  In a few months, I will have another surgery to swap these super hard expanders for much softer implants.  

At my pre-op appointment with my breast surgeon. About to say goodbye to both of my breasts.

Right now, I’m about 9 weeks post-surgery and gaining back my strength and mobility with LOTS of physical therapy .  I did develop a significant case of cording (or axillary web syndrome) in my right arm where my lymph nodes were removed.  This causes a tight and painful sensation in my right arm from my armpit to my elbow.  It’s not fun, but the PT is helping and I should be back to my sport within another couple weeks.  

Throughout this whole process, I am learning that it’s okay to reach out to others for help when I need it.  If I’m being honest, it’s been more difficult to do that than to endure all the side effects.   I can’t even express how grateful I am for the people who have shown up for me when I needed them to.  Long-distance friends have flown across the country to come to appointments with me, run errands, and help out around the house.  Local friends have brought me meals and walked my dog.  And my husband has shown me a nurturing side of him I never thought was possible from such a manly-man from Texas.  It’s so freaking hot.

While my physical appearance has changed quite a bit over the past 9 months, I’ve also found a new appreciation for my physical body.  She’s been with me through SO much this year and I’m committed to taking better care of her.  I’ve also been on a spiritual journey to connect with my true self, and figure out how I want to spend the rest of my days on this Earth.    I don’t have that all figured out yet, but I do know that at a minimum I want my life to be filled with an abundance of joy and love.  

I could write an entire novel about the physical and emotional toll that this journey has had on me.  And now that the majority of my treatment is done, there are a lot of emotions being released that I haven’t yet processed.  I am still grieving over the loss of my hair, my boobs, and the woman that I was.   I am still angry that this happened to me.  

And at the same time, I’m celebrating the fact that the hardest parts are over and there is currently no evidence of cancer in my body!    

The day after my double mastectomy (with reconstruction). This point in my journey marked a new beginning for me. A new hairstyle and new boobs on the surface, but underneath is a whole different me.

I was incredibly lucky to catch my disease early, but I’ve since learned that regardless of the stage, cancer is not to be underestimated.  It’s a chronic and metabolic disease that can alter and take lives. While my breast cancer was highly treatable, there is no form of cancer that is completely curable.  Plus, since I also have such a high risk of ovarian cancer, I now have to start regular surveillance for that and will have to consider removing my ovaries within the next few years. 

I am currently “cancer free” but my battle with this disease is far from over. I still have another couple years of medications, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to prevent another cancer diagnosis.  The more I learn about cancer prevention, the more I learn that I was doing all the right things before I was diagnosed.  I was living a “healthy green lifestyle” which includes eliminating toxins, reducing stress, spending time in nature, eating whole & nutrient dense foods, making sleep a priority, and exercising a ton.  I do think that my healthy lifestyle helped me get through my treatment without any serious complications or long-term effects.  I’ll continue on this path but with some slight tweaks here and there that are aimed toward cancer prevention.  In addition to waiting for my hair and energy to come back, I’ll also be processing the trauma of this whole experience for a long, loooooong time.

Let’s go.

New hair, new boobs, and a whole new me. Left: 1 year ago on my honeymoon in Italy. Right: A few weeks ago on our 1-year wedding anniversary in Denver.


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