Chapter Two: Breast Cancer ACTION Month
This month we're re-publishing the incredible story of Janine, a lifelong endurance athlete, mother of three, and two-time breast cancer survivor. Janine's message during Breast Cancer Awareness Month: "Awareness is good. Action is better." Catch up with her story in Chapter One.
In 2011 I was diagnosed with the “good kind” of breast cancer, called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). As the Mayo Clinic explains, DCIS occurs inside the milk ducts of your breast, and is low-risk for becoming invasive.
The six months leading up to my diagnosis, I was caring for my youngest daughter, who at 17 years old was diagnosed with a large brain tumor in the back of her head. Although I dropped almost everything in my life while caring for her, one of the things I didn’t drop was taking care of myself. This is why when I received the “time for your mammogram” letter in the mail I scheduled immediately.
Obviously, there’s no such thing as “good” cancer, but in terms of breast cancer, DCIS was manageable for me. My doctor caught it early during that routine mammogram in the most chaotic year of my life. I underwent a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation.
You are what you think
After the initial shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer, I remember feeling mostly angry.
That first week following my diagnosis, breast cancer was my first thought in the morning. I gave myself that first week to cry, process, and grieve.
After that, I was determined to not allow my diagnosis to consume my headspace. Because wherever your mind goes, there you are. I understood the power of belief and thoughts. Whatever occupied my mind would inevitably become the most important thing in my life.
I’m not suggesting unhealthy suppression or avoidance. But if I had marinated in my diagnosis every day, it would dominate my life. My mentality moving forward was, “Life is not fair. I know this, and now I’m living it. I’ve got breast cancer, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
Of those bigger fish was my daughter’s fight for her incredible recovery. Following her ten-hour brain surgery, and over the course of the next six months she had to re-learn everything, just like a baby. I helped her to walk, eat, talk, etc. She worked extremely hard every day while in the hospital and for years afterward. To this day, doctors are amazed at her abilities, especially given the size and location of her tumor.
As an athlete I learned that believing is achieving. I witnessed firsthand the power of belief. During this time, I held onto to two truths: that breast cancer wouldn’t take over my life, and my daughter would live a meaningful life.
By 2019, nine years had passed. My three daughters were full-blown adults and spreading their wings. Against many odds, my youngest gave birth to a beautiful baby boy (my first grandchild), and was fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a mom. I was living an active life which involved swimming and practicing yoga. My husband wrapped up a successful career and we began “living the good life” traveling back and forth to Florida.
I got my yearly mammograms on-time every year. Last year while we were in Florida, I received the phone call from my doctor. “We saw something on your mammogram. We want you to come back in.”
Two weeks later back in Pittsburgh, as I entered the building for my follow up mammogram, I was overcome with a dreadful feeling. I just knew the cancer had returned.
A few weeks later after a painful biopsy, I received my test results. I wouldn't be meeting the surgeon for another ten days but I wanted to understand what the lab report said. I found myself in a place that I don’t wish for any woman- on Google at 3:00 am.
I cannot emphasize this enough; as tempting as it is, please try to resist the urge to google your own test results. After reading material that was foreign to me, I slowly came to the realization that I had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). I was alone in the early hours of the morning, bathed in the glow of my computer screen as my husband slept in the next room.
If DCIS is the “good” kind of cancer, triple negative is the“bad.” To be clear, all cancer is bad. But triple negative is notorious in the breast cancer world due to the limited treatment options and its aggressive nature. TNBC does not grow due to estrogen, progesterone or the HER2 protein. Researchers are still trying to figure out what makes TNBC grow, which is why currently there isn’t a medicine to help keep it at bay.
This cancer was in the same breast as the first time. There’s a difference between a ‘recurrence’ and a second ‘occurrence’ of cancer; this was the latter. I had two different strains of breast cancer in the same breast in the same decade. My surgeon said I was struck by lightning twice.
Awareness is good. Action is better.
The action I want to focus on this week is ask questions. This goes for all aspects of your health, not just breast cancer concerns. If you think of a medical question, write it down. Bring it to your doctor, and ask the questions that are important to you.
If you are facing a breast cancer diagnosis, I encourage you to reach out to a person or group that can support your needs. Community helps so much.
Next week, Janine opens up about testing positive for the BRCA2 gene following her TNBC diagnosis. “Very occasionally, I think back to my DCIS diagnosis in 2011 and am furious I wasn’t tested for the BRCA2 gene. Working through that has helped me practice ‘radical acceptance.’”
The information and content provided in this blog post are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment.