Survivor Stories: Ann Whalen
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 46. At the time, my son was 8 years old. Following a routine mammogram, an ultrasound and biopsy were recommended as “they saw something suspicious.” It was pretty apparent right then and there it would ultimately be a cancer diagnosis. Fortunately for me, the doctor reviewing my results was a breast cancer survivor herself, and she offered direction and encouragement for when I got the formal results as to initial steps to take. Hearing those words “you have cancer” changes your life forever!
That evening, there was an art night at my son’s elementary school. Not only was Handful’s own Cary Goldberg, a survivor herself, there to listen and give me guidance, but also two other survivor moms. Having support from these women initially and others down the road was so important and helpful for me. This was uncharted territory, and they helped me navigate through the initial process, first and foremost assuring me I would not be alone no matter what happened.
My treatment included 8 rounds of chemotherapy administered every two weeks, followed by 5 ½ weeks of radiation. Initially, I had a port placed in my chest to make receiving IV chemo easier. What should have been a routine procedure landed me in the hospital for 8 days with a collapsed lung. Of everything I went through – and there was a lot – having multiple chest tubes inserted and removed was the most painful thing I have ever experienced.
Chemo was no easy journey for me. I worked full time but was able to cut back to 36 hours per week. This allowed me to take chemo Fridays off and the following Monday to recover and could work from home periodically which was needed. I had a very supportive employer and manager, which not all women are fortunate to have. To say I was nauseous is an understatement! So, so sick and not much (and I tried just about everything) made it better. All the anti-nausea medicine, acupuncture, ginger, kale smoothies, turmeric, yoga, meditation, mac ‘n cheese, etc. in the world did not help! A few days following treatment, I would go in for fluids to try and flush the “red devil” (Adriamycin) and then Taxol (excruciating bone pain and neuropathy) from my system so I would have one “good” week in between treatments. I could go into many details, but during the course of my treatment, with a very, very strong will to live, I had TWO days where I prayed to Jesus to come and take me because it was so overwhelming.
I haven’t mentioned what the hair loss, the amputation of body parts, gray pallor, and utter exhaustion does to your emotional state and feelings about yourself, but it is not good!
Once I completed chemo, I started radiation 5 days a week. At the beginning there was little discomfort, but it is one of the most vulnerable, humbling kinds of treatment, with your body bared for technicians moving you in multiple positions…and I had to do this every day for over 5 weeks! As radiation progressed, once you get past red burn, your skin takes on a whole different shade of purple and then starts peeling. In the final weeks of radiation, I could barely swallow, as each time I did it felt like glass shards going down my throat. I project planned my way through that initial year of cancer, and when that final day of radiation happened, I was so happy!
Fast forward to my 8th year of survivorship and my treatment path has included additional surgeries dealing with radiation-related capsular contracture, revisions, ultimately a second mastectomy, and ongoing hormone therapy (don't ask what that does for your marriage!). It can feel like a never-ending process but today, years later, I am grateful for the treatment and happy that I am healthy and still here.
Now for the good part of cancer...and you might be asking “is there really a good part!?” I experienced many blessings and many angels along my journey. Family, my dog, friends, church, school and work communities that supported me were invaluable. My husband continued to love me (which I have since learned from being present for other survivors not all do), I had a great son who would lay in bed with me when I couldn’t “play,” sisters who gave up vacations to come and care for me while I was in the hospital or following surgery, a brother, aunt and cousins who always checked in. My community, near and far, sent thoughtful notes, well wishes, house cleaning gift certificates, brought meals, healthy shakes, distracted my son on play dates to provide a sense of normalcy for him, watched him, gave me rides, and sat with me during chemo. There are those closest to you that you expect to help, or those that help initially and fade away over time, but what really surprised me were those that went the distance, continued to drop off meals when the meal train wasn’t needed, or sent me cards routinely every month. I will also never forget the neighbor I did not know and the ladies at church who knitted me chemo shawls and hats, and the unknown faces who made and donated hats to chemo rooms for the taking.
One of the biggest blessings was the Young Survivors Portland group, made up of cancer survivors who meet monthly to share and support each other. It was through these meetings that I truly felt like I was not alone, got tools for self-advocacy, learned of tips for many, many things to assist on the journey, and also to cry with and yes, laugh with. When one goes through a traumatic experience, a strong bond of connection forms that is long lasting. There are those friends who continue to be my besties today, and we celebrate milestones, birthdays, and life, getting together and forming our own little retreats. There are those whom I don’t get to see often but keep close in my heart. And then there are others who have lost their battle, and my heart aches for them and their families. There are far too many no longer with us...
Research and treatment continue to advance, and I am hopeful that over time, a cure will be found. At the time of my diagnosis, I had done genetic testing for BRCA 1 and 2 mutations which at the time of my diagnosis was all that was available. Years later, and following my younger sister’s own battle with breast cancer, new genetic testing is available to find other mutations. It was on one of my survivor retreats that I learned that I had one of these mutations indicating “why” I got cancer in the first place, which is a question we all ask ourselves. Knowledge is power, and I hope as more is learned, my son, nieces and rest of my family who have inherited the ATM genetic mutation will benefit.
I am so thankful for Handful, as my surgeries have left me fairly symmetrical size-wise, but with lots of scars, and tough, flat, dimpled skin from radiation. I really benefit from the smooth shaping of Handful pads. The bras are perfect first and foremost for comfort and are my daily go to bras. Not only are they functional, but they are beautiful and stylish with so many patterns and styles. I have branched out from not just their bras, but now own and sport many of their tops and tights. Regular exercise is essential for my continued survival, and my beloved dog Tucker makes sure I get at least two daily walks!
Eight years out from diagnosis, I look forward to a few milestones. Two years from now will mark not only my son’s high school graduation, but I will hit my 10 year mark! Oh, the deals I made with God to get me to those milestones, to be able to watch my son grow up, and at 10 years what will hopefully be the end of daily hormone therapy!
I have learned not to sweat the little things (did I mention I am Type A and OCD?). I make plans – lots of plans! – to travel, get together with friends and family, and to make memories, not waiting until “later,” hoping, but not knowing, how many “laters” I will have. Whether you are a survivor or not, and I hope you never are one, seize life – there is so much out there to see, do, and celebrate! Thanks Handful for all that you do for our survivor community and women in general!