Survivor Stories: Ann Whalen – Handful

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Survivor Stories: Ann Whalen

on October 08, 2018

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!


by Kerry Sheehan Lavoie on December 23, 2018

Wow! You are truly an inspiration. You may not remember me from the old days hang’n out at Brians and China Pacific but I remember you and your beautiful spirit. So happy to see you still have it! I was treated for breast cancer in 2007 at 45 and your description of the radiation treatment was spot on. Shine on!

by Carmel on October 19, 2018

Thank you for your post Ann, it is not an easy journey, but positive thoughts and prayers help! I was diagnosed with triple positive BC May 2017 I had 12 weeks of chemo, 6 and half weeks of radio, a year of Herceptin and surgery now I am on tamoxifen. I too was diagnosed with an ATM mutation so I am going in for a hysterectomy next week to reduce risk! It is wonderful to hear you are doing well, and I wish you continued good health!

by Jan Adler on October 10, 2018

Thank you, Ann for your honesty when reviewing your chemo and radiation treatments. I also had a very hard time through chemo but did not have the support to fall back on. I finished my chemo January of this year and still have fatigue. I would like to form a support group locally for women who have gone or are going through chemo and radiation. I did contact mentors from various organizations but I felt like encouragement to go on overrode empathy. My father died a year before my diagnosis and I feel mourning played a large role in my chemo symptoms. Thank you again for your straightforwardness.

by Darlene on October 09, 2018

Yay looking forward to your ten years xoxo great story Ann keep up the fight #cancersucks darlene

by megan on October 08, 2018

ann – i love you and am so proud to call you my beautiful friend. well written and I hope you know cancer is a part of your story but you are that and more. so so much more. you make life sparkly. xoxox

by Jody on October 08, 2018

Wow Ann. So much here and all done with the grace and spirit that epitomizes you in anything you do. You touch and inspire so many. Thank you for being a light in the darkness for others…we never know who/when or where but community is everything! Cheers to you and MANY, MANY, MANY more. xoxo

by Jennifer ferguson on October 08, 2018

Thanks Ann for generously sharing your BADASS story (and I greatly appreciate the honesty that brings me to tears because it is so REAL)!

I constantly forget that you are a “breast cancer survivor” as I predominantly think of you as “the life of the party” in Palm Springs for spring break and/or Coechella 🎶 💃 🏖 .

Thank you for rocking Handful & always being an inspiration to GRAB LIFE! I love you #CancerCrusher 💪🏽💕😘

by Karen Meier on October 08, 2018

Put me on the list of women you inspired, comforted and cheered on! I always looked at you during Young Survivors meetings and thought, “That’s how I want to be when I make through this; optimistic, caring, honest, open and beautiful!!” Thank you Ann!

by Cathleen McBride on October 08, 2018

Ann you are so brave and inspirational. Glad I know you.

by Ann Whalen on October 08, 2018

Thanks handful for providing a forum to share all these Survivor Stories. While so many share commonalities they are each unique! Typed this while wearing my Handul tights and Battlecry Pink!

by NAncyDeOrsay. Ann's s Auntie on October 08, 2018

Ann also guided me along when I was diagnosed with my breast cancer. Although my treatments were not as harsh on body,but she was easy to talk to and gave me advice on thins to try to ease any discomfort I had. Cancer does a job on how you feel but I found if I used humor daily I would be okay. I not only lost my hair and finger nails ( which caused discomfort but I aiso the sores in my mouth, nothing tasted right.So all you newly diagnosed, fight this dreaded disease eveyday and you will beat it. I have learned to live with the neuropathy, enjoy waking in the morning and the little things in life. My family was wonderful although over whelmed at times.Thank you Ann, I love you so much that words are hard to express! ❤️😘⭕️❌⭕️❌👏🙏🏼 , Auntie

by Jen on October 08, 2018

I love this story Ann! You are one BadASS survivor! So proud to be taking this journey around the sun with you! I love you! ❤️

by Cary on October 08, 2018

You have inspired me more than you will ever know with your grab life spirit! From Coachella to getting busted for being the bad kids on survivor girlfriend weekends, we have unapologetically lived life to the fullest. Let’s keep making memories until we draw our last breaths…no matter when our numbers get called. I love you forever my beautiful friend❤


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