Tomorrow, October 3rd, 2018, marks 11 years since the day I heard, “you have breast cancer.”
It all started in May 2007 when I was playing softball. I was covering second base when I took a line drive ball that hit me hard in the right breast, completely knocking me over. I developed a big bruise that grew into a hematoma. I was in and out of doctors’ offices over the next several months with no thought of cancer. I was 37 years old with no history of any cancer in my family and was proud to be in the best shape of my life.
Then, on October 3, 2007, I got the dreaded call, “Sorry Miss Knowles, we’ve misdiagnosed you…you actually have invasive ductal carcinoma.” You never forget where you are when you get the call. I am a hair stylist, and I had color on a client and the Red Sox were in the World Series. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if I popped over to the sports bar next door to see the first pitch. I caught it on the screen and then my phone rang. I walked outside to take the call and my joy at seeing my beloved Red Sox turned to devastation for myself. I am a longtime super fan, and I will say the Red Sox won the World Series that year, and I’ll always believe it was partially for me!
And so my journey began… a roller coaster ride would not even being to describe the emotions as every time I saw another doctor, I was told a different thing. They even backtracked at one point and told me my pathology report was wrong and that there was no way I even had cancer! Second and third opinions, biopsies, and ultrasounds followed until we all finally came to the conclusion that not only was it definitely cancer but that it had by then spread to my lymph nodes and was stage IIIA. I needed to start chemotherapy immediately. I didn’t want to start chemotherapy until I had the opportunity to freeze my eggs so I could one day be a mother. Having that option taken away from me because of all the delays in getting my diagnosis was the hardest and for sure the most heartbreaking part of my cancer journey.
If the disheartening news that I would not be able to have children of my own wasn’t bad enough, at one point I was also told that I had about 12 months to live, and I needed to finalize my affairs because the cancer had spread to my back, liver, and lymph system. Needless to say, I’m still here and the Red Sox won the World Series again in 2013, so I’m holding out for more years and more wins!
I think the best advice I can give another woman going through this is don’t settle for one answer from one doctor and trust your heart, your head, and your own body. Keep asking for second and third opinions! If your oncologist or anyone else on your care team doesn’t like that, then it’s time to find new team members! You need to surround yourself with people who will cheer for you and go to bat for you. It takes a whole team of people to get through cancer.
I completed eight rounds of chemotherapy, and once I had recovered from that, I had a lumpectomy to get the tumor that the softball had hit removed. Unfortunately, the surgeon didn’t get clean margins, so I had to go back into the operating room and have my entire breast removed with a mastectomy. I developed complications from that surgery and experienced internal bleeding, leading to a third surgery in seven days. It was not a good time. After recovering from the surgeries, I had seven weeks of radiation in five fields: two spots where my breast used to be, under my arm, on my shoulder, and back.
As a self-employed hairstylist, I think my therapy was talking to clients on a daily basis. I would get up and write a journal entry and then let them read it. That was a very therapeutic way for me to share what I was going through, and the support I got from my clients was nothing short of amazing!
I am so fortunate that my mother quit her job and moved in with me to help cook and clean, and my father financially helped me with bills, so I could concentrate on my health and continue to work! Blessed is a word that comes to mind often.
I definitely would tell people to stay off the Internet, turn your phone off at night, and allow your body to heal. I have to repeat how important it is to make sure you see two doctors before you make a decision on your course of treatment. Even when I was told the worst news imaginable, something in my gut told me that I could beat this. Learn to trust your gut, know your body, and never, ever give up!!
I would say the most important lesson that came out of my cancer was learning how strong I truly am! I didn’t know that I have an incredibly high ability to tolerate pain and that I can handle seeing an endless stream of needles and blood. I learned that there truly are some amazing, caring people in this world. I was overwhelmed with love and support from family and friends, and hugs and smiles from total strangers at grocery stores while I was bald was an unexpected bonus. I learned that a nice gesture, a big hug, and a warm smile can go a long way.
I have one regret from my journey. I do wish that I would have had more options on how to deal with the loss of my breast the night of my emergency surgery. My prognosis was extremely grim as my cancer had turned into stage IV, but in retrospect if I was not eligible for reconstruction, I would have like to have a double mastectomy, so I didn’t have to walk around with one breast.
I will say that Handful bras changed my life. I was headed to Vegas with a group of friends, and I needed a swimsuit top to wear in the hotel pool. I was devastated by the lack of options as I tried desperately to find one that didn’t make me look like a grandma. My girlfriend, Kristin, owns a local fitness facility, Diva Den Studio, and she said, “Why don’t you try on a Handful bra? You can swim in them.” Well right then and there, my life was changed! I have a silicone prosthetic that I wear on my right side and Handful helps hold it in, so I can swim, run, and just casually be comfortable with having to wear my prosthetic in order to balance my existing breast! Yay! Since the first time I tried it on, I have never worn anything other than a Handful bra to swim in!
I am so proud to wear my Battle Cry Pink Handful bra. It is always a reminder of my fellow survivors -- a sisterhood that no one wants to join, but for sure if you have to, it is a beautiful, strong, loyal, and loving one!