I opened the package to my Battle Cry Pink Handful bra, and I paused for a moment. I was taken back to August 2016 when I was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Taken back to all the thoughts swirling through my head in those uncertain days: Would l survive? What did survival look like? If I survive, will I ever wear a bra? If I survive, will I still be me?
It started on an ordinary Saturday morning. Six days after completing an Olympic distance triathlon, I was standing in my kitchen eating lunch. Running my hand under my necklace, I felt a bead under my skin – top of my left breast. At that moment, I knew that I had cancer. My mom had survived breast cancer, my grandmother had battled breast cancer, so I always knew that I would eventually come face to face with breast cancer. Standing in my kitchen that summer day in 2016, I knew that day had come.
After the grueling diagnostic and staging phase, I was told that I had stage 3b breast cancer. I was also informed that I likely had cancer growing in my inner mammary nodes that could not be surgically removed. I was to start chemotherapy two days later, and they would measure what we all hoped would be the “retreat” of my cancer. I was to have eight rounds of chemotherapy, and then I was scheduled for a double mastectomy, followed by thirty radiation sessions. The final phase of the treatment plan would be five to ten years of endocrine therapy.
My “counter attack” on the cancer started August 18, 2016, with my first round of chemotherapy. The “war” was on.
I am an athlete. I could not imagine a world where I would be too tired or too weak to exercise. For me, exercise was not only physical – it had become my self care, my “escape” from my job, my way to “balance out” all I gave to my two boys (age 11 and 8 at the time) and husband. Fitness was the time I set aside for “me.” Would my body be able to move still?
I found the answer before even fully realizing I had the question. And what I found was humbling. I was not the “fastest" anymore. I could not do the “most.” I sometimes could not even complete what I set out to do. But what shifted was the energy I put into the universe, and what surprised me was what I was met with: support, more genuine friendships, compassion, and love. More than I asked for, I found.
On March 27, 2017, I had my final radiation session. I was declared “cancer-free.” I have since had two reconstructive surgeries. And every 12 weeks I have blood work to monitor that there is no recurrence. By all accounts the treatment was a success, and I remain “cancer-free.” I know in my heart that the medical interventions played a large part in my healing – but medicine is not solely responsible. I believe it is the energy and love from all those in my life and the life of my family that healed me. It is the ability I had to keep myself active during treatment (to hold onto that part of myself) that helped me recover.
And now I would like you to meet Amanda and Stephanie: I have “known” Amanda since before I was born. Her grandmother and my grandmother were friends. Our moms were friends, and now our kids are friends. She is a chosen sister to me and to my biological sister, Stephanie. Amanda, Stephanie and I grew up together and supported each other through many difficult times – always finding a path of laughter and light.
I will never forget the day last fall when Amanda called me to tell me that she now had breast cancer. How? There is no way, I thought. She was just in Seattle for one of my chemotherapy rounds. We just took a trip with Stephanie to Napa to celebrate my being declared cancer free.
The moment from diagnosis to the start of treatment (that free fall into uncertainty) is an experience I had hoped to never re-live. But because I had been through it, I could lend Amanda support in a profoundly different way.
She underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction and had a large amount of lymph nodes removed. She had a difficult recovery, ending up in the hospital with an infection. I was grateful that I was able to come see her in Portland following her surgery. I had the pleasure of taking care of her and her kids – as she had taken care of me just a year before. Throughout all her treatment, obstacles and pain, her sense of humor still shined through. She reminded me that her body was “fighting” but her joyful spirit was still there.
After radiation and the start of her endocrine therapy, we decided to take another Napa vacation. This time we celebrated both she and I being “cancer-free.”
Stephanie was the third member of our traveling celebration both times we went to Napa. Stephanie had mentioned that she was watching some “suspicious spots in her left breast,” but I did not worry. Then in Napa that weekend, she let us know she was considering “taking control” as a “previvor” and having a double mastectomy, “before I get cancer,” she told us.
Amanda and I supported Stephanie though this profoundly difficult decision. Was she really going to undergo pain, surgery, and voluntarily and permanently alter her body? She decided to make the brave choice and move forward with surgery. She had her surgery with immediate reconstruction in June. I again found myself with the honor of supporting her post-surgery, as she had done for me just 18 months (almost to the day) before. Upon biopsy she learned that she already had abnormal cell growth and that she had a very high probability of developing breast cancer. She trusted her intuition, and she was proven right – had she beat the “cancer train” that was coming for her?
Did Stephanie, Amanda, and I grow up together so that we could, one day, all support each other through stages of pre-cancer, cancer, bodies forever altered, and acceptance? Did we know deep down how much we would share? Did we realize that, because of our shared life experience, we could provide deeper support to each other?
We are each in different places on our recovery road but share the energy that comes from having endured, overcome, and accepted this challenge – a challenge that none of us chose to take on. We have tightened an already deep sisterly connection, and every day we support and help one another heal through mutual understanding, compassion, laughter, and love.
Fast forward to today. I don’t really think of myself as a survivor because that implies that there was somewhere to arrive to. But as I opened my Battle Cry Pink Handful bra, I realized that I am a warrior every day, as is Amanda, as is Stephanie, and as are so many of the women in my life who live true to their hearts.
As a warrior, I arm myself with these shields: friendship, hope, energy, love, and a sports bra (today it will be bright pink!), and I live my life full of gratitude.