On October 25, 2016, I had the honor of being a speaker at Adelphi University’s NY Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline & Support Program, at its annual Celebration of Survorship.
The following is a slightly edited version of my presentation, which was about my messages of the POWER of fitness, the significance of LISTENING to your body and FOLLOWING your intuition, and the need, as a woman, to take care of YOURSELF. You can listen to my entire speech here (it starts at approximately the 40th minute).
Thank you for inviting me to tell my story. First, just a bit of background. For a long time, I’ve had this eerie premonition that one day I would face a breast cancer diagnosis. And that was despite having no family history, exercising regularly, and eating right.
According to everything I heard, knew and read, I was at a low risk for breast cancer. But, as I learned, I am one of the 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer who are in this so-called “low-risk” category.
Perhaps, some of my nervousness about a potential breast cancer diagnosis can be attributable to my experiences in the early part of my career. In my 20s and 30s, I worked as a medical malpractice lawyer, and there I got a glimpse of how prevalent breast cancer is, especially on Long Island (where I live).
When I had my first child in 1987, I took a break from practicing law, and during this time I started to develop a passion for fitness, exercise and nutrition. After a few years as a stay-at-home mom, I went back to work, but I no longer found my legal practice to be rewarding.
For a while, I worked part-time in two fields – in the legal field and in the health and fitness industry. I got certified as a group-fitness instructor, a personal trainer and a health coach. Eventually, I decided to work full time as a personal trainer and health coach, as I found that to be more fulfilling.
Fast forward a number of years to April 2012, when I was going for my regular mammogram and sonogram - as I had every year from the age of 40 on. That year, as I had sometimes done in the past, for some reason I asked my husband to accompany me to the screening – “just in case”.
During my sonogram, I saw that the technician appeared to be concerned about something in a particular area in my right breast that would need to be biopsied. The biopsy was done the same day, and while I had to wait for the results, I can honestly say that I already knew what the results would be.
And, sure enough, four days later, I received the diagnosis that every woman dreads - "you have breast cancer."
When I got the initial diagnosis, my doctor told me that I had gotten a "good" kind of breast cancer, if that's a possible thing. The tumor was on the small side, and its characteristics were on the better side of the ledger, . . . with known pathways for treating and defeating cancer!
That being said - one of the things that I had learned from working in the medical malpractice field was always to get a second and maybe even a third opinion before making any important medical decisions. I did that, and also had an MRI.
All of the doctors suggested that I was a good candidate for a lumpectomy, which would then be followed by radiation. However, way back in the days when I felt that I would someday get this diagnosis, I had formulated the belief that if I ever got diagnosed with breast cancer I would opt to have a bilateral mastectomy, even though that would mean a more extensive surgery and a longer recovery.
All of my instincts told me that this was the right decision for ME, regardless of other options that might be available. So, in keeping with my longstanding and firm conviction, I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. More on this later . . .
While there is never a good time to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis, in my case the timing seemed particularly bad. My older son was due to graduate from college in Houston, Texas, . . . less than a month later!
Waiting until after his graduation was not an option for me, so I became determined to have my surgery in time to be able to fly to Texas to attend the graduation in Houston. I REALLY wanted to be there. The doctors were skeptical about whether I would be well enough to fly, but they didn't completely close the door.
We set off on a frantic search for how to proceed. I had a lot of family support that was extremely helpful in aggressively contacting and scheduling multiple consultations and, ultimately getting a date for surgery very quickly. The plan was that I would have my surgery in a week or so, and then hopefully be able to fly to Houston. Exhausting.
Surgery was scheduled and, although in some ways it went as planned, during the operation the doctors determined that cancer had been found in a lymph node. Now, I was facing the possibility of a more difficult post-surgical course, and the possibility of chemotherapy.
Then, during a post-op visit with my surgeon, I received some startling news. I was told that the pathology tests performed on the “other” breast – the one where cancer had not been diagnosed during all the pre-op testing – even including an MRI – revealed that, after all, I had cancer on both sides!
In addition, the cancer on my left side was of a different type. Ultimately, the oncotyping showed that the left-side cancer was more aggressive, and, further, was something known as “HER 2 positive” – a term that was then unfamiliar to me. It had not been detected with the mammogram, not with the sonogram, and not even with the MRI.
In my particular case, it had turned out to be very fortunate indeed that I had opted for a bilateral mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy. I’m so glad I listened to my intuition - . . . I would've still had cancer!
But I was determined not to let cancer win. I healed quickly, and, sure enough, just 17 days after my life-changing surgery, I flew to Houston to attend my son’s graduation. As it turned out, despite everything I had been through, it truly was a wonderful day.
When I got back, I knew that I would have to begin a regimen of chemotherapy. After several consultations, I finally found an oncologist in Manhattan who I really trusted, and the chemo part of my Journey began.
My treatment included three months of chemo – and, of course, losing my hair – and a year of Herceptin, the miracle drug that was a game-changer for those with HER 2-positivity. When my husband couldn't be there during treatment, my son, who was now home from college, sat with me, and we talked for hours and hours over the weeks and months. Because of those talks, if it's even possible, I actually remember those times fondly.
Throughout my chemo treatment and the remaining reconstructive surgeries, I continued to exercise regularly and pay careful attention to my nutrition to stay in shape. The literature says that taking care of yourself reduces the risk of getting cancer. What it DOESN’T always say is that exercise and good nutrition are important tools to help get through treatment better. Fortunately, the medical community is now becoming more attuned to the power of exercise and nutrition during recovery.
So, while exercise and being fit did not prevent me from getting breast cancer, it DID make me better able to get through my surgery and clearly helped me through my recovery. All of my doctors also told me that my fitness level improved my prognosis going forward, and that it makes me an unlikely candidate for various challenging side effects.
Ultimately, my winding path does begin to straighten out. During my recovery, I was determined to stay in shape, despite the toll that my surgery and chemo had taken on my body. I focused on being positive and thankful for my wonderful doctors and treatment, and for the love and support of my family and friends.
During this time, I further educated myself during this period, and became a certified Cancer Exercise Specialist. Although I knew how to train my PRE-cancer body, there were now many changes in my physiology that made exercising and getting back into shape very challenging. I knew if I felt this way that many other women did too, and I committed myself to helping them.
While I was aware that there are many excellent fitness professionals out there, I also knew that, unless someone had experienced breast cancer, that person may have trouble truly understanding the best way to help. Over the years, clients have often reinforced this, telling me that traditional fitness sessions often did not meet their needs – their trainers and instructors just didn’t understand their own particular limitations and concerns.
So, since my recovery, I decided that I would dedicate myself to "paying it forward". I immediately participated in a variety of fundraisers relating to breast cancer, and continue to do so to this day. I also started working privately to help other survivors with restorative exercise, and began teaching classes at a cancer-wellness program offered by one of Long Island's major community centers.
I have also learned some valuable lessons along the way. Perhaps the most important are to be grateful, and, whenever possible, not to sweat the small stuff.
What really motivates me today is the thought of helping restore women's lives to the lives they previously had, and, if possible, make them even better. One of the women I am training, recently sent me a thank-you card that said, simply, "Thank you - your exercises have given me back my quality of life." That heartfelt sentiment, and others like it, have meant so much to me.
And now some final closing messages.
Going all the way back to my early premonition that I might someday have breast cancer . . . - As a fitness professional, I’ve always advised people to “LISTEN to your body." And, even moreso as a woman, "Follow your intuition." EDUCATE yourself, and be persistent and thorough in pursuing the best medical treatment that feels right for YOU.
And, finally - as women we are often the caretakers of our families. It was difficult for me to let go of this role and to take care of MYSELF first. Today, I try to encourage women to take care of themselves – to put themselves first – at least during recovery – so that they can return to their lives restored and, as virtually all of the courageous cancer survivors I have had the pleasure to know, maybe even STRONGER.
Welcome to all of the beautiful women fighting (and beating) breast cancer! Journey to Wellness LLC is the culmination of my imaginings during the past 18 months following my own diagnosis. This website is created so that we can share experiences, insights and information regarding fitness, nutrition and ways to continue to feel and look well throughout our journeys with breast cancer.