October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My mother is a survivor. One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Treatment options and research have made great strides in the past decade, and the support for this particular version of cancer is getting stronger everyday.
We talked to our friend Lynh—a breast cancer + double mastectomy survivor—to better understand her story, and the stories of the women (and men) that have battled breast cancer.
Tell me about your journey with breast cancer
It happened at the strangest time: during the pandemic. In 2019, I had an annual mammogram like I have for the nine years since I turned 40. Almost every year, the doctor told me that I had dense tissue, but that it looked normal.This particular appointment the doctor told me the same, but this time the radiologist wanted me to get another mammogram 3 months after, just to be sure.
I got the second mammogram in July 2019, and still they said, “Well, we still don’t see anything, but we should keep monitoring it, let’s bring you back in September!”
After I got the bill for the 2nd mammogram, I didn’t really feel like getting a third mammogram and paying another $500. Insurance only covers once a year, and unfortunately I think $500 deters a lot of women from following up.
I finally kept getting reminder notifications and finally decided to make an appointment in 2020 when my insurance would cover it. I got busy, put off the scheduling, and finally scheduled the appointment in March but couldn’t get into the office until May. Then the pandemic lockdown happened.
I still went in for the mammogram and a few days later, the radiologist called me in to request a biopsy (removing tissue to run tests). Again, I thought this was still business as usual. I remembered that my mom had a biopsy and it was clear of any tumours/cancer evidence. They proceeded to take 13 samples, which did alarm me somewhat.
The day after Mother’s Day, alone in my car downtown, the radiologist called me. He told me to pull over so he could share some news. He told me that they detected cancer in my right breast. I was devastated, scared, and shocked. How could I have breast cancer? My mind began to formulate a list:
- I have no cancer in my family history, it was confirmed after I did a genetic test for the “breast cancer” gene.
- I have always have been healthy ( I don’t even get colds or the flu!)
- I thought I was too young to get breast cancer; it’s not as common, but does happen.
- Cancer happens to other people, not me!
Immediately I had a team in place; oncologist, breast surgeon, navigating nurse, radiation doctor, reconstruction doctor.
My surgeon mapped out a plan, with three options; I decided to choose a treatment plan that included chemotherapy, which was going to be much harder, but would give me a chance to save my left breast and possibly to spare more parts like my nipple. The treatments are intense and so they feel like they last a lifetime.
The cancer had spread to thirteen lymph nodes . I had a mastectomy to remove my right breast and the lymph nodes in my armpit. If I would have waited a few more months, it might have travelled to my other organs. The surgery was on election day 2020. It was a strange experience because Covid cases were spiking at the hospital and I wasn’t allowed to stay overnight. It was the last surgery my doctor was able to do until January 2021.
The next phase of my treatment was radiation. I’ve had complications with getting radiation pneumonitis for 3 months, but now I’m finally getting my final treatment--the fun stuff, getting reconstruction! I’ve had a tissue expander inside my bust for over 11 months, and I’m so looking forward to swapping out the heavy, hard expander on October 18.
Throughout my treatment, my family, friends, my business partner and employees have made sure to give me space, but I’ve kept shockingly busy with work during the entire treatment. I never skipped a beat. But I couldn’t have remembered the myriad of medicine, doctor visits, without the support I had. I feel so lucky and humbled by the love from everyone. I have shared a few moments of my journey on social media so that my friends and family can keep up to date, and have been open to any questions friends, strangers might have about breast cancer .
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, as I'm sure you are aware. What does this month, or that commemoration mean to you?
Well, I didn’t plan it this way, but my reconstruction surgery is scheduled for this month, so I’ll be celebrating by having my last (hopefully) surgery! It signifies one year since I finished chemotherapy, and went into surgery.
Are there any ways that you are involved with Breast Cancer awareness? and/or any that you can recommend to our readers?
In the past, I’ve walked for breast cancer research, or donated during this month. My company that I freelanced for a few years ago had a huge pink handbag sale. We changed some of our bags to pink and donated over $25,000 to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
I was so lucky to have Huntington Cancer Hospital and radiation center. I’d like to give a shout out as well as my medical team at UCLA Hemotology Center and USC Keck Medicine. They saved my life by being persistent and reminding me to check up on that pesky mammogram doubt. They were such a caring team, I never felt alone. My current donations have been concentrated on this hospital.
My friends have donated in my honor with walks, runs, straight donations including for St Jude Hospital, City of Hope Hospital, and UCLA Cancer centers.
What was the toughest part of your cancer journey/treatment?
Chemo was also the hardest on my body. Chemo starts with steroids, which pump up your white blood cells and get them ready for chemo as chemo because the drugs kill cancer cells of course, but they also kill white blood cells.
I received an infusion of drugs via an injection. It wasn’t so bad in the first and second rounds of chemo. I felt symptoms after two days: all I could do was lay in bed. I couldn’t eat anything because my appetite was gone, and everything tasted like metal. That was pretty hard, but edibles helped me get my appetite back.
My fingers and toes would become numb with neuropathy, and eventually chemically induced menopause occurred, which brought a whole set of problems!
I knew that losting my hair was going to be emotional, but I knew that it was only temporary. I actually didn’t mind being bald, and thought I had a good looking head for it! But when my eyebrows disappeared, that was tough.
The side effects of chemo were just rough, but I had my loving caring husband by my side.
My oldest son was about to graduate from High School and start college during the hardest part of his life. I was more upset that the lockdown and cancer made what should have been good memories of school for him really tough. But he was there with me; I was able to watch a livestream video of his graduation ceremony.
My youngest, we sent away to my family during the hardest days of chemo so that he wouldn’t see me in pain. He left for three months to be with my husband’s family for the summer and when he came back in August was frightened to see my transformation. That was tough.
Were there any rewarding or surprisingly positive aspects of your experience? I'm thinking of my mother who had breast cancer, a double mastectomy, and wrote a book of poetry out of the experience. In other words, were there points of growth?
That’s wonderful. I’m so glad your mother is a survivor.
I was filled with dread and fear, but learned to take it day-by-day. The mental struggles of considering dying and not seeing my boys grow up was heart-breaking. I made monumental shifts in my mental health. I learned to meditate more, breathing techniques and my continued yoga yelp to center myself. I’ve learned to not overextend myself, to be more present. It’s still a journey to make it an everyday routine, but has immensely helped me reach some calmness and perspective.
I learned to say “no” more often. My cancer support group that was offered by the cancer hospital was a godsend. No one truly knows what you’re going through with breast cancer until you meet others that are going through or have gone through it. They gave me support and was an example that I’ll make it through.
Was there a phrase, or mantra that you held close during your journey?
“You are enough”
I’ve also been researching more natural supplements that could possibly help stave off cancer. I’ll be on medicine for fifteen years to block estrogen, but I have discovered through cancer networks some additional natural boosters such as turkey tail mushroom, turmeric, ginger can help. I’ve been drinking more green juices, and adding dark chocolate into my smoothies. I’m trying to learn more on the nutrient part of fighting cancer.
Do you have a favorite Jenni Earle bandana? If so, which one? Why?
Jenni gifted me three when I lost my hair, and I wore them often to protect my head from the sun.
I treasure them and the love she put into them. ‘Be brave’ and ‘trust yourself’ are my favorites. Those words came at a time when I was so vulnerable. I wear them proudly, I love her motivations printed in the design!
Thank you, Lynh, for sharing your story and your strength.