Following a cancer diagnosis, it’s a common practice to have follow-up and checkup appointments every so many months to allow doctors to keep a close eye on you. For me, it was every six months. And as those checkups would draw near, I would be filled with so much stress and anxiety. Is it back? Am I ok? What will the doctor say? So many questions would fill my thoughts as I would walk into those appointments.
In January 2019, I started to feel a weird ache under my right arm. I called my doctor, Dr. Cuntz, and she stopped by my store to check it out. Initially, she didn’t think it was anything; however, she suggested we go ahead with a 3D mammogram to be sure and to see exactly what was going on. Again, I was so fearful going to the appointment, but thought I’d be fine. I went alone, as I usually did, and convinced myself it was nothing.
I had the mammogram and then was called back for an ultra sound – on my left breast, the location of my original diagnosis. This increased my worry as I knew we could be dealing with a possible recurrence. Another friend, Dr. Claire Roberts, a radiologist at Woman’s, decided that a biopsy would be best after reviewing my ultrasound. “A biopsy?!” I thought to myself, instantly being overcome with fear and thoughts of “not again!”
Following a call to Dr. Cuntz, things moved quickly. We decided there was no need to waste time. Prior to the biopsy, my husband came meet me and we went into the procedure hopeful for good news. Everything seems to stop when you get news like this, but trying to be positive, we went home and attempted to pick back up with everyday life. A day or two later, Dr. Cuntz confirmed that DCIS stage 0 was found again in my left breast. She suggested a mastectomy on that breast; however, I knew at that point that if I was going to take one, I would just take both. It may be an extreme decision to some, but for me I didn’t want to do one and then later worry if it would come back in the other breast.
It took me a little while to come to terms with my second diagnosis. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but be in a fog type state, questioning everything. It took me a while to get over the shock of it all, but told myself that I’ve always dealt with this head on and this time shouldn’t be any different. Through my original diagnosis, I’ve always been very open when people would contact me or ask me about my cancer. I feel like knowledge and awareness is key, so if one person gets tested because they heard my story or saw a post, then I feel that I’ve helped the cause.
As fate would have it, I ran into Dr. Ann Lafranca, my gynocologist, at a local retail store in BR, right after I found out about my second occurrence. She is one of the most comforting souls I know and I am very blessed to have her on my team. Of course, she was hugging me and I had tears in my eyes telling her about the situation. We talked about my options and deciding to go ahead with a double mastectomy. She was so assuring and confident in my plan. She said she was going to pray for me, her faith is a so strong and so appreciated in times like these. Again, I left our chance encounter feeling more confident and thinking “I can do this!”
Another friend, Kami Powell, who works for Dr. Taylor Theunissen, was helpful in getting me scheduled with him to discuss my reconstruction plan. There are a lot of options, but I decided if I am doing this, surely there has to be a silver lining somewhere! My silver lining came in the form of option to do the DIEP Flap procedure. The procedure works by using tummy or back fat to create and reconstruct the breasts. I looked at it as a positive and almost a 2 for 1 deal. See, I had had two c-sections with my pregnancies and had gained some weight following my first diagnosis, so I had always considered a tummy tuck somewhere down the line, and this would be a solution to two problems. I am fortunate to have Dr. Theunissen on my team, too! He and his staff are amazing and he is so full of energy… a great combination when going through a tough situation like this and making plans for surgery.
Our family goes snow skiing every Mardi Gras and I didn’t want to miss that. I wanted my children to enjoy our family trip before having to go through months of treatment and recovery with me. This time around, we decided to tell our children, as they were older and we knew my recovery was going to be more intense. They are both so strong and were so supportive. I pray that these trials will only help them to be stronger and find inspiration for strength when life gets tough in the future.
Scheduling these types of surgeries isn’t easy when you have two busy physicians that need to be both available for a few hours. Both Dr. Cuntz and Dr. Theinussen were very helpful and accommodating in working to get the date set after our ski trip. We determined that March 13th would be my surgery date. Leading up to the procedure, I would often look in the mirror and wonder, “Am I going to miss these girls?” I think after a diagnosis of breast cancer, when you are faced with making a decision like this, things change. For me and so many, I feel like the decision was simple, feeling like it was a necessary step to get this disease out of my body. For others, the decision may be more difficult, like those who may carry the gene but don’t have a diagnosis. At an appointment at Dr. Theinussen’s office, I saw a friend who was facing a double mastectomy too, only she was not diagnosed with cancer, only told she was a carrier of the BRACA gene. We sat there emotional and crying, sharing our stories, and while I was sad for me, my heart broke for her, knowing she was facing an equally challenging situation.
As the day arrived, I was naturally filled with nerves, but as luck would have it, I knew most of the people in the operating room. I’m always so blessed to have wonderful friends that work at Woman’s Hospital! Two moms from my daughter’s soccer team who are nurses, Dr. Theinussen, Dr. Cuntz, my friend Shyla Hebert, nurse anesthetist, Dr. Seth Roussel… it was a room full of friends and familiar faces! I couldn’t have felt more comforted going into a major surgery that would last up to 6 hours.
They say it takes a village, and it indeed does! Find out more about “my village” in Part 3 (coming soon!).