By Joanna Sather, as told to Michele Jordan
The holidays have double meaning for me. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on St. Patrick’s Day, had a mastectomy on Cinco de Mayo, and I finished my radiation just before Christmas.
Both of my grandmothers had breast cancer, but I thought I would get it later in life. Just after I turned 41, I found a lump in my armpit. I thought I was fighting a cold. I was scheduled for my first ever mammogram and it was cancer. This is why I tell people: “Check your pits!” Some people don’t know how to check them, but it’s so important. After many tests, CTs scans, and MRIs, they diagnosed me with invasive ductal carcinoma, or IDC, and HER2-negative breast cancer.
Treatment: No Regrets
My treatment was quite involved. I started chemo AC, for doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) in the spring. I had treatments every 4 weeks for about 16 weeks. I was then on paclitaxel (Taxol) for a few weeks. After chemo, I had a short break before starting radiation. I went Monday through Friday for about 6 weeks. I never missed a chemo or radiation appointment.
After chemo and radiation I moved on to several surgeries. I had breast reconstructive surgery. Because I had radiation, I wasn’t a candidate for breast implants. There’s a high risk of complications and infection. The recovery is a lot, but it was helpful for me to feel like myself again. I don’t have any regrets.
Shortly after I was diagnosed, they found out I had the BRCA2 gene mutation This meant I would have to have my ovaries removed because the gene puts me at risk of other forms cancer, like ovarian cancer.
I got my ovaries removed last and then started aromatase inhibitors (or AIs). My cancer is estrogen fed, so I will have to be on AIs for 10 years. This medicine helps suppress my estrogen. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. The side effects are tough. It throws you into menopause, so you have hot flashes, night sweats, and joint pain. I also ended up with neuropathy in my feet, so I do some pain therapy for that.
I see my oncologist every 3 months now. I’ve done some virtual and some in-person visits. I prefer the in-person. I also see a naturopath that works with cancer patients. I do acupuncture to help with my side effects from AIs. I’m also on an antidepressant for anxiety.
Morning Routines and Support
I had to have my coffee and was so glad that I could keep drinking it during treatment. I would add collagen peptides to my coffee. I think it helped my tummy and to keep my fingernails strong. I would take my two kids to school or my mom would if I wasn’t feeling well.
My parents bought a trailer and moved in with us during my recovery. I’d always try to do some gentle yoga or a walk. I’d try to have a healthy lunch, or sometimes my mom and I would go out for a fancy meal.
Afternoons and Exercise
I got into fitness several years before my diagnosis. I was teaching fitness classes and working out regularly. I was in the best shape of my life. I think it truly helped with my healing. I worked out regularly when I was in treatment. I even taught classes and remember the sweat running down my face because I had no eyebrows.
I recently opened a gym with a good friend. I probably would not have started a business if it weren’t for cancer. It made me willing to try things without fear.
My afternoons were and are spent nesting, reading, and teaching exercise classes. While my gym has been closed, we’ve taught virtual classes. I’ll check social media or help my kids with some of their schoolwork. I’m back to cooking and working out.
Naps and Nutrition
I’m married with two kids, so life gets busy. I take naps or meditate daily when I can. During radiation I was so tired. I learned to really listen to my body and lie down when I needed to. Everything happened before noon when I was going through chemo and radiation. Around 2 p.m., I would get tired and need a nap. My mom would help with the kids and their schoolwork.
Then someone would bring dinner. I relied a lot on the meal train. I remember wanting to cook for my family, but I was so tired I had to sit on a stool. Most nights I would fall asleep on my husband’s chest while watching a movie. I was so tired I even fell asleep at Thanksgiving dinner once. My husband had to keep me from falling into the mashed potatoes! I did learn a lot about self-care during those days and I try to keep that same balance today.
When I was going through chemo, I ate a lot of soups. I couldn’t eat a lot of my favorite spicy foods, so I opted for foods that wouldn’t hurt the inside of my mouth. I tried to eat as healthfully as possible. I would enjoy ice cream from time to time but would try to get the dairy-free and low-sugar options that my tummy could handle. I love salted caramel. I still have to have coffee.
Taking Care of My Mental Health
When you’re going through cancer, the focus is on the physical, but you have to make sure your mental health is taken care of, too. I wasn’t prepared for how hard things would be as the treatments slowed down. It’s like everything starts to hit you. You have to be prepared to enter the world as a new person.
Having a good support system is so important. My family is wonderful. Social media has been helpful for me. I have friends all over the world -- Sudan, Amsterdam, New Zealand. I’ve made great friends. We call each other our “breasties.”
When you’re dealing with breast cancer, there’s an expectation to be grateful every day, but some days you’re just not. It’s OK to not be OK. Warriors have bad days too. Some days I don’t feel like a warrior. Other days, I know I’m strong.