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Behind-the-Scenes of “The Bald and the Beautiful”

A few weeks ago, we came across Katie’s personal breast cancer blog, cleverly entitled”The Bald and The Beautiful” on the Canadian breast cancer blogging platform Facing Cancer Together. Her light-hearted and descriptive writing style takes us along with her on the journey of recovery. Part of the healing process for many survivors is putting it in writing, and reading her blog you know she’s not holding back. We took a few minutes to interview Katie to find out more about her story:

Katy didn’t have a wig stand during treatment, so she sent us a photo of how she kept her wig in place – on a glass vase. Does the trick doesn’t it?

1. How did you find out that you had breast cancer? 

I found a lump in my right breast. It was the size of a golf ball and I could not only feel it, but also see it when I took off my bra. I told my family doctor about it when I went for my yearly physical and she ordered an ultrasound, which showed no reason for concern. A follow-up appointment was booked three months later when another ultrasound was done. At the follow-up appointment, I also had a mammogram and it was the mammogram that showed reason for concern. I had a biopsy 13 days later and 11 days after that I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

2. What was your first thought upon hearing the diagnosis?

My very first thought was one of disbelief. I didn’t think you could get breast cancer at 26 with no family history of it so to be honest, I wasn’t shocked – I just really didn’t believe it. I guess that was followed by numbness; it took a while to set in that I actually had cancer. Actually, I’m not sure if it ever really set in. It still, to this day, feels like I’m lying when I say “I’ve had cancer.” I also felt embarrassed in the very beginning, even though I had no control over what was growing in my body. I felt embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to know in the first couple of weeks.

3. What was treatment like?

Chemo is just a word until you’re the one who’s about to go through it. The night before my first treatment, I was so overwhelmed with the ‘unknowns’ that I was about to face but the nurses made me feel comfortable as soon as I walked into the cancer centre. Everyone reacts differently so I was aware of what MIGHT happen but no one could tell me for sure how I would react.

“I just kept thinking, if I feel this bad, imagine how the cancer must be feeling.”

I had 6 chemo treatments and I reacted differently to each one of them. There were days when I was throwing up and other days when I wasn’t. There were days when I needed to have three or four naps throughout the day and there were days when I was awake from morning to night. I just kept thinking, if I feel this bad, imagine how the cancer must be feeling. Treatment is awful but they know it works and if chemo was what was going to kill any cancer left inside of my body then sign me up.

4. Is breast cancer genetic in your family? If not, how were doctors able to explain why you were diagnosed with it at such a young age? 

Breast cancer is not genetic in my family. My tumour was removed and then tested for three things (the same three things that all breast cancer tissue is tested for); estrogen, progesterone, and Her-2. My tumour ended up being estrogen positive, meaning it was estrogen that was causing my tumour to grow. I am currently on a drug called Tamoxifen which is a form of hormone replacement therapy that I started after chemo ended and I will need to take it for the next five years.

The ‘why’ of my diagnosis wasn’t really focused on, my team of doctors seemed to focus on getting rid of the cancer and focus on the necessary treatment. I’ve spoken to other cancer patients who have said the same thing, it doesn’t seem to matter why you have cancer, it just matters that we get rid of it.

5. What helped you recover during and after treatment?

There are three things that helped me with treatment.

The first thing that I recommend to everyone going through treatment is water. Drink as much water as possible, especially during treatment. You are having poison put through your veins and the best way to cleanse your body is by drinking as much water as possible.

“The first thing that I recommend to everyone going through treatment is water. Drink as much water as possible, especially during treatment.”

The second is sleep. It is amazing how tired you can get from chemo. You need to sleep as much as possible. When you get tired, your body is telling you to sleep and it is your job to listen to it.

The last thing, but certainly the most important, was my family and friends. When you have cancer, everyone around you feels so helpless so when they can do something to help (do your laundry, cook some meals, paint your nails, etc.) it not only helps you out but it lets them help in an otherwise helpless situation.

So to summarize, drink lots of water, stay rested, and surround yourself with family and friends.

6. Were you able to meet other survivors your age and how important is the role of support during treatment?

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought I was alone (you just don’t hear about women in their twenties having breast cancer). But, after 3 months, I started writing a blog for facingcancer.ca and found out about two other women only a couple of years older than me who had been diagnosed with breast cancer too. I have since met a handful of women who have had breast cancer in their twenties and thirties. You never hear about it but unfortunately, breast cancer has become a reality for many young women.

“Chemo can cause your mind to play some pretty mean tricks on you.”

The term ‘support’ carries a variety of meanings. I never went to a support group but had incredible support from my family and friends. To be honest, I think I would still be hiding under the covers with the lights turned off if it wasn’t for my support system. Chemo can cause your mind to play some pretty mean tricks on you; the psychological part of treatment is overwhelming and I was not prepared for it at all. I was reminded by one family member that it would all be a memory one day soon. I just kept reminding myself of that after every treatment and now it IS just a memory. Support is essential during treatment!

7. Did you wear a wig and why did you choose to do so?

I purchased a wig before my hair fell out. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted to have it just in case there were days when I wanted to have hair but I never once wore it. I went through chemo in the middle of summer and it was just too hot. And, although I really liked the wig, I was confident enough not to wear one, so why suffer with the heat?

I wore my bald head around like a badge of honour. I wanted people to know that just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I am stuck in bed for the duration of treatment. I can go to the grocery store, take public transit, and go out for dinner just like every one else.

8. Would you like to share any experiences with wearing a wig?

I had a bright pink wig that I got within a few weeks of being diagnosed. I love the colour pink and it also happens to the colour of the breast cancer ribbon. Anyway, I wore the wig three time. The first time was at a benefit dance that my friends threw for me. By the end of the night, I had taken it off because it was so hot and so many of my friends tried it on throughout the night. It was nice to watch other people wear it because it seemed to bring everyone together that night. The second time was at a wedding. At that point in my treatment, I really stood out because I was completely bald so because I was going to stand out anyway, I might as well try to look good. I wore the pink wig throughout the ceremony, dinner and only took it off near the end of the dance. Lastly, I wore the wig to my final chemo appointment. Because I had worn it on two other joyous nights, why not wear it to my last chemo treatment too? I’m glad I did because all of my pictures from my last treatment day are of me with hair (even if it was bright pink).

9. How has breast cancer changed your outlook on life? 

“I am still planning for the future however I think I’ve started living for the present which is something that I didn’t necessarily do prior my diagnosis.”

Well, at the cost of sounding too cliché, I think I have realized that life is so precious and that we are only on the earth for a finite number of years. I try to keep in mind that if today was the day I was supposed to die, that I made yesterday worth living. In other words, I am trying to enjoy the day to day small victories and the simple pleasantries in life. I am also trying not to pass up any opportunity that will make me a better person. I am still planning for the future however I think I’ve started living for the present which is something that I didn’t necessarily do prior my diagnosis. I was so worried about the next week, next month, and next year instead of focusing on right now. Cancer has taught me that there may not be a next week so make this week worth living.

10. Do you have any tips or advice for other breast cancer patients your age about to undergo the same thing?

Well, if I could tell a young woman who was just diagnosed anything it would be;

  • You’re not alone, there are other young women with breast cancer who understand what you are going through.
  • Don’t try to control what you can’t control. Cancer and treatment affect our body image, fertility, our hormones, our hair, etc. and instead of trying to control that, try to control your reaction to it. Surround yourself with good people and they will help you cope with the devastation.
  • Allow yourself to have bad days. I don’t think anyone can get through a cancer diagnosis without some tears, and some anger, and some frustration but what I always said was, I have to go through this whether I want to or not so I might as well try to make it easier on myself by putting a smile on my face. I didn’t have very much control over anything once I was diagnosed with cancer so if my attitude is one of the few things I do have control over then I’m going to try to stay positive for as much of this journey as possible
  • You have to learn to excuse other people sometimes because they aren’t aware of what they are saying. If someone says “Oh, it’s just hair, it will grow back” (which I was told many times), they are trying to make you feel better; what I wanted to say was “Oh, so you’re going to cut your hair off with me then?”. Many people have told me about someone close to them who has died from cancer while I was going through treatment as well. Many times people are trying to relate and instead end up offending you.
  • Finally, although it may feel like cancer has become your life right now, remember that you are more than your diagnosis and you are more than cancer. Although your cancer diagnosis stays with you forever, a lot of this will be a memory one day.
* BONUS QUESTION (FOR THE GUYS) *
During the interview, we found out that Katie has a very supportive boyfriend who’s been by her side throughout her journey of overcoming the disease. Oftentimes, breast cancer awareness focuses on the woman but it’s also important to show how men react when their loved ones are growing through this. We asked Katie the following question to help any man reading this gain some insight into how they can help their partner going through a similar experience:
How did your boyfriend react? How important was his role and what did he do to make you feel better?

My boyfriend is a pretty incredible man. From the day of diagnosis, he has been by my side and never once said he didn’t want to do this anymore or threatened to leave me. He was scared for me in the beginning but once we understood what needed to be done, we became a team. Only six days after my diagnosis, I came home and there was a gift bag on the kitchen table. It was a gift from him to me. I opened it and inside was a journal. He wanted me to write everything I couldn’t tell him in this journal and he promised never to read it. He assured me that he was always there for me, but if there was anything I couldn’t tell him, I could now write it down in this journal. I think if it wasn’t for him, I would have given up a long time ago. He was my strength when I was too weak.

All through treatment he was doing anything he could or that I asked him to to make me feel more comfortable. He came home early from work when I was sick, he took me to every doctor’s appointment and came to every one of my treatments. I didn’t have a choice in having cancer so I had to deal with it but he had a choice and he chose to stick by my side and be my strongest support through the hardest time of my life. He loved me with two breasts and now loves me with one. I actually think we are now closer than we were before I was diagnosed.

Click on the image to visit Katie's blog.

We’d like thank Katie for sharing her experience with us. Be sure to check her blog and daily posts on “The Bald and The Beautiful“.

Bumpy Boobs (Part Two)

As a follow-up to one of our previous post, we recently had an interview with Catherine who we met through her blog Bumpy Boobs.

Not only is Catherine the youngest women to share her story with us, but she’s also the first international participant (which makes her story that much more special). It was not easy talking about her experience (it never is), but we’re sure her story will inspire other women going through breast cancer – especially young women who wouldn’t expect to be diagnosed with it.

Read our full interview with Catherine below:

1. How did you find out you had breast cancer?

I found a lump in my breast a week before my first year wedding anniversary. Occasionally I’d do a self-exam, no particular routine – just whenever I thought it, and this time there was a lump. After visiting my GP she referred me to the breast clinic, where they took an ultrasound followed by mammogram and biopsy. I was still clinging to threads of hope before receiving my results. But they kept me waiting in the reception for what seemed to be forever, after which my husband and I were called into a side room. The doctor entered with a nurse, and he started feeling around my chest, asking if my family lived in the area (which they don’t. I live in England and my entire family, except Zsolt, live in Canada).  His fingers were probing my sweaty armpit when he said those few impacting words: Well, it’s cancerous.

I just burst into tears.

Gosh, even rewriting about that day brings up so many emotions. It’s a deep memory of pain and shock. That was a big day, and maybe the hardest. I hope to never have a similar conversation.

2. What was the treatment like?

Because I’m only 28 (27 at the time) they decided on a aggressive treatment plan. My family generally stays away from drugs and harsh therapy, but then the doctors throws stats like ‘90% reoccurrence’ without any treatment, and that’s scary. So I had a mastectomy on my right breast – totally removed, along with the lymph nodes.

After recovering from that, we started chemotherapy – which was 4 bi-weekly sessions of a volatile cocktail, followed by 12 weeks (every week) of a less intense chemo.

Next I’ll have radiotherapy, which starts on Feb. 7th. And I’ve now begun my hormone therapy, which is meant to last for five years (though I may stop early and try to have children). Also, I took five shots of Zolodex during chemotherapy – this shuts down the ovaries and put me into ‘temporary menopause’ . . . however I’ve been off Zolodex for a month and am still in menopause. Hot flashes at twenty eight – now I understand what my mother is going through.

3. Is breast cancer genetic in your family?

There is no history of breast cancer in my family on either side. In fact, there is no history of cancer, period. Nothing. However, I have not yet been genetically tested though may be in the future.

4. Did you wear a wig? Any experiences with wearing a wig you’d like to share?

I never wore a wig. I have a wig, it’s still in the box.

Trying on wigs is bizarre! It’s incredible how much hair changes our looks. My mother and I went to the shop to try on wigs and it was a surreal experience. In the end I decided to go bald, mind you – now that my hair is growing back in patches, I might reconsider the wig idea.

5. What helped you take the decision to not wear a wig?

I was so tired during chemotherapy, the thought of a wig – even a scarf – didn’t appeal. Instead I went bald after shaving my head; it was pretty cool. As my hair grows back (in patches) I am wearing scarves, socks, hats, etc.

6. Were there other women your age that you connected with during treatment?

There was this younger girl across the room who looked to be my age, however I never approached her, which I regret. In general the ladies were significantly older than me, but very friendly nevertheless. The elderly women often looked at me and ‘tsk’ed: “So sad when they’re so young”. But otherwise I fit in – except for my bald head, Canadian accent, and the difference in age.

Actually, I connected with the nurses. Most of the nurses were around my age, and it was great to talk with them (about school, nightlife, marriage, etc). They provided a gentle medicine amongst all the needles and chemotherapy drips. Kindness and compassion go a long way.

7. Now that you’re in recovery, are there any positive things that you drew of the experience?

I’m in a strange phase between treatments and my body is regaining strength. The very best thing about recovery is connected to my mood. Now without all those drugs my depression has lifted, I’m less emotional, and my confidence is returning. There will be good days and bad ones, but since recovery began the good have outnumbered the bad.

A positive thing from this entire journey is how close it brought me to my family and friends. The amount of support was incredible. Aunts, friends, strangers, co-workers, parents – people were there to help, whether it be a prayer, a meal, or a chat.

Also, I have to mention my blog because it’s been a hub of discussion, reassurance and focus during this past year. Writing  is my passion, and it was amazing to share that – share my story – with so many people. Connections were made that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, all because I write every now and then. My grandmother loves it.

8. What would you advise other women your age going through breast cancer treatment?

1) Persevere. Keep fighting, and let others fight with you. It’s overwhelming, it’s infuriating, it’s unfair. Keep fighting. Turn that anger into rocket fuel.

2) Share your story. Your bravery will inspire others, but also – and more practically – this is way too challenging to do alone. The emotional, time and physical pressures can be eased through a good support network. But first, you need to be brave and tell people. They will surprise you.

3) One last thing, despite surgery, chemo, hair loss, etc., you are still beautiful. People don’t see the hair loss, they see you – they are so glad to see you. And you are beautiful, and you will be even more beautiful when this clears. For me, it wasn’t the mastectomy that effected my body image, it was the chemotherapy and hair loss. These things don’t last forever, and when you stop being tired, you’ll see how quickly those good feelings return.

Thank you Catherine for opening up to us and sharing your story! Best wishes for a healthy recovery :-)

++

Keep posted with Catherine as she recovers through her blog Bumpy Boobs.

Rima’s Story (Arabic Version)

لقد بدأت قصتي مع السرطان في السادس من كانون الثاني ٢٠٠٦ عندما كنت في الرابعة والأربعين من عمري. واكتشفته بنفسي، صدفةً، عندما كنت في سريري أتلمّس ثديي الأيمن فشعرت بوجود كتلة في الجهة الخارجية منه، ولم تكن بالكتلة اللينة أبداً، بل على العكس، كانت تتشبّث بثديي كفريسةٍ لها.
أوّل ما قمت به حينئذٍ كان الوثوب من السرير والهرع إلى زوجي الذي كان يشاهد التلفاز لإطلاعه على الأمر، والتوتر بادٍ عليّ.
كنت متأكّدة أنه سرطان وليس كيساً أو شيئاً حميداً.

لماذا؟ لا أعلم. هو مجرّد إحساسٍ كان يراودني قبل أن يتأكّد لي لاحقاً. كنت خائفة جداً وأمضيت ليلة رهيبة حيث مرّت ببالي كل الاحتمالات الممكنة، خصوصاً أنّ قريبتي قد عانت من هذا المرض في سنّ الرابعة والأربعين وأنني رأيتها تتعذّب عندما زارتني في باريس بهدف تلقّي العلاج.
في البداية لم أكن أعلم بوجود مراحل وأنواع مختلفة للمرض. فبالنسبة لي، كنت سأخضع لما عانت منه قريبتي، أي العلاج الكيميائي والإشعاعي وإزالة الثدي. كنت خائفة من الورم الخبيث، من ألا أعيش لرؤية أطفالي يكبرون، من أن أموت في سنّ مبكرة.
لم أكن قد شبعت من الحياة بعد.

* Contact us at onewigstand@gmail.com to receive a free PDF copy of Rima’s letter. Available in English, French and Arabic (all translations by Samar Hajj Ali) *

Thank you to John for his help in getting the story translated!

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