April 12, 2022
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Natalie Jeffcott/Stocksy United
My diagnosis came as a total shock. I thought I had been doing everything ‘right.’
In 2017, my life changed drastically. One day, I went in for a routine mammogram, and a month later, I was told I had breast cancer. When I found out about my diagnosis, my first thought was, “I’m so healthy. How could this be happening to me?”
I thought I had been doing everything “right.”
I don’t smoke or drink, I rarely eat fast food, I make healthy home-cooked meals, I love fruits and vegetables, I exercise daily (I have been a certified personal trainer for almost 15 years!), and I almost always get 8 hours of sleep at night.
To top it off, I have no family history of breast cancer. My diagnosis came as a complete shock.
Here’s what happened in the year that changed my life.
When I went in for a routine mammogram in January 2017, I had no signs or unusual symptoms. I was actually feeling well and had no reason for concern.
Soon after my appointment, I received a call asking me to come in for additional images. I wasn’t too concerned because this had happened once before due to my extremely dense breast tissue.
The doctor didn’t like what she saw, so she ordered a biopsy.
My biopsy results came back as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which basically means I had pre-invasive cancerous cells in a milk duct. The doctor called me with the news and said my cancer would be, “no big deal, because we had caught it very early.”
I thought that, since we had discovered the tumor so early, dealing with it would be easy, right? Wrong.
After another biopsy and two MRIs were performed on my breasts, I was given two options that both seemed equally big in my eyes.
Since the tumor had been diagnosed as noninvasive, stage 0 breast cancer, I had the option of a lumpectomy with radiation or a mastectomy with no radiation.
During a lumpectomy, the surgeon removes the cancerous tissue as well as a small amount of healthy surrounding tissue. This is then followed by radiation therapy, generally given 5 days a week for about 6 to 7 weeks.
A mastectomy is the removal of the entire breast and is considered a major surgery.
Making the decision between the two felt agonizing. I chose the latter hoping that, after my mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries, I could recover, avoid radiation, and go back to my life as I knew it.
Two weeks post-surgery, I was feeling great! I was walking for an hour every day and my doctors were very pleased with my healing. They even commented that I was recovering faster than they expected. I was told, “whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
What happened next would change everything for me. Just 2 weeks after my mastectomy, a pathology report revealed another tumor that was invasive breast cancer and stage 1.
This came as a total surprise, not only to me but also to my doctors. The good news was that this tumor, as well as the initial tumor, had been successfully removed during my mastectomy. While this was a positive sign, I was also told my tumors tested both estrogen and progesterone receptor-positive (ER-positive and PR-positive).
My oncologist told me we were just waiting for one more test result to come back about the second tumor, but again, she told me she wasn’t worried about the results.
Unfortunately, it came back as HER2+ which meant it was positive for the HER2 gene which can cause uncontrollable growth of breast cells. Approximately 20 percent of women with breast cancer are diagnosed with the HER2-positive subtype.
HER2-positive breast cancers tend to grow faster, are more aggressive, and are more likely to spread and recur compared to HER2-negative breast cancers. Thankfully, there are medicines specifically targeted for HER2-positive breast cancer.
The bad news was that I now was facing a year of chemotherapy treatments. The doctor told me I would likely lose my hair and experience extreme fatigue.
I was devastated.
I went through a range of emotions, from depression to denial to bargaining.
I wanted to run away and never come back. My mind ran through questions I couldn’t answer. Was I going to lose my hair? Why did I need to have poison sent through my veins that would make me physically sick? Why make a healthy person sick?
I became extremely depressed and felt completely defeated.
How could I go on knowing what would lie ahead? After weeks of crying, I decided I had to do this.
I had to show my three daughters that being here alive and healthy was more important than going through treatment or temporarily losing my hair.
I was determined to not let breast cancer change me. I had worked hard for so many years to be as physically strong as I was. I had so many questions but nowhere to find the answers.
I searched the internet for information about how to exercise during chemotherapy. I found very little. I realized I would probably just have to figure out how to navigate this on my own.
I continued to work out six days a week. On my worst days, I still found time to walk on the treadmill. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to lift weights or when I could safely start doing resistance training again.
So, I started back at the beginning. I went back to my 2-pound weights. As I felt stronger, I slowly increased the weight until I was back where I started. I’m not a patient person, so this was not always easy.
I finished my treatments after my last infusion in June 2018. I still believe my commitment to my health and physical fitness prior to this diagnosis made all the difference for me. I recovered quickly and now, as a personal trainer, I am able to help others do the same.
My advice to everyone: Don’t wait until you have cancer to make healthy choices, you can make the changes now. Find something you enjoy doing, and start moving.
Activity for as little as 150-minutes a week may reduce cancer mortality rates, make treatment more tolerable, and reduce your risk of a recurrence.
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