Tammy Diagnosed at 33
I am an advertising art director, photographer, and designer from Grand Rapids, MI with a background in healthcare and retail marketing and a driving passion for cause-based work.
My Journey with breast cancer really began when I was just 15, when my non-blood Aunt lost her fight with late stage breast cancer at the age of 40. Her passing left two small children without a mommy and a giant hole in my heart that could never be filled. The night of her passing, I silently made two life-defining promises to myself, to my aunt, and to god that I truly believe have shaped me into the person I am today. These are promises that I have secretly thought about everyday for the past 20 years, but they are also promises I didn’t share with anyone until this past year. I promised that if my loving, kind, and compassionately giving aunt couldn’t be here on this earth to do all good she was doing, then I would “be” and “do the good” for her.
I also made the silent promise to someday get involved with the breast cancer cause and raise awareness among young women but also to someday do anything and everything that I could to change the social mindset that young women are not at risk for BC, so small children like my cousins would no longer have to lose their mommies and young teenagers like myself would never have to loose their aunts or lifetime role models to this awful disease.
I have done my very best to carry on the kind-hearted and giving legacy of my aunt every single day of my life. She is part of who I am and I carry her with me in every single thing that I do. In keeping my other promise, I have worked on a few awareness campaigns for BC over the years and while in design school, and the cause has remained very dear to my heart, but I didn’t really get involved on a personal level again until a few years ago, when I met my now very dear “heart friend” Vicki. Vicki’s gentle giving spirit, and kind-heart, reminded me of my aunt in the first moments of meeting her, to the point that I remember feeling that tingling feeling sensation throughout my entire body like the moment was meant to be. But that feeling felt even stronger when later that year, Vicki too was diagnosed with breast cancer.
A few years after we met, and after Vicki had finished her year of treatment, Vicki and I collaborated for the first time as we started the first “Pink Time” facebook page as a way to share her journey with breast cancer. Although our efforts didn’t go as far as we had hoped, the bond that was created between us has deepened and has now grown into a very deep, loving, and beautiful friendship. In many ways Vicki has taken on the role my aunt once held as my second mom, my cheerleader and my life coach and I have come to believe my late Aunt had a hand in connecting the hearts of Vicki and I all those years ago, because she knew I was going to need both her spirit and the never-ending love and support of my dear heart friend Vicki more then I have ever needed anyone or anything, this past year.
On February 16th, 2015, at the age of 33, I myself was diagnosed with breast cancer and my entire world, as I knew it was turned upside down and inside out. At the time my husband and I had been married for just a few years, we had just moved back to Michigan to be closer to family, I had just started a side photography business, and we were in the middle of full-home renovation. We were also raising our beautiful 2-year-old daughter and were planning and trying to give her a 2015 baby sibling, when I found the lump. Although, my life had already been touched by the sadness and devastation that breast cancer brings, the disease itself really wasn’t on my personal radar, and I really didn’t think it would ever happen to me. After all, I was only 33, I had zero family history, I don’t drink, I have never smoked, and I kept a healthy weight and lifestyle, so why would I be at risk? So I told myself the lump was nothing, until I could no longer fight the nagging feeling in my gut that is could actually be cancer.
After a few weeks I finally broke down and shared the lump and my fears with my husband, but it took me at least another few weeks to conger up enough nerve to make the call to my OB-GYN. From my very first appointment, things moved extremely quick. Looking back I really should have realized I had bad news coming because although I was told that doctors typically watch lumps like mine for months because it is natural to have changing lumps in your breasts at my age, NOT ONE person took any chances on me, and every single technician, nurse, and physician that treated me, got somewhat teary-eyed while in my presence. I was immediately sent to have what became two types of mammograms, and ultrasounds, and the radiologist on duty, broke the devastating news that he believed I had two aggressive forms of breast cancer during my ultrasound, which in retrospect gave me a chance to mentally prepare for what was officially about to smack me in the face before having to break all of this scary news to my husband and family.
My biggest fears were confirmed when I met the diagnostic radiologist who has now become a dear friend on her biopsy table the following morning. Her gentle bedside manor and naturally caring nature put me at ease right away and made what is, for most, the scariest beginning moments of their breast cancer journey; a comfortable, calm, and even at times enjoyable defining moment in my own breast cancer journey. She, my amazing biopsy nurse and I truly connected and formed a what I believe to be a lifelong bond while I was on that biopsy table in sharing stories and laughing about every day conversations. But the somewhat scary and emotional moment did come where I asked my radiologist if she could tell me what she was seeing. She calmly and tearfully looked me in the eye and gave me the devastating news that she already knew to be true, that I did indeed have breast cancer.
I have to be honest, if I had to get this news, I really wouldn’t have wanted anyone other then her to break the news to me and I am so thankful that she felt comfortable breaking this news while I was lying on her biopsy table. In doing this, she lovingly spared me the hours or days of waiting on pins and needles for the devastating phone call with the same confirming results and I was able to walk out that day with my heart full, my fists raised high and my mind ready to conquer the unconquerable.
The biopsy confirmed that I had several separate tumors and calcification throughout my entire left breast so it was recommended by both a medical oncologist, two separate surgical oncologists and an entire oncology team that I undergo a radical bilateral mastectomy as well as, an auxiliary sentinel lymph node dissection as soon as possible, because they believed my cancer was very aggressive and potentially advanced, as it is in most young women. The very first of many surgeries was on March 2nd, 2015. They found 5 good-sized lesions in my left breast as well as calcification throughout and I believe some DCIS in my right breast as well, however only two lymph nodes were affected and removed. To everyone’s surprise and delight, despite the amount of tumors, cancer cells and calcification that was found in my breast it appears that we caught my cancer just in time. I was diagnosed with Estrogen & Progesterone +, HER2-, stage I-II invasive ductal carcinoma. My Oncotype DX testing score came in quite high meaning that my cancer had a high risk of recurrence, so all preventative measures were recommended and taken.
Over the past year I have had several surgeries including the first, my bilateral mastectomy, my port placement, several beginning stage reconstruction surgeries including an immediate tissue expander placement, emergency surgery to remove my right tissue expander due to infection, fat and tissue grafting from my legs to be used in reconstruction, emergency egg harvesting and IVF, the preventative removal of my fallopian tubes and ovaries, and on April 12th, 2016, I had surgery on my port site to remove and treat irritated scar tissue, another round of breast reconstruction on my right side as well as left implant placement, and nipple reconstruction, and fat and tissue grafting from my upper and lower legs. Over the past year I have completed 18 rounds of chemotherapy (6 of Adriamycin®, 6 of Taxotere®, and 6 of Cytoxan®), 28 rounds of radiation therapy, 9 months of Zoladex® injections to induce early menopause and strip my body of cancer-causing hormones that were allowing my cancer to grow, and I have started the 10-15 year hormone therapy treatment which is an aromatase inhibitor called Femara®. I also receive quarterly Zometa® infusions to treat early bone deterioration due to the hormone therapy and hopefully delay or prevent full-on osteoporosis as a result of the hormone therapy, as well as to, attempt to prevent my cancer from spreading to my bones. I see an Occupational Therapist 90 minutes a week to treat a pretty pesky case of post Mastectomy Auxiliary Web or Cording Syndrome that restricts the movement in my left arm and neck because of the common surgical damage to my lymphatic system in removing deeply rooted lymph nodes.
I entered my breast cancer journey with a few pre-existing medical conditions including Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Vasovagal syncope, and chronic migraines. I am told my cancer care and treatment is a bit more complicated and involved because of the cancer itself, the treatments and the surgical procedures exasperate the symptoms of all my medical conditions, as well as all of my complications and infections, thus putting my body in far more of a delicate state that will greatly extend or prolong my post-treatment recovery period.
My medical, surgical, and nursing team often refer to me as their .1% because, I am that rare patient that gets every possible side effect, any possible infection, and complication. I was hospitalized several times because of extreme dehydration due to how my chemo treatments affected my POTS, multiple infections, and treatment complications, and I spent 3-4 hours out of nearly every single day in hospital infusion centers including some weekends to get IV meds and hydration infusions to control chemotherapy side effects and my exasperated POTS symptoms during my 9 months of chemo and radiation treatments and I require 2 weekly IV infusions to control post treatment side effects currently.
Although breast cancer was not on my radar, from the very first moment I was told I had it, I have felt it was something that was always in the cards for me and that it was all part of a bigger plan or purpose. From day one, I wanted to do what I feel like my aunt and Vicki would have done if they would have had my recourses. I wanted to document and share every aspect of my breast cancer journey in a raw and real way through both photos and open and honest blog posts in an attempt to not only raise breast cancer awareness among young women, but also to offer support, understanding, and inspiration to anyone who has been, or will be affected by breast cancer in their lifetime. In creating the “My Personal Pink Time” Blog and Facebook page, I forced myself to step out of my once VERY small comfort zone and opened up in ways that I never thought were possible.
At first, it was a little difficult to be the subject rather than the photographer, and I will admit it took me a while to get used to being exposed and photographed during the most emotionally vulnerable moments of my life, but oddly the writing aspect seemed to come quite naturally. It’s hard to explain, but there are times when the words seem to flow so effortlessly to my fingertips before I have even had time to process them in my own mind. To be quite honest, letting my guard down 150% behind the keyboard and allowing myself to openly express every honest and real thought, feeling, fear, and even self-realization that has been going through my mind during the hardest year of my life, has become quite therapeutic for me. But the most amazing aspect was that all of this has given me the chance to finally make good on a promise I made 20 years ago, that I would someday get involved and make even the smallest difference with the breast cancer cause.
My husband now jokes that I have approached my entire diagnosis and treatment year as a marketing project. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, there is some truth to his statement. In part, it was a very natural step for me considering my background, but what he and I may not have noticed is that by opening myself up to document breast cancer in the real and honest way that I have, was also the very first step in accepting that even something as scary as being diagnosed with cancer can better your life in more ways than you can count.
Looking back I don't see my actions, my thoughts, or even my words and wish I had done anything differently. This past year my physical exterior has drastically changed in every way possible, my anatomy has changed as I was forced to say goodbye to a lot of what makes me a female including the ability to bear another child, but my heart has only changed for the better. Today I appreciate love and life so much more. The best transition is that I no longer take little things for granted, and I do my best to always express how thankful I am to the people I am lucky enough to have surrounding me on this journey through life. Early on, cancer gave me a perspective that I don't think many people on this earth are blessed to have, and I do not plan to waste it. I look at every moment as a blessing, and although in the back of my mind the "awful C-word" will always be looming, I truly believe that I am here on this earth for a reason that is much bigger than me, and I plan to keep walking forward down the path that feels right, in hopes that I truly can make a positive difference in this world.
I have entered year two of breast cancer, and I am now facing the struggles that come with accepting that cancer wasn’t just a bad year that happened to me. I am working to fully accept that cancer is and always will be a part of my life, and I am also learning to be at peace with where I am right now physically and emotionally. I am doing my best to accept all of the life-long struggles that a cancer diagnosis brings to your life, because I now know this is an ever-evolving process in itself. In some ways this second year is far harder than my treatment year because I am faced with the dreaded and painful surgical phase, post treatment emotional and physical pain, worry, and stress, and painful and often debilitating muscle and joint pain and weakness from the hormone therapy.
But the hardest part of year two thus far, is that I am now also faced with the very difficult task of trying to transition myself from being a full-time and fully-medically, monitored cancer patient into a my “new normal” and reintegrate myself as someone who appears on the outside to be a “normal” functioning member society again. This task is especially hard because although my hair is starting to come in, I now have budding lashes and brows, and I can still flash my big and genuine smile, it doesn’t mean that I am not hiding an immense amount of physical and emotional pain from the cancer that will be a part of the rest of my life, and part of every single second of every single day. The truth is, I will never be the person I was before cancer and maybe that’s ok or even better. I have earned my badge of pinkness and I wear it proudly. I plan to fight on, forge forward and focus on the exciting aspects of moving past my first year with the awful “C" and I plan to continue making good on my promise to make a difference in the BC community with a very awareness projects that I have in the works.
I leave you with one thought. No matter what it is that you are faced with in your lifetime or how hard it is for you and the ones who love you, it is still in your power see the light in even the darkest of tunnels, and to accept the gifts that come from even the hardest, and scariest, of situations. We all have the ability to be who we want to be in this world, and I am thankful that cancer gave me the foresight to see and embrace the power in this thought.
If you would like to read more about my first year with BC you can do so at: mypersonalpinktime.org