Brandy

image1Name: Brandy

Age: 31

Hometown: Penticton, BC

What was your diagnosis? Breast cancer

What is your occupation?
Full-time event rentals coordinator/part-time artist

Your cancer experience:

How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?
I was showering one morning, and I felt a lump in my right breast. It was large enough that it immediately concerned me. I didn’t have a doctor at the time, so after a week of trying to find one, I went to a walk in clinic and met an amazing doctor. I was lucky as he took my fears seriously. He sent me for an ultrasound and mammogram, and when they came back suspicious, I went for a biopsy. And so my story began.

What year was it? What was your age at the time?
This was June 2014, and I was 30.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
I was terrified, of course, but more in shock then anything. The only question I could ask was if I’d lose my hair. I didn’t cry until I left my doctor’s office and was back in my best friend’s truck. Then I fell apart. I kept thinking about how to tell my family.

How did your family react?
Well, considering I hadn’t told anybody about finding the lump or any following procedures, they were pretty shocked. I’m closest to my mom and brother, so those were the ones I told first. Both of them lived far away so it had to be over the phone.

I called my little brother first. His first words to me? Hakuna Matata. It was a bit of a slap in the face, I won’t lie. I don’t think he knew what to say, really, and that’s what came out. Open to interpretation, I suppose.

Next I called my mom. This was the hardest as I knew I would need to be strong and steady so she could fall apart. She knew something was wrong even before I said anything, and then she broke down. She asked me a lot of questions, and many of them I had to answer over and over again as if the answers would slip out of her mind before she could grasp them. It was the worst conversation I had.

The rest of my family learned in stages. I was only able to tell one person face to face, and it was hard, but also easier in some ways. I used Facebook as a tool to get the information out there. I created a group so people who wanted the updates could join.

How did your friends react?
This really varied. I definitely learned who my friends are, which is invaluable. I wasn’t surprised by who rallied around me and who drifted away. There were a few that I couldn’t have done without, especially in the early days. My best friend spent so many days with me when I could barely stand to be alone. I would cry every time I had to leave.

I did notice a drop off in visits, emails, and gestures after about the three-month mark from most people, but the important ones have stuck by me the whole time.

What did your treatment consist of?
Two surgeries, six rounds of chemo, and 28 days of radiation. And hormone blockers for the next 10 years.

It’s a hard thing when you don’t feel sick to allow yourself to be cut, poisoned, and burned, but I did it all and would do it again if I had to.

First, I had a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy. This proved unsuccessful as my surgeon couldn’t get clean margins, and three out of five nodes had cancer cells.

What a hard blow that was. It was almost as shocking to me as the original diagnosis. The possibility that it could have spread was like an elephant sitting on my chest. Crushing.

I waited five weeks and then had a right mastectomy with more lymph nodes taken. I had changed surgeons, as I wasn’t happy with my first one. My new surgeon turned out to be incredible, and fortunately, they found no more cancer. My surgeon also got me to do a CT scan and a bone scan which were all clear. He told me about those results minutes before surgery. I had done a yoga practice the night before my surgery and my teacher dedicated the class to me and to healing. Those two things made the surgery and recovery so so much easier. I had a much better state of mind.

Then I had chemo, one every three weeks for six treatments. It was hard, but not as bad as I thought. I was more scared of what I didn’t know, so I did my research. It was all about learning what I could control in those days, and being informed was one of those things. Losing my hair was almost harder then losing my breast. It sounds funny in some ways, but I couldn’t hide that I didn’t have hair. Even with scarves, I got stares sometimes. I learned to ignore them and walked around bald at times. I am so happy I chose to shave my head early, and did it with friends around me. It was empowering in many ways. I did miss my eyelashes something fierce.

What is your current medical status?
Cured! I asked my doctor if I was in remission, but he said he didn’t like that term as it left the possibility for cancer to come back, so he proclaimed me cured instead.

How is life different for you now post diagnosis?
It’s been hard to move forward without looking back too much. I know that my life is changed and some things will never be the same. In many ways, I’m grateful for all that’s happened because it showed me how strong I am, how great people can be, and that there are so many things in life worth fighting for. But, it’s also a hard thing to live with at times as it can feel like no one really understands — until you reach out to other survivors.

What was the best lesson you took away from your challenge?
I got a great kick in the ass from my grandma. She was battling bladder cancer, and when I told her my diagnosis, she gave me some great practical tips such as taking notes, keeping a timeline, etc., but most importantly she told me not to ask “Why me? Ask why not me?! Don’t feel sorry for yourself and don’t play the victim.” I’m not saying that I did that 100 per cent of the time, but keeping a positive attitude helped my friends and family deal with it, and it really helped me in the end. It really was about making a choice and not letting the fear get me down.

What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?
The little things I guess. Things I love. Campfires, tea, friends, a great book, drawing, seeing my friends’ boys growing up, dinners out, yoga.

And music. I made a F%#k Cancer playlist, and I played it before every surgery, chemo, or whenever I needed a boost. They were all powerful songs, nothing sad. Message me if you want a list.*

Did you attend a support group?
I didn’t go to a support group. Looking back I wish I had. Going to radiation everyday for 5 weeks certainly helped me meet a lot of people in my situation. But many of them were a lot older then me, so it was hard to relate. I battled with myself a lot about asking for help, especially when I was in my darker times. I was lucky to have my family and friends, but nobody understands like a fellow warrior.

Are you interested in helping others facing cancer challenges?
I’ll help anyway I can.

*Please email connect@youngadultcancer.ca if you would like to be put in touch with Brandy.