How it all started:
I love what I do and tend to lose myself in it. In June 2017, we were in the middle of production for our biggest event of the year and I was assigned more work than ever before. I didn’t want to let them down and was making good overtime, so I dug in to meet the challenge shrugging off the lack of sleep or any semblance of me taking care of myself. I hardly ever got sick and I come from a family of doctors/overly health-conscious/think we’re superhuman type of people, so I figured I could handle it. I’d catch up on my life, get sleep, and eat healthy after the event was done.
I completely ignored my body…till I was driving home late one night from work and it occurred to me that my left breast was sore. I thought maybe it was PMS, so I didn’t think much of it except that it was odd that to have PMS for 2 weeks. The soreness got worse in the 3rd week and since it was just on one side, I knew something wasn’t right. Even then, I thought I could deal with it after work slowed down. One morning as I was getting ready, I put on my bra, carefully lifting my sore breast, and suddenly noticed a patch of my skin felt like a football or an orange; hard, rough, and with dimples. Also, that breast was at least a cup size larger. Then, I noticed a few of my fingernails had vertical lines (striations) on them. It was weird and I didn’t know what any of it meant. Except for the lump, these weren’t any of the symptoms I was taught to associate with cancer. My girlfriend urged me to make an appointment. The OBGYN felt the tumor and immediately sent me for a mammogram the next day. We both hoped that it was benign, since my last annual mammogram was completely clear.
The day of the mammogram, I remember I had our industry’s annual conference. I couldn’t and didn’t want to miss it, but I decided I could get the mammogram done that morning and still make it to the afternoon’s conferences, so that’s what I did. Again, the mammogram came up clear, but we could all feel a 4-inch rock in my chest, so they did another, stronger mammogram and even then, it barely showed up. Then, they did an ultrasound…and boy, did it show up. The radiologist did the biopsy right then and there; telling me that I should prepare myself for a diagnosis of cancer, but to pray that it’s just an infection. They gave me an icepack to put in my bra and off I went to the conference. Fake smiling my way through the stinging pain in my chest from the biopsy. It was hard greeting old colleagues and keeping the possibility of cancer a secret, but that’s what I did…
I had the biopsy on a Thursday and I went out of town to Yosemite for my birthday that Friday. I wouldn’t get the biopsy results back till Monday. I had to go my whole 41st birthday weekend with the fear of dying on my mind… How was I going to get through this…? How was I going to tell my mother that she might lose her baby girl…? What exactly was happening to me…?
I was at work when the doctor called and said that she had bad news…. I held in my tears, went in the bathroom stall, and fell against the door bawling my eyes out. When I went to the oncology surgeon, she immediately tested me for genetic cancer and ordered an MRI. I had never heard of genetic cancer. The results shocked my doctor and myself to the core. She said only a handful of her patients, in her entire career, have come up as being positive and sadly I was one of them…I was BRCA1+ and I had NO IDEA…not only was I born with an 87% chance of getting breast cancer and a 63% chance of getting ovarian cancer… The MRI showed that on top of the 4-inch tumor we felt, I also had 2 MORE tumors growing in my other breast…3 tumors were ALL growing at the SAME TIME!
Needless to say, I cried as the surgeon told me she wanted to remove both breasts, my nipples, and test my lymph nodes. It was heartbreaking…I loved my breasts. They were my favorite feature on my body and I had to say goodbye to them forever. I didn’t know what I’d look like without nipples. The pictures she showed me made me sick and THAT’S how I was destined to look?….I was terrified, disgusted, and depressed. I had hoped that if I started the reconstruction, with expanders, during the mastectomy that I could just tell myself to be patient and I would be whole again once I got to my final reconstruction. I had to focus on saving my life. I had to be brave… So I went forward with the double mastectomy on July 5th, 2017. My whole family flew out from all over the country and their support meant the world to me. With 2 doctors, it took 6 hours…
Turns out when they tested my lymph nodes, there were traces of cancer there too. We had caught it just as it was on its way to infect the rest of my body. As soon as I recovered, like almost immediately, I was set up to start on chemotherapy treatments. During recovery, I had gotten consultations from 3 different cancer hospitals and 2 recommended an INTENSE treatment plan since hereditary cancer, more so than other cancers, likes to recur and is difficult to cure once it starts. I wasn’t going to let this cancer win, so I chose the tougher treatment plans and Dr. James Waisman at City of Hope was my oncologist. He and the nurses there made me feel like they’d be there for me the whole way and they were.
I had surgery to put a port device in my chest and run a tube up to the artery in my neck, so they could use that tube to feed the drugs and I would get the full benefit of the chemotherapy. Then, I began 6 months of weekly chemo treatments using drugs that were nicknamed, “The Red Death”. The nurses had to administer them in hazard suits. It was scary. Once a week for 21 treatments, my 70-year-old mother drove 2 hours, one way, to sit all day with me at City of Hope. My girlfriend would come after work and help us with getting me home. They are my everything and no amount of appreciation would be enough for what they did.
For the first time, really, in my life, I needed help. I would get out of breath, from the anemia, just walking 12 feet from room to room. My white blood cell count was so low that a small cat scratch or fever could kill me. I had to give myself injections in my stomach. I spent the holidays alone with my mother since I had to stay away from crowds, and my niece with a cold. I received blood transfusions, which made me feel so much better, but I still had daily nosebleeds and my leg hair had stopped growing…along with my eyebrows and eyelashes. The hair on my head would fall out in clumps. Chemo targets anything that grows quickly in the body, so that meant, no saliva, no hair anywhere, dying nail beds, watery eyes, stomach issues, etc. I was still working full time and in Hollywood, so I didn’t want and couldn’t face losing my hair. I went through the agony of wearing a below-freezing cold cap for 8 hours during every chemo treatment…it was extremely painful… but it did work some since I never went completely bald. No matter what I did though, I still lost 70% of my hair. But there was a bright side!…My girlfriend took me to buy my first wig and I went blonde for the first time; which was a blast!
I only got 3 paid sick days a year at work and I was the main income provider for my girlfriend and myself, so I did what I had to do and worked full time through all of this. When I couldn’t work a full week, disability or my family helped. I went into the office up until the day my boss had tears in her eyes as she spoke to me about a project. She could see how sick I was. She was an amazing supervisor and worked things out with the company so that I could work from home, which was helpful on the days I got dizzy or sick. The deal I had for working from home was contingent upon me turning in work regularly or I didn’t get paid. It would’ve been more merciful if I could’ve rested, but again, you do what you have to and with our laws today, there is little mercy for the sick. You have to find the strength. You just have to.
Let me tell you…the cancer isn’t what tears you down…it’s the treatments, the lack of mercy, the fake sympathy, the 3 doctors visits a day; the being poked with needles constantly and the endless number of side effects and surgeries. (5 surgeries so far and 2 more still to go) I cannot tell you how many people that I hadn’t spoken in years reached out because they wanted to have one last goodbye…. Goodbye?! What?!! I wasn’t ready! I wasn’t going to go out like this! Hell no! I wanted to live!
So I did it! I finished chemo on January 25th, 2018. The nurses sang to me and gave me a medal. They are all angels in my book.
A month after finishing chemo, I started radiation. I interviewed 2 radiation oncologists and chose the one that I trusted the most. Radiation is a half hour DAILY for 6 weeks = 32 treatments. Daily…ugh…the daily part is what challenged me the most. Then, there’s the pain…It’s painless at first, but over time, it burns your skin black and with that, comes the pain. It also itches like a sunburn you can’t scratch. You have to lotion 2-3 times a day and get 4 dots tattooed on your chest, so they can position the laser properly. Plus, let me tell you… wigs do not like to stay on when you are laying down all the time… I went to radiation in the morning, straightened my wig, and then went to work. There were days I’d fall asleep at my desk, but I always got it done and never let my team down.
Again, taking it one day at a time, I finished! I completed radiation on April 10th, 2018 and at that point, I was considered to be officially in REMISSION!
I waited 4 months before I had my hysterectomy and oophorectomy. It was the easiest of the surgeries and after everything I had been through, the thought of still being a candidate for ovarian cancer was not an option for me. My doctor called women like myself, “ticking time bombs”. We were almost assured of getting ovarian cancer, so I took care of it. With all the chemo, there was little chance of me having a healthy biological child anymore anyway. My girlfriend was always okay with just rescuing animals, so that’s what we decided to do instead.
After that, I decided I wanted to make sure I did all I could to keep the cancer away and also do my part for cancer research, so when I heard my rare cancer qualified for a clinical trial, I jumped on it. The clinical trial was a year-long; taking 4 pills a day, going to the hospital for monitoring, and dealing with some minor side effects; such as elbow pain, that I am still experiencing today.
In October (16 months after it all started), I was finally ready to have my final breast reconstruction. I had gone to the plastic surgeon every week for months, getting poked with giant needles in my chest, till my expanders were enlarged and ready. Everything was going well till a month later when one of them became infected due to the radiation treatments. They feared for my life and I had to be rushed into surgery to have it removed. Again, I survived it.
I eventually returned to the office wearing a surgical compression suit, a wig, and managing the pain with an ice pack in my bra…Shortly after that, my company had layoffs, and after 4 years of service and working full time through treatments, I was lumped into the group being laid off. I was literally wearing a surgical compression suit as HR handed me my separation papers. I had completed 60 projects for them while I was sick and never let my work be affected, but I was still let go and then, they rehired my position 3 weeks later.
I only have one breast implant and wear a prosthetic for the other side. I had to start working as a freelancer and can’t afford to take a month off to repair it. I’ve been looking for full-time work for a year now and find it impossible to get past the first few interviews. When I was initially diagnosed, I made the mistake of disclosing my medical history for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and people in my industry talk. I’ve found more discrimination around being sick than I ever thought possible. I am still looking for a job with medical benefits and that is why I have to write this blog anonymously.
Hereditary cancer is a killer, but it is preventable by a simple blood or saliva test followed by a voluntary mastectomy and hysterectomy, if found to be positive. It should be a standard for all women with a family history of breast cancer, but insurance won’t cover it for everyone, so often, it is left unchecked, such as it was in my case.
Luckily, by finding my cancer, doctors were approved to test my family and found that my younger, half-sister is also BRCA1+. Since she is younger, she has options that will save her life and allow her to have children. She had a voluntary double mastectomy, has frozen her eggs and plans to have a hysterectomy in the future. I am so proud of her and her strength. Her life is saved and she doesn’t have to suffer through cancer treatments; which makes everything I went through so worth it.
It took over a year to complete the treatments, I lost my job, my sister was affected, I still need 2 more surgeries that I can’t afford, and I could’ve died, but I didn’t. I survived out of sheer stubbornness and through the strength of my family. The harder things got the more determined I was to not let it beat me…I didn’t let it stop me from taking my dogs to the beach. I didn’t let it stop me from laughing and smiling. I didn’t let it take my joy for life away.
I am still at a high risk for reoccurrence till 2021. If it doesn’t come back by then, I will be considered fully cured. Please, God, I pray I get there. Every day is a blessing. This has changed me forever…I take vacations more now, I don’t let work take precedence over my health, and I appreciate the strength I’ve found in my family, as well as inside myself. I thank God every day for the love and support my mother and girlfriend gave me. If it wasn’t for my family and the angels at City of Hope and Huntington Hospital, I don’t believe I’d be writing this today.
Thank you for reading my story. If you have any history of breast or ovarian cancer, in your family, please insist your doctor give you the hereditary cancer test. Men can get breast cancer too or be carriers and give it to their children, as was the case with my father. There are at-home kits now you can get, so there’s no excuse for not protecting yourself and your family. This is your life and, in the end, the only one that will save it is you.
KV is a self-taught writer, producer, editor who has worked in entertainment marketing in Los Angeles for over 18 years.
Born in Lima, Peru, but raised in Georgia, she dedicates her life to saving as many rescue animals as possible and currently cares for 6 (3 cats & 3 dogs). They are her world along with her beautiful girlfriend and her aging mother whom she sees often. She also has 2 brothers and 2 sisters scattered around the U.S.; along with her father and stepmother whom are prominent doctors in Atlanta.
She loves to help others and volunteers as much as possible. Watching her dogs play in the sand at the beach as well as exploring new places all over the world are her personal joys in life.
An avid skier and scuba diver from the age of 12, she is never one to back down from a challenge, because whether she fails or succeeds, to her, taking the risk and finding your courage is what makes life an adventure to remember.