Living with Breast Cancer: 3 survivors tell their stories and give their best advice to live better while battling the disease
Every person is different, so is every story. On the occasion of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Halza met with 3 survivors, to learn more about their personal journey – from diagnosis to recovery – and asked their tips on how to better cope with it. Meet Philippa, Arielle & Sophie.
Please introduce yourself. I am Philippa Glover and am a certified Nutrition Coach. I live in Singapore with my husband Nick and the love of our lives, Fraser, our Cavoodle. I am from New Zealand and all my family lives back there.
When were you diagnosed and what is your diagnosis? Can you describe your journey with breast cancer? It was 2012 and I was only 33 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was fit and healthy and cancer was not in my family, I did not fit into the stereotype for people that are at risk for cancer. As I was living in Dubai at the time and I remember the phone call from my doctor like it was yesterday. It was a Sunday evening at 9pm. I remember starting to cry and after hanging up from the doctor I made the calls to my family. After that night I don’t recall crying again because ‘I had cancer’. I thought well this is it, and just went through the motions to do everything I could to get better. I told myself this does not mean death, and just knew it would not get me.
What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome? My first biggest challenge was to accept that because of my age I may have gone into permanent menopause. I was in a relatively new relationship and we wanted to have a family. After doing some research and talking to different doctors about the risks of ‘harvesting’ my eggs, we decided to take the risk and flew to Denmark for the treatment (it could not be done in Dubai as Nick and I weren’t married at the time). Unfortunately, the fertilising of my eggs did not work and we lost them all. For me, this was more heartbreaking than being diagnosed with cancer. And I was very lucky that after 18 months of treatment my body came back to normal and I was not menopausal. And my goodness, was I grateful because the menopause symptoms for me were almost as horrible as the chemo itself. (Just not looking forward to having to go through menopause for the second time!) I wasn’t worried about losing my hair, it grows back and there are some fantastic wigs out there and some beautiful scarves. (When it came time to shave my head, my husband gave me a Mohawk. It was hilarious.) Plus, because I have dark frizzy curly hair I was hoping it would come back blonde and straight (she laughs) And there was a bonus: I didn’t have to shave anything! I even got married in the middle of treatment. It was fantastic…. didn’t have to worry about getting my hair done, I just put on a really lovely wig! I was, however, worried about the mastectomy and how I would look afterward, but the surgeon did a brilliant job and I got a new perky boob! I was also worried about how the chemo would make me feel, and to be honest some days it was bearable and other days I just really wanted to die, but the feeling didn’t last long and I would come right again. I had really supportive husband, friends and colleagues. And my family in NZ (and the in-laws in the UK) were there for me even if from afar. (However, having the Halza app would have been an amazing solution to keeping everyone up to date at the same time). The nurses and doctors were also so amazing, I never felt alone or scared while dealing with everything.
What is the best advice you could give to people who face Breast Cancer? Best advice would be to keep life as normal as possible. I continued to work, though I am not sure how productive I was! I went in on days I felt well and did half days. I continued to socialise, again, when I felt well. And when I didn’t feel good I just rested. Nick would also take me for couples’ spa treatments every now and then. My only exercise was walking. We had just gotten Fraser after I was diagnosed and I really think he was the best decision we made. Because we had him, I had to take him for daily walks, and as he was the cutest puppy he kept me laughing and happy. He was so good for our spirits. I would suggest to anyone dealing with cancer treatment to do what they can when it comes to exercise, but if nothing feels manageable, at least get up and out for a brief walk every other day or so. The other hard part was to stomach food. I would suggest eating whatever you feel like but also, as I am now a Nutrition Coach, I would suggest eating loads of vegetables and leafy greens to keep your body nourished with good nutrients and fiber (trust me: the constipation is excruciating!). Your body is being pumped full of poisons so you need to give it a helping hand to keep it ‘detoxed’ as much as possible. Thinking back, I remember when I had my first dose of chemo all I could eat was a mashed potato, a few weeks later I could only eat corn on the cob, next I could only stomach popcorn. Listen to and trust your body.
Please introduce yourself. My name is Arielle Besson Croonenberghs. I am a 55-year-old American woman living in Brussels for the past 15 years with my husband and three children. I was born in Port au Prince, Haiti and grew up in the US. My husband is Belgian. I have lived in many countries; France, England, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Switzerland. I have a Master’s degree in Counselling and Psychotherapy and I have specialized in addictive and codependent behaviors. I am currently counselling clients privately.
When were you diagnosed and what is your diagnosis? Can you describe your journey with breast cancer? I was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) breast cancer during a regular yearly mammogram in February 2015. I have always had very dense breasts and since breastfeeding my daughter in 1998, had a bit of light calcification that is apparently very common. My doctor noticed a significant increase of calcium from my previous years mammography and performed a fine needle aspiration 2 days later. I received confirmation that my cells tested positive for cancer. I then went for a first biopsy where after several specimens were removed and tested, nothing was found therefore I had to have a second biopsy of a larger section and that is when the test came back positive. I was told this could have happened because; 1) no cancer- so misdiagnosis, 2) cells were all aspirated out during the fine needle aspiration as it was so small or 3) the cancer was caught so early that it was very small and difficult to pinpoint. Due to the pathologically dense nature of my breast and the fact that my calcification (cancerous cells) were found in 3 of the 4 quadrants of my left breast, a mastectomy was suggested by my doctors. I opted for a double mastectomy as I did not feel comfortable with a ‘wait and see approach’ while taking a daily medication to induce menopause. I also agreed with my doctors that although I would prefer nipple conservation if there was any doubt during surgery while cells were being examined due to my margins that both nipples (for symmetry) would be removed. They were both removed as were two of my ‘ganglions’ out of precaution. I was fortunate to have immediate reconstruction using silicone implants. My surgery went very well with no complications. My recovery was relatively quick and smooth without too much pain. I was prescribed extra strength Tylenol, ibuprofen and some light pain medication for one week. After six months, I had my first of 3 ‘lipofillings’ for cosmetic reasons.
My journey has been very positive albeit life changing. I have always been aware of how incredibly fortunate I have been that my cancer was detected so very early. I do not have a family history of breast cancer (any cancer) on either my maternal nor paternal side. I live a relatively stress-free life and the stress that I do have, I manage well through exercise and healthy eating. I was never on any sort of hormone/birth control until after the birth of my son when I was 44 years old and had a low dose IUD placed. My IUD was removed 6 years later at age 50. I don’t smoke. I was very shocked when I heard that I had breast cancer as I always believed that I didn’t have the profile….I thought that I had a small small risk.
What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome? My biggest challenges have been adjusting to silicone implants and the lack of ‘nipple’ sensation. Its strange. I also was periodically not very mobile during recovery of both surgery and lipofillings which for me was a bit frustrating. Another challenge is in learning to trust my body again and that every sniffle, cramp or pain does not mean a cancer diagnosis!
What is the best advice you could give to people who face Breast Cancer? Be grateful that we are in the year 2017 and not 1980 no matter what stage your cancer has been diagnosed as there has been so much progress. Definitely follow your intuition while hearing your doctors’ suggestions for treatment. Do NOT read too much online initially…it can be very overwhelming. Exercise when you can especially before any treatment/surgery and absolutely when you are given the green light by doctors.
Please introduce yourself. My name is Sophie Collomb-Patton and I am a ski teacher and very athletic, and a former member of the French national ski team. I am 44 years old and I live in France with my husband and my 11year old son.
When were you diagnosed and what is your diagnosis? Can you describe your journey with breast cancer? In early 2016, during a self-examination, I felt a lump on my breast. My gynecologist recommended a mammography and an ultrasound scan – which revealed a mass, that led to a biopsy. I was officially diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in April 2016. The doctor told me on the phone that it was breast cancer, and that I needed to be taken care of immediately. My world fell apart. I called my husband and parents right away. I had to say that word out loud- How difficult it was to say the word Cancer. After a short moment of panic, I decided to face the problem: I called my gynecologist, got appointments that same day with specialists and started planning the tests: X-rays, bone scans. I had to explain all of this to my then 10-year son. The results were reassuring and we set the surgery on May 12th. The surgeon removed the tumour – Luckily, there was no need for a mastectomy. Ten days later, the results came back and they were comforting: the nodes were not affected. However, there were 3 peri-tumoral lymphatic emboli :the cancer was starting to spread, so I need to go for chemo. My first reaction was to refuse – I was so afraid to lose my hair. My husband and my son managed to bring me back to reason. I started 4 chemo sessions with Taxotère and Endoxan, and was somehow convinced myself that I was not going have any of the side effects that I had heard about. I endured the chemo but my body was craving for physical activity so I started to go for walks that drained my energy completely. As a former top athlete, this tiredness was difficult to bear: I always ran on 200% energy! My ego was hurt. But soon, the physical exhaustion replaced the fatigue due to my treatment, and I kept going. These walks played a big part in my recovery, I reckon. I started to lose my hair 17 days after the first chemo. I asked my husband to shave my head and I clearly remember the last pieces of hair falling on the bathroom’s floor, under the watch of my son. I started to cry, but he said, trying to raise my spirits, “Mom, this could have been worse! You could have lost your ears!” and I thought “thank you my dearest to help me find some laughter in this difficult moment”. How lucky I was to have my loving family around. I bought a wig, but I never wore it. Instead, I kept wearing a hat in cotton knitted by my sister-in-law. Four weeks after my last chemo session, the thirty radiotherapy sessions (5 per week) began and I started a countdown to the end of the treatment. Finally, it was over and I took my entire family to Brazil to celebrate.
What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome?
The hardest for me was to lose my hair, then my eyelashes and eyebrows. I felt like my face was not human anymore, I was looking sick and I had to endure people’s pity. I wasn’t much worried about me. I was way more concerned about my son, husband and parents. I always tried not to show how exhausted I was, not to complain so they wouldn’t worry more. I wanted to look like and be a warrior.
What is the best advice you could give to people who face Breast Cancer? I concentrated on certain objectives, like planning the Brazilian vacation with my family. Of course, you need to keep a positive mindset and surround yourself with supportive people. Working out is essential and is also a great way to get some peace of mind, that will keep you going every day.
Also, I would like to add a list of some of the best beauty products you can use during treatment: when it comes to nail polish, I suggest La Roche Posay in silicium and anti UV. Evonail by Evaux is also a very good option for nourishing. Revitalash and Revitabrow are my favorite products for eyelashes and eyebrows. Most of these items are available on Oncovia – a website dedicated to people diagnosed with cancer that provides very useful information as well.