My Story: It was a long walk!
I have been fighting breast cancer since March 2010. Like everyone, I didn’t expect to have it, especially since I have no family history with breast cancer. My oncologist told me, it’s just bad luck, I was a healthy person with cancer. Incredible but true!
I remember how it all started 8 years ago. It was another crazy day at work and in all the rush a co-worker accidently hit his elbow against my left breast. It was incredibly painful and lasted about 2-3 days but went away and I promptly forgot about it.
My life kept going with two full-time jobs: one during the day, as a scale model builder/AutoCAD designer and one at night, at a hotel in the banquets department. I managed to work seven days a week in order to have less double shifts. About three times a week, I would get 5 hours of sleep. I was able to manage it for four years and five months until I got laid off in 2008 from my scale model job. It happened at a good time, Christmas was just around the corner and I knew we would be extremely busy at the hotel and, as a lead server, I would have to work ten to fourteen hours a day in that short period of time. I was exhausted and happy at the same time: I didn’t have to make a choice between the two jobs that I loved, one because of the creativity and the other one for the social aspect, working with a lot of wonderful people.
I was tired from working two jobs for four years and it took me a couple of months to adjust to the fact that now I could sleep as much as I wanted. I was not worried about sleeping 12 hours a day; I had missed so much sleep I thought I was just catching up on four years of lost sleep.I didn’t know that it didn’t matter how many hours I tried to catch up on, the ones that are essential for your body to recuperate and regenerate are GONE.
I hadn’t taken care of myself properly for four years. I was always busy, busy, busy, with two jobs, a husband, friends and family. I was making my body weak and putting it at risk without even noticing it. It was May 2009 when I noticed I had a few bumps, two under my left foot and one on top. I found out they were cysts that had developed. In August, during a general test at my family doctor, she noticed a mass in my right breast, so she sent me for a mammogram. It turned out I had a second bump in my left breast. She sent me for a two-core biopsy October 2009. Here’s the procedure: you lay down on your stomach, and the table has a hole for your breast to be compressed for a more precise biopsy. The entire test took three hours. The test came back negative. It was revealed it had been a calcium formation like a cyst. So I was very happy.
I was anticipating Christmas, already planning my busy life with all the hours I would have to put in. I was feeling worried about being tired all the time still but I kept telling myself “it’s nothing, it’s only one job, you can do it”. In mid-November, four weeks after the biopsy, I noticed a big bump in my left breast, but this time it was under my breast and it was very painful. I called my family doctor and she believed it was probably blood from the biopsy that traveled down my breast and that would go away eventually. My doctor was not worried because the biopsy results were negative and the mammogram showed nothing to be worried about. She told me that, if in a few weeks the pain didn’t go away, to come see her. I was so busy at work I told myself I would go for a check-up in January.
By mid-December, I was so tired. I was telling my good friend Sylvain I felt I could not work at the hotel anymore. He didn’t believe me. For him, I was a superwoman. Even though I was tired, I was still working hard; working 2 to 4 hours overtime a day. I knew it was only for a few weeks, so I did it. At the end of December, I flew to Florida to meet my parents and my sister for a two-week trip. We had fun and I slept a lot. But the pain in my breast was getting worse. I was unable to sleep without wearing my bra. Even simple movements were painful and I couldn’t wait anymore to see my doctor.
I got back home by mid-January, 2010 and I booked an appointment with my family doctor for the following week. By that time, I was also feeling pain under my armpit, a tiny painful point, but only when I touched it. She sent me immediately for a mammogram the week after, thinking it was still maybe blood accumulation from the previous biopsy or another cyst. She also booked me with a breast specialist because she didn’t like the fact I had so many cysts growing and she wanted to be on the safe side. They refused to do the mammogram and sent me back to my family doctor. The technician was afraid the blood would spread, with the pressure of the mammogram. My family doctor was mad at them for not taking at least a radio or an echography and for wasting another two weeks. So, I went back for an echography. Right away, they decided to book me for a biopsy for my breast and my armpit five days later.
With all these delays, a month had passed. It was already February 23, 2010. I was going to see my breast specialist at the BC Cancer Agency, on March 2, 2010.
I will always remember that day. I was waiting in a room when a nurse and two students arrived. They asked me how they could assist me in this hard time of my life. I shook my head and told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. The nurse realized what happened and she said: “Oh my God, nobody told you” and I said “No!” Then she told me she would get the specialist so she could talk to me. In about two minutes Dr. Davis was in the room with the head nurse, Jane, and no more students. The doctor told me: “I think I’m the one who should tell you. You have breast cancer in your left breast and under your armpit; a HER2 invasive and positive cancer and you are already in stage 3+, and it may be somewhere else too”. I almost fell off my chair! I didn’t expect that, especially since, for the last 6 months, I had been doing all these tests and the results always came back negative. What went wrong? They explained to me the tumor was hiding behind my breast between my rib cage. When they did the biopsy, it put stress on my left breast and the tumor started moving. With the moving, a small part of the tumor broke and went under my armpit following the lymphatic tube. They also told me I have dense breasts, which means the inside of my breast is blurry and during the mammogram, they couldn’t see through the breast. I was feeling scared, mad and sad all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I was destabilized. It’s not like your boyfriend is breaking up with you or you didn’t get that promotion at work. It’s your LIFE they are talking about.
My doctor was looking at my case and said I might be the perfect candidate for a study on a new drug called Pertuzamab. This drug puts a flag on your cancer cells telling your immune system to send some fighters on it; because cancer is very deceptive, it grows in your system making sure your immune system doesn’t recognize it. With this new drug the tumor will hopefully shrink and die.
Dr. Noel Davis is my surgeon oncologist, a specialist in breast cancer. She was doing the bilateral mastectomy. She asked the oncologist specialized in chemotherapy to come right away to talk to me about the study. My new oncologist for the study was Dr. Karin Gelmon; she took charge with a new nurse, Rosy. They are a fantastic team. I knew i was in good hands because when you see the name of the doctor in the book that the BCCA gives out is the doctor to all the breast cancer patients you just know she is extremely competent and she cares about all of us. I had these four caring people helping me to understand and support me through these difficult times.
During the whole appointment, I was in shock and tears; I called my husband to come immediately. It took him only 10 minutes to be with me. I was worried for him, too. He lost both his parents to cancer. I didn’t want him to go through that again. But I’m lucky. He’s the most positive person I have met so far. He never gives up; he’s always by my side. We spent 4 hours in that office. They really took the time to explain to us step by step what they would do with me and what I would have to do. First, they gave me 40 pages to read overnight about the new study and I would have to decide if I wanted to be part of it. If I agreed, I would be the first Canadian woman to participate. That was scary. My husband and I did a lot of research that day. I read the entire document and he did the research. He found out that in Europe and in the US, they were very advanced with the new drug and the benefits and side effects were 50/50. So I decided I had nothing to lose at that point. If I could make a difference for all the other women suffering from breast cancer, that would be an accomplishment for me. My grandmother had cancer too and she was part of a study in Quebec. She was an inspiration, setting a good example.
My doctors recommended I tell the news step by step to the people around me. First my family, second my employer and third my friends. In the meantime, I spent the first 10 days doing different tests to find out if I had tumors elsewhere. They didn’t find anything visible. They needed to know as quickly as possible if I was eligible to be part of the study. Every day, it was a relief to know each test was negative, so that meant I was staying at stage 3+ and not jumping to stage 4 where I couldn’t then be a part of the study. I was lucky, because I was participating in the study, I was a priority. That meant the chemotherapy would start within 16 days rather than 7 weeks. I also signed on for a second study, but this one was only a blood test. They are trying to identify different types of cancer with only a blood test. With one blood test, they will be able to tell you if you have cancer, what type it is and where it is located. It would be so efficient and quick. Hopefully it will work. I stopped working right away, and would be off for the next twenty months. That was the time needed to go through the seventeen chemotherapy treatments (every three weeks for one year), six weeks of radiation (five days a week), two major surgeries and five minor surgeries, including all the delays and the healing period in between.
The chemotherapy scared me. Nobody knows what to expect, as everybody reacts differently depending on a lot of factors. They told me to cut my hair very short right away so when the time came to lose my hair, it would have less impact mentally. So my friend cut it right under my ears to start. I knew I would lose my hair, my nails would get dry, and I would be very sick and weak. I bought a big calendar to write down all my appointments. During the month of March, I had 24 appointments. That month was intense and I got to know very quickly the ins and outs of the BCCA and the VGH (Vancouver General Hospital). They told me to walk every day to free my mind and to activate the blood circulation in my body. It has been proven that moderate exercise increases your immune system.
They recommended installing a portacath for the chemotherapy. “A port (or portacath) is a small medical appliance that is installed beneath the skin. A catheter connects the port to a vein. Under the skin, the port has a septum through which drugs can be injected and blood samples can be drawn many times, usually with less discomfort for the patient than a more typical “needle stick”. The port is usually inserted in the upper chest, just below the clavicle or collarbone, leaving the patient’s hands free.” (Resource from Wikipedia).
So, I did it on March 16, 2010 at UBC Hospital and, oh my God, that was the best decision I have ever made. Under a local anesthesia, the operation takes about an hour with all the preparation. I felt a stiff neck for one day and that was it. I recommend it to everybody who has to go through chemotherapy. Because of the drug, the veins get smaller and smaller each time we have chemo and it gets more painful. I just felt a little pinch when they put the needle in the port and that was it, I could still move my arms.
They told me I would get six big chemotherapies at first and eleven “receptine” ones (only one drug) after. I remember the first one took six hours to go through, with all the drugs and the waiting time, but it got better with the next treatment. I had to put my mind in a certain mood. If I looked too far in advance, it scared me and made me panic. It seemed to me that the pain would be there for too long. So, I stopped looking too far ahead and I started taking it one step at a time and that worked well for me.
Ten days after my first chemo, I started losing my hair. My friend Sylvain cut it very short. I didn’t realize how much hair we have on our scalp until then. And I had thin and straight hair. Ten days after the second chemo, my hair was falling out non-stop. Usually when I woke up, I would go to the bathroom and rinse my hair under a hand shower to remove all the detached hair, but that morning the hair never stopped falling into the tub. I called to my husband and said “I need your help, take the clipper and cut it”. So he did! I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror with very, very thin hair. I preferred to see me right away with no hair. I wasn’t in shock when I looked at myself in the mirror. It felt nice and I found out I have a very nice scalp – ha ha!
I met my plastic surgeon, Doctor Sheena McAdams, on March 30, 2010. She may be young but she knows what she’s talking about. She has a great reputation and she is a perfectionist. She is very easy to communicate with. I feel so blessed to have all these fantastic doctors and they are all women. What better than a woman to understand a woman. Sorry Gentlemen. I don’t mean to imply you are incompetent, not at all, but for a woman, especially going through breast or ovarian cancer, I just feel female doctors understand us better.
I feel very fortunate in my life to have a fantastic family and wonderful, true friends. For the first two big chemo treatments, my husband came with me and during the week, my friends Sylvain and Ivory were babysitting me. For the third one, my sister Sylvie flew in from Quebec to spend fourteen days with me. It gave a break to Sylvain and Ivory! For the fourth one, my two best friends Patricia and Nancy from Laval, Quebec came to visit me and help me for a week. For the fifth one, my good friend Guylaine came from Montreal for a week. My mom and Dad arrived in June, my dad for two weeks only, and my mom for five and a half months. She didn’t want to leave me; I was so fortunate to have them. I was surrounded with love and positive thoughts. I made everybody walk with me every day.
I prepared myself before the surgery. My Mom and I took a pillow and we cut it in two, on the long side to make two long, round and narrow pillows to put under my arms after the surgery. I bought one big pillow to put under my legs so my back didn’t hurt. I didn’t know if I would be able to sleep in my bed (on the second floor), and I could not use the couch, so I bought a long chair for the living room. I needed a chair with a retractable back. After the surgery, you are always sleeping on your back and you cannot turn on your side for the first three months, so you need something comfortable.
I had a bilateral mastectomy on July 30, 2010. The surgery took 4 hours. My oncologist specializing in surgery, Dr. Noel Davis, did the first part of the operation, removing my breast and the nodules under my armpit. They removed 20 nodules. That means I’m at risk for life for Lymphodemia in my left arm, but no more cancer so far. The pathology tests of the two tumours came back negative. The cancer was gone completely. It’s unbelievable what that new drug can do. Even my doctors were amazed by the results. They said it’s because of the new drug; I say it’s a miracle. I was at stage 3+, remember!
After that, Dr. McAdams started the reconstruction of my right breast with an alloderm and the implant. She also installed a tissue expander in my left breast; that way they can do the radiation safely. The operation was tough. After I woke up, they transferred me to a room. A patient was already there, with her husband who was talking very loud. On top of that, the television was very loud. It felt like we were ten people in the room. My husband complained three times to the nurse before she did something about it. First, she gave me some earplugs. What? I just came out of the operation room and I have to put in earplugs. NO! NO! NO! My husband got very mad and he asked to speak to someone in a higher position or he would call security. That was it, she finally told them to speak quietly and to turn off the goddamn TV. We are in a hospital and on top of that, in a post operation room!!!! People sometimes have no respect for others who are suffering. I’m sure his wife was happy when he shut up and turned off the TV. She looked like me, in pain and wanting quiet. Fortunately, that was the only bad thing to happen to me at the hospital.
The next day, I came back home and my brother Mario and my sister-in-law Sylvie arrived in Vancouver to help me. They live in Edmunston, New Brunswick and both of them are nurses. My brother is the director of the operation department at the Edmunston Hospital. They stayed two weeks. Oh my god! A good thing they were here! I was unable to get up from my long chair or my bed at night. I always needed help to push my back so that I could get up. I had four drains. I had to empty them twice a day, and I had them for a period of time between 6 to 18 days. The drains are there to recuperate the extra blood from the operation and you need a certain amount of liquid before you can remove them. A nurse was coming every week to have a look at the wounds, but my sister-in-law was doing the job anyways and better. And my mom was helping me to be clean and cleaning my house. At that point you put all your pride on the side and you accept all the help you can get.
Two days after my surgery, the nurse was supposed to come to my place to check if everything was okay. She refused to come, telling me she couldn’t leave the office downtown because she was by herself. I realized later on that was bullshit. It was the Gay Pride Parade in downtown Vancouver that day and she knew she would have a hard time getting to my place with the traffic and all. So it’s me who had to go to her to look at my breast and changing the dressing. The Pride Parade was about to begin, we were stuck in traffic. My husband talked to the policeman, explaining that we had to pass across the blocked street. I was about to pass out. The policeman took a look at me and didn’t argue. He stopped the Parade between two cars and we were able to go through. It was very nice of him. I was holding my breast all the way there and back. I’d just had surgery so every little bump on the street was painful to me. I cannot imagine why I agreed to go see her. She was paid to come to my house. I learned something that day, to never let other people dictate my recovery needs. I won’t make that same mistake again. After my brother and sister in law was gone, I had my aunt Sylvianne who is a nurse too and my uncle Romeo who is a doctor with Michele my cousin who is like a sister. They all came to take care of me. They brought me books and funny comedy shows and movies to make me laugh.
Six weeks after my surgery, on September 15, 2010, I started the radiation. I went to BCCA and they showed me a video of the procedure I would have to go through. They made a mold of my head, my shoulder and my left arm; that way, every time I go for my radiation, I put myself in that mold and was in the exact same place. They also did a few tattoo points on my body, to align the laser. I didn’t find the radiation that bad. I felt nothing during the treatment; I only noticed that my skin became red after the treatment. Morning and night, I applied a cream called Glaxal Base Moisturizing cream or lotion. It’s what Dr. Weir, the oncologist for the radiation, suggested. It’s a water based cream and nurses use it too. She explained everything meticulously. I was scared to start the radiation, but she was able to answer all my questions and put my fears to rest. Because the radiation was going in a small portion of my neck, for a few months, I had to be careful when I was swallowing food, especially my pills. I choked on them at least a dozen times. I had to cut them into small pieces to be on a safe side.
After that, I had time to heal. I only had checkups and the chemo every three weeks. That wasn’t bad. I had to wait six months for my breast to heal from the radiation. But I had to wait again for my surgery: my doctor took a long vacation. I understand they need time off too. Then, I had to wait to get an operation room that was available and finally, I had my last big surgery on June 29, 2011. During that time, my right breast with the implant turned and fell a little bit on the side. That looked awful. It was not only the reconstruction of the left breast; they had to do both of them. They had to change the kind of implant, and attach the alloderm to my abdomen so nothing falls out. That surgery was the same as the first one, painful, but this time, I was able to get up by myself after fifteen days. Dr McAdams started the reconstruction of the nipples in February 2012. It’s a local anesthesia at UBC Hospital and it took only an hour. I‘m telling you , don’t lift anything to heavy; it’s very fragile and takes time to heal. After the healing, they will do the tattoo. It will covers ¾ of the scar; it looks really good on some picture they showed me, unbelievable! But I am still waiting for an operation room to be available. April 2014was the last date given me but I think I ‘m not a priority anymore.
On December 1, 2010, I started taking the Tamoxifen drug. Estrogens can promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Some breast cancers are classified as estrogens receptor-positive (also known as hormone sensitive), which means that they have a protein to which estrogens will bind. These breast cancer cells need estrogens to grow. Tamoxifen works against the effects of estrogens on those cells. It is often called an anti-estrogen or a SERM (Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulator). I’m supposed to take it for the next two years; some women take it for five years. I’m still worried about the medication; so far, I haven’t had any side effects except that I have to do three times the exercise I was doing before to lose a little bit of weight. I have to be more careful of what I’m eating, less fatty foods, less sugar. This one is not a problem; I’ve always had more of a salty tooth than a sweet one.
I was wondering what I was going to do with all that free time. Me. A workaholic. My brother was telling me to write a book. The idea was great, maybe one day but I was more preoccupied with finding something to do that could help others. I started cooking with my Mom and experimenting with recipes. We cooked only with organic super foods. I eliminated all pesticides, chemical boosters and hormones, because I have to cut everything that can increase the estrogens in my body. So I had to learn a new way to eat and look at food. I included more fruits and veggies in my diet. My meat is lean and all organic without pesticide, medication and no estrogens. I changed the way I eat too: I now have four and sometimes five small meals a day instead of two or three big meals. I exercised more. I was still on chemo when I started going to the gym. I was training only the bottom part of my body, three times a week for 75 minutes. I was not using my car or taking the bus. I tried to walk everywhere I was going. I didn’t lose any weight but I maintained it. In August 2011, I started hiking. I was doing Grouse Mountain every week. By mid-September, I was able to do it every five days, and I was able to do it 14 times before the mountain closed. After, I decided to run. Alternate run, 5minutes run 2 minutes walk. By summer 2012, we started the grouse grind again. I would like to reach a healthy weight soon. I will make it! I have the support of my friends and my husband. We never miss a chance to go outside to exercise. I organize my week according to their work schedule. We meet together; we spend very good quality time. Exercising was and will always be part of my life. It’s respect for my body and my mind!
During my cooking discovery, I was doing a lot of research on organic foods: where can I find them, how much does it cost, etc. I was thinking, if each sick person has to do all this research, it will take so much time. I thought I would gather all the information I find and put it on a website, that way people will save time. Also, when you are sick, you don’t feel like sitting down in front of your computer. I know when I was sick, I was checking my e-mails only once a week.
I want to give a big thank you to all the people who took their time to come to help me. My husband Andre who stood so positively beside me. My mom Pierrette who spent almost 6 months with me and my father George who kept me believing that everything will be all right. My sister Sylvie, my brother Mario and my sister in law Sylvie who spent time flying and calling me every week. Sebastian who spent money to send my friend to me. Dany, who help me to put my flooring down. Guylaine B. for the good vitamins. Julie for the water filter, she wanted to be sure I was drinking good water through the whole process. Tara for making me laugh, I can’t wait to play in your movie ha ha! Patricia, Nancy and Guylaine for your unconditional friendship, you came to be with me when I needed you most in my life. Sophia for all your phone calls. Sylvianne, Romeo and Michele who took time off to be with me and spoiled me. Trevor Gilbert my boss, who put together, with my husband, a fundraiser to help me. To Brickhouse and Red Eye Empire(my husband’s ex-band) who played for free at the fundraiser. To my dear friends Sylvain who babysat me, took time to walk with me and be with me. Amy my funny Chinese friend who was there all the time. Ivory, Amelia for being there for me. All of my co-workers who I call my friends. All my family and friends who prayed for me and still pray for me.
In October 2013, my oncologist wanted me to stay on tamoxifen for another two years so 5 years later and after going on anti-hormone for another 2 to 3 years, I still have to be patient to make sure that the cancer never comes back. It’s been 4 years cancer free so far.
2014 I had two endometrial biopsies, I was bleeding for two weeks non stop, they found some polyps. My Oncologist stop my medication “Tamoxifen” to an anti hormone “Letrozole” 2.5mg to lower my estrogen in my body and that went away. It’s probably the side effect of the Tamoxifen.
After two weeks of taking Letrozole I had big migraine. They stop the medication for two weeks and start again and no more headache.
Since 2010, I have been trying to heal my body intensively. I had some inconvenience like bleeding (5 times), Pancreas inflammation (3 times at the emergency), The irritable colon (profusion of probiotic), fragile, nervous, more fatigue (I have to have nap time and I sleep longer).
Beginning of 2015, I moved to Quebec after being in Vancouver for the past 16 years. to be closer to my family and friends. I love Vancouver and I made a new family over there, great friends and co-workers that I will never forget and always stay in touch.
I finally have a new Oncologist (transfer) in Montreal. I still don’t have a family Doctor, because of the bad health care administration here. Hopefully the system will change quickly with the new government.
This is my story. It is my story out of thousands of cancer survivors. It is my story of my battle with cancer. It is my story of survival. It is my story of family, friends. It is my story of hope and strength. It is my story that has been the motivation to build this website and help out anyone who needs it. Feel free to ask me any questions or make any suggestions. I will do my very best to help you.
Thank you for letting me share my story with you.