… Dragging my feet, I am writing this article that I should have wrote long ago.
My name is Dawn Doll, Co-Founder or FitScene.us, fitness trainer extraordinaire, beauty advisor and makeup artist, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend… Breast Cancer (gulp) Survivor. If you could see my shoulders as I right this now, they are practically touching my ears. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month? What’s the big deal? I should be proud, wear my pink and run some race for the cure. Right?
Well, truthfully, until a recent experience at work, where I was excluded me from a “pink party,” I really didn’t associate myself as a “survivor”. Intentional? No, I don’t think so. But as I stood there, not wearing pink, watching my co-workers take pics for social media without me, Me, the only one in the group who personally lived through diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, I found myself fighting back tears as I was brought right back to the same feelings I experienced while fighting through breast cancer just over one year ago.
**Note, this article is not intended to insinuate the studio I reference was being insensitive or mean. In fact, I know not all the people knew I had breast cancer or that this situation impacted me. It is intended to tell my story and what I went through and still go through even post breast cancer. Without this very situation, I may not have had the reflection about what my story is. And, I am sure many other women share a similar journey and never have the opportunity to talk about it. This my story for me. To heal me and maybe some one else who may read it.
Three years ago this October I got the news one out of eight women will hear in their lifetimes– “You have Breast Cancer“!
Wait, WHAT?!? Insert “drop the mic” emoji here!
Yep, me, Dawn Doll, a 33 year old fitness professional with no family history or genetic profile for breast cancer was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. I was lucky as this is the lowest level of breast cancer and non-invasive. Because I was so strong (so I thought), I cried for about 3 minutes and then immediately went into the planning stage. I did my research and listened to the advise of my doctors and proceeded to schedule for the first available unilateral mastectomy (one side only, as the cancer was in my right breast only). The plan was to remove my cancerous breast tissue and place a small placement holder or expander in my breast pocket in order to have a future surgery to implant a new breast. My attitude was confident on the outside. In fact, maybe even cocky as I joked with my reconstruction doctor about making my breasts look even better than before.
Confident on the outside– Inside, I was freaking out.
I owned a fitness studio. I was recently divorced. I lived alone. How would support all of this on my own while facing breast cancer? How long will I have one breast? How will I work out or wear my athletic clothes? How will date?
Three months separated diagnosis and my mastectomy. I didn’t want anyone to coddle or feel sorry for me so I informed only my family, close friends and staff. Everyone was very strong and supportive. In February 2015, with my Mom and my Pastor at my side, I underwent surgery #1.
Success with an unexpected “Direct to Implant”! I was thrilled! I had a brand new breast. It looked as good as can be expected and within a few days I was back at work and moving on with my life– cancer free. I should stop here and thank everyone who visited with me in the hospital and helped keep my business running at full speed. “Thank You,” to my friends who brought healthy meals and did my hair so, at least, I felt a little more like myself. “Special Thanks,” to my Mom, who stayed almost a full week after my first surgery with me making sure I was resting (not my typical) and taking my meds. And shout out to my sister who checked in on me and brought me mac and cheese when my meds make me sick to my stomach!
10 days post surgery, I began a light workout, stationary biking a light, slow pace. And week by week, I got clearance from my doctor to do more. Everything was going as planned… so I thought!
Week four post mastectomy I woke up not feeling well and my breast was red and swollen. Panic. Immediately, I made an emergency visit to my doctor who informed me I have an infection. Without hesitation, I was back in the hospital for three days of intravenous antibiotic infusions. I tell you, sitting for 3-5 hours getting pumped full of medication can really make a person think. All the fear and stress I had pre surgery came back full magnitude. I was really worried that I would lose my breast and have to start all over.
For 11 weeks my doctor and I fought a staff infection called staphylococcus epidermidis or “staph epi” which sticks to plastics (aka ”my implant”) and is very resistant to treatment of antibiotics. Three times a day I had to self-inject a giant ball of the most potent antibiotic into a pic line into my arm which went directly into my heart. I would infuse first thing in the morning, while teaching in during the day, and wake up at in the middle of the night and infuse again. It was a real pain in the “you know what”! And, even more hard on my body. I had several scares with blood clots and had to have a nurse come to home or work and do check ups on a weekly basis.
One day while just sitting with crossed legs on the floor coaching a pilates class, I moved wrong and when I went to unbend my leg–BAM! Emergency surgery on a torn meniscus in my knee! What is my luck? Per my doctor, apparently prolonged use of antibiotics can damage the soft tissue in your joints. Who knew?
Nothing seemed to be working. Despite my doctor having taken out my implant and doing what’s called “cleaning out the pocket” and replacing it with a spacer implant, I still could not kick the infection. My doctor said the only way to get rid of the very serious infection was a total removal of any implant in my breast. For the next 6 months I would be without a right side breast.
After all of this, I lost my right breast. I was devastated.
At this point, I had multiple surgeries, failed antibiotic treatments, and an attempt to flush the inside of the breast, and now a immobile knee, my body had had enough. My spirit did too.
I could not fathom life with one breast. An intimate part of my womanhood gone. I felt like a freak. Physically, it was hard to look at what once was a beautiful feature of my body. I had to change my wardrobe and wear a prosthetic breast which we jokingly coined my “chicken cutlet”. I knew it was to create a sense of lightness around what felt like a dark situation but at the heart of it all I was really feeling injured, not just physically but even more emotionally. I felt super self conscious and also very selfish at the same time as I knew I was not the worst case scenario. At least one day, I would get another breast, unlike other breast cancer patients. But, more than any other feeling I was experiencing, I was feeling very alone.
This is where this article gets hard for me personally. These are things I have not told anyone other than my now fiancé. The vulnerability it takes to tell you now is humbling but also healing. It is the reason I am writing the article in the first place.
Loneliness is one of the hardest emotions to cope with. And I don’t mean lack of being around or interacting with other human beings. My feeling of alone was like being in a crowd and having a deep dark secret but having to pretend it didn’t exists. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or pity me, but I felt like I really needed someone to hug me and tell me things were going to be ok… daily. I was the leader of a fitness studio and many days had to put on my tough girl facade and fake it just to make through a day.
I had months proceedures to re-expand the pocket of my breast to take an implant and three more surgeries to reconstruct my breast (including replacing a wrong style implant- WTF?). Every one of them was a real challenge. I had been in the process almost a full year. By this time, my breast cancer was old news. “Just another surgery…” Few really cared to volunteer to care take for me when I needed to be healing. I had to seek out friends and almost guilt them into helping me. I even had to cab to the hospital for one of the surgeries and hire an in-home health nurse to help me after my big surgery to finally put in an actual implant. The hospital would not discharge me without someone supervising my health for at least 24 hours. A few dear people came by for a few hours to check on me and my sister would call to see if I needed anything since she lived close but overall, I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. For the most part I was on my own to heal.
I didn’t understand. I felt unimportant. I saw other breast cancer survivors celebrated with family at their sides, charitable events for breast cancer awareness and pink parties galore.
Yet I was alone.
It has taken eight surgeries in total, including the scope of my knee, which I also attribute to my journey with breast cancer, to come out on the other side with two breasts and a healthy body. I don’t resent or hold animosity to anyone for my feelings during my journey. I recognize, like me, everyone has their own life and responsibilities to take care of.
My body has healed. But even though my body has healed my spirit is still on the mend. I consider that many women die from this disease and look at my right breast (which will never be the same) and I am thankful to be done with the physical part of this journey. However, after this last week’s events, I have to acknowledge that the emotional journey is still in front of me. And may be for quite some time. Or maybe forever. I didn’t realize how raw I would feel when I was excluded from that party at work. I didn’t know it would resurface the feeling of loneliness that I felt along the way. But I am thankful it did. I am reminded that I AM a woman who had breast cancer. Not a survivor or victim but a damn strong fighter. Still fighting one day at a time.
And if I have to wear pink this month to draw attention to this killer disease, then dang it– I will!
So, I write this article today not because I want everyone to celebrate or feel sorry for Me as a woman who had breast cancer. Instead, if I can encourage husbands, mothers, daughter, sisters, co-workers or anyone to reach out to a woman they know who living through breast cancer now or has had any level of its condition, then this article served its purpose. Acknowledge their journey through to the other side of a life changing disease both physical and emotional.
Many women I have talked to in writing this article don’t like the title of “survivor. They frankly don’t want the attention on them. But a personal message to say something so simple as “I’m thinking about you,” or “Do you want to talk,” is enough to touch their hearts and care for their soul even more than wearing a pink shirt for a photo. Over 250,000 women are diagnosed every year and approximately 40,000 will not survive. Even though breast cancer is the # 2 killer of women in America we want to be recognized for the strong, vivacious, humbled but not defeated “fighters” that we are.
And, as a disclaimer, if “walking for a cure” or hosting a “pink party” is the way you feel you can express your support for breast cancer awareness and the ongoing efforts to fund research then, “Thank You“. The more lives we can unite and touch, education and awareness we can share, and lives we can help save, the better off we are as a whole.
And, if you are reading this as a woman diagnosed or on the journey, the below article and series that follows called “Beyond the Shock” created by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, is an amazing resource for more information on what to expect from both a physical and emotional standpoint on the breast cancer experience.
To all of you who have lived through the journey, Stay Strong One Day at a Time. For those of you who have lost a loved one to breast cancer, God Bless.
Finally, please take the time this month and every month to do a self breast exam and get a mammogram based on age and/or family history. Breast cancer can’t be prevented, but you can take three important steps to help detect it earlier. The free resource, 3 Steps to Early Detection, can increase your chance of finding breast cancer before it spreads.
Breast Cancer Awareness Day in 2015 is on Friday, October 16th. Breast cancer actually doesn’t have one day of recognition. It has the entire month of October. However, National Mammography Day on the third Friday in October is a good date to celebrate as Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
For more information on Breast Cancer please read my article “What Number are You“?