Survivor Stories: Vanessa Echols
How did you first find out you had cancer?
I had no symptoms; I felt perfectly fine. I went in for what was supposed to be a routine, scheduled mammogram. Because of dense breast tissue, the radiologist suggested an ultrasound. The ultrasound detected enlarged lymph nodes under one arm, which led to a biopsy, then a diagnosis of Stage II breast cancer.
How did you react when you heard the news?
Like most people who hear that news, I was shocked. But after the initial shock, I was extremely focused on my treatment plan and doing whatever I needed to do to get through treatment and get it over with. I became a sponge, soaking up all the information I could about breast cancer treatment.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
I started with six months of chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy, then 30 radiation treatments and reconstruction.
What most surprised you about your treatment?
How some things happened just as my oncologist predicted. I remember he gave me a particular day after the first treatment that I would start to experience hair loss. I was thinking, “There’s no way he can be that precise.” Well like clockwork, that very day, my hair started falling out in clumps. And this may sound odd, but despite all the horror stories I had heard about chemotherapy, I was still a bit surprised at how truly tiring the entire process is, physically and emotionally. The other major thing for me was how cancer treatment took over and consumed my life for an entire year. Everything had to be planned around chemo, surgery, radiation, medical tests, and doctor’s appointments. At one point, I felt I had lost the power to make any decisions for myself without consulting the medical team first. Sometimes I just wanted to say no when I was “ordered” to another medical appointment or test.
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Breathe. Seriously, your mind is probably racing in a million directions, trying to absorb all the strange medical terms you’ve heard since the diagnosis. And during those first few medical appointments, take notes. You will be bombarded with information, way too much for your mind to process at first. After my first week, I told my oncologist I felt as if my head was going to explode. He chuckled. I was quite serious. Don’t be afraid to ask about the latest treatments or clinical trials. And when you talk to other cancer patients, every case is different. When you hear how bad their experience is, remember that is their experience. It doesn’t mean it will also be yours.
How long have you been cancer free?
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I am much stronger than I thought I was. I feel like after going through cancer treatment and surviving it, I can do anything. No challenge is too great. Bring it! I also learned that it is possible to turn obstacles into opportunities. That’s why I began a breast cancer outreach organization in 2007, to help other patients who are walking this journey. The organization is Compassionate Hands and Hearts Breast Cancer Outreach, Inc.
If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Take charge of your health. You are your best advocate. If you suspect something’s wrong, something doesn’t feel right, or something makes you uneasy, keep pestering your doctor until she or he finds out what’s wrong. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. But most importantly, whether it’s something medical, career-wise, or personal, LIVE LIFE FEARLESSLY.
Vanessa Echols anchors the morning and noon newscasts on WFTV CHANNEL 9/WRDQ TV 27 in Central Florida. She is a frequent speaker for the America Cancer Society’s Relay for Life events. This year, she is also the honorary chairman for the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in October. Vanessa is also a member of Sisters Network, a support network for African-American breast cancer survivors. In 2007, Vanessa founded Compassionate Hands and Hearts Breast Cancer Outreach (www.compassionatehandsandhearts.org), which helps Central Florida breast cancer patients and their families with whatever they need to help lessen the burden of breast cancer treatment. Vanessa and the organization have been featured in several local and national newspapers and magazines.
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