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I was 44 years old when I was diagnosed with invasive, aggressive breast cancer in my left breast. I had no family history of breast cancer, had mammograms every year since I turned 40, and never had any problems or concerns until the one that showed the calcifications that turned out to be cancer. After discovering the calcifications, I had a biopsy of the tissue. It came as a shock when the nurse of my breast surgeon told me the diagnosis over the phone at 4:50 pm on a Wednesday afternoon. I was grateful that she told me over the phone and didn’t make me wait until my Friday appointment to hear the news, as I knew that something was wrong by the fact that she had called me in the first place.
I was at my desk at the end of a workday when I received the news. I knew that I wanted to tell my husband before I told anyone else and I knew that I wanted to tell him in person. At 5 pm that day, I was scheduled to meet with two of my students for a personal training session. (As a college professor in health and exercise science, my students were serving as my trainers for a senior course project.) I hung up the phone after hearing the news from the nurse, changed my clothes, and met with my trainers to have a really challenging workout. I needed to burn off some energy and anxiety at that point!
My treatment began with a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. After this first surgery, we discovered that I also had a different, but equally aggressive, cancer in my right breast, too, which had not been detected on the mammogram. Five weeks after my double mastectomy, I had a second surgery to remove lymph nodes from the right side, as this was not done during the original surgery.
After I recovered from the second surgery, I had 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. A week after radiation ended, I had a complete hysterectomy due to a precancerous condition in my cervix. Six months later, I had my fourth and final surgery to complete my breast reconstruction with silicone implants.
It’s interesting to see how a person reacts to a cancer diagnosis and treatment. You don’t really know how you will respond until it happens to you. Fitness, nutrition, and general wellness became the basis of my daily life as I proceeded through three surgeries, 18 weeks of chemotherapy, and six weeks of radiation. I knew from the start that I was going to live a long time and that I wanted to be as healthy and fit after cancer as I was before it. I’d seen many people go through cancer treatment and how it aged them–in the space of one year, they would look and feel five years older. I believed that it didn’t have to be that way. Having goals and a plan for fitness and nutrition through my treatment gave me something positive to focus on and a reason to get up each day. At the start of my cancer treatment, I set a goal for myself: I would compete in my first women’s physique competition at the end of my treatment! In August 2010, this dream became a reality as I competed in a regional competition in Burlington, New Jersey. I have written a book about my experience, called You Can Be Beautiful Beyond Breast Cancer (Meyer and Meyer Sport Publishers).
You will be overwhelmed with advice from well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers who happen to hear about your story. The one piece of advice I will give is to recognize that what is right for someone else may not be the best decision for you. Often during my treatment, I discovered that the experts didn’t agree on the best options for me. Ultimately, I had to seek the advice of the small circle of people whom I most trusted and then make the decision that seemed right for me.
In April 2013, I celebrated my fourth year since my diagnosis and mastectomy.
My case turned out to be fairly serious and complicated. Going into the double mastectomy, I knew I had a very aggressive cancer in my left breast. What I didn’t know until after the surgery was that I also had a different type of equally aggressive cancer in my right breast. Even though I had mammograms every year, they did not detect the right-breast cancer. I cannot tell you how grateful I was to have made the decision to have both breasts removed from the start. Had I not done so, I would have had to go through cancer treatment all over again for the right breast when it eventually was detected. Because my case was unusual, physicians did not agree on the best way to treat me. I learned first-hand how important it is to be able to advocate for yourself, gather information from many sources, and then make the best decision you can at the time, knowing that there is no one “right” answer.
As difficult as it was to go through treatment, there were many gifts along the way. I had over 100 people praying for me on a regular basis. As a person of faith, I am certain that God was and is with me in a powerful way, providing healing and hope each day. I learned in a new way what it means to trust God and rest in God’s strength and not my own. My marriage was also strengthened, and my husband and I feel closer to each other having gone through this experience together. Having cancer brought the rest of life into perspective and has helped me understand what’s really important and what is and isn’t worth my time and energy.
Finally, cancer has helped me become more compassionate to the suffering of other people; I can walk with them and encourage them in a deeper way as a result of my own suffering. It is my hope that I will continue to be able to inspire and encourage other women going through breast cancer treatment and continue sharing the “gift” that cancer has given me.
1. Make plans for living, not dying. One oncology nurse told me that she believed 70% of cancer treatment is mental. Deciding to face treatment with courage and hope is not easy, but it is a significant part of becoming healthy and whole again. It’s important to be honest about your diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis and not to minimize it, but it’s equally important not to allow yourself to obsess about it and let it become the only theme of your life. I made a point of living life as much as possible as I navigated treatment, and I believe it helped me to feel better and to have more strength to face my treatment.
2. Know your life priorities and focus on them. It’s so easy to fritter away your time, day after day, on the trivial distractions and minor crises of life. I experienced a renewed commitment to having big, longer-term goals and working toward them. It wasn’t easy to do this, but I recognized that I won’t live forever and that NOW is the time to do the things that matter most.
Leslie Spencer holds a Ph.D. in Health Education from Temple University and is a Professor of Health and Exercise Science at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, where she has served since 1995. She coordinates an undergraduate degree program in Health Promotion and Fitness Management and a graduate degree program in Wellness and Lifestyle Management (formerly Health Promotion Management). She is also a breast cancer survivor who trained for and competed in her first figure competition while undergoing four surgeries, 18 weeks of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation therapy. She participated in a second figure competition in August 2011. Both competitions are hosted by the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders.
Leslie will be a partner with Dr. Kathryn Schmitz, an Associate Professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, on the WISER Survivor study of fitness training for women at high risk for breast cancer, slated to begin in the fall of 2012. Through a grant-funded initiative, Leslie will host one of ten sites identified to provide fitness counseling and training to participants and collect data for the study.