Survivor Stories 2013:
Rachel Brooks Posadas
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
I was 28 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One day while getting dressed I felt a rock hard pebble-sized lump in my lower right breast. That was not something I’d never felt before and I remember feeling panicked about it. I didn’t know who to see so it took several phone calls and appointments with different doctors before I finally ended up in an oncologist’s office. The lump was too small to perform a regular in-office needle biopsy so I had to schedule a core biopsy in order to find out anything. The day I went in for the results I envisioned myself breezing in there, the doctor telling me everything was fine, and me being done with the whole mess upon walking out the door. Instead, the doctor had to tell me I had breast cancer.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
When my oncologist entered the stark white exam room where I sat alone waiting with a dry throat and clammy hands the look on her face told me the news was bad. It was cancer. She said she hadn’t expected that to be the case based on my young age, no family history, and lack of other risk factors. But the biopsy results weren’t wrong. In that moment I felt the walls closing in on me and I started crying. I remember feeling embarrassed about that. I didn’t want to cry in front of the doctor. I don’t remember much of anything else she said that day, but I do remember feeling too overwhelmed to ask any questions. She asked if I wanted to come back in a few days and bring someone with as support. That sounded great but with my family living across the country at the time I didn’t know who to ask and ended up bringing an ex-boyfriend. That was strange, especially since he had been the one to break my heart in the months before the cancer diagnosis. It was like a double whammy.
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
The initial plan was to get the cancer out as soon as possible so I had a lumpectomy and centinal node biopsy (to test the lymph nodes and determine if the cancer had spread) within a few weeks of the confirming the diagnosis. After recovering from the surgery I would go through radiation and also take two different medications, Tamoxifen and Zoladex. The Tamoxifen inhibits new cancer cell growth and I took that daily for five years. The Zoladex is a monthly injection done for three years. It suppresses ovarian functioning and induces menopause, but luckily that’s only temporary (now I know what to expect with the hot flashes when I hit menopause naturally). My cancer was hormone-positive so by suppressing the ovaries the Zoladex was helping to keep my estrogen levels down (the estrogen had been helping the cancer grow). The two medications were actually a compromise because the doctors had recommended chemotherapy, but I was worried it would hurt my chances of having children later so I opted against it.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
The thing I found most surprising about the different treatments was the complete physical exhaustion from going through radiation. I used to be athletic and enjoyed running and playing just about any sport. But those radiation appointments beat me down much more than I anticipated. I’d go there in the late afternoon after work and always fall asleep within an hour of arriving home afterward. In the last few weeks of the treatment even though I’d fall asleep so early in the evening I still wouldn’t wake up again until morning. I was completely drained.
I remember trying to jog again once my sessions had ended and I had to stop just a few blocks from home because I was so physically depleted that I didn’t have the energy to move. I think I was fighting back tears as I headed back home feeling like maybe I should be crawling instead. I was that tired. I couldn’t believe how much the radiation zapped me. Even a few months later when I had the energy to try playing basketball with friends again it felt so strange to see everyone zip past me on the court when I used to be one of the fastest out there. It was like moving in slow motion. Fortunately, my energy came back eventually but it probably took a full year or more before I felt anywhere close to what I was prior to treatment.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Get yourself a support system. It can be anyone. Family, friends, a therapist, or a support group will work; someone to lean on for emotional support. It is already physically and emotionally taxing to go through cancer treatment, but to do it on your own is just an added challenge you don’t need during that time. As I mentioned, my family was too far away to be able to taxi me to appointments, make me dinner, and just be there. I didn’t want to burden friends so I went to most appointments by myself, but that wasn’t really the hardest part. In general, I just felt lonely during that time. I think I’d already been feeling that way, but the cancer diagnosis really put a spotlight on that that area of my life. Ultimately, I found a great cancer support group and an excellent therapist. Being able to talk to someone about what you’re going through, even if it’s everything else other than the cancer, is so helpful. I unloaded a lot of emotional baggage during my therapy sessions and I think that was just as important to my cancer recovery as the actual cancer treatment. Emotional health is just as important as physical health.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
It has been 11 healthy years for me with no recurrence. Yay to surviving!
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I learned to value myself more; to know that I have worth. Before the cancer I had struggled with feeling unworthy in so many ways. When it came to fighting the cancer, though, I always felt confident. It was something that had to be done and I truly believed the outcome would be positive. But in the rest of my life I didn’t always have that same perspective. Dealing with the cancer taught me to see myself as a strong individual, a survivor if you will, and I learned to develop a more positive approach in the rest of my life. Now none of this happened overnight and I still struggled with my self-esteem for a while, but the more time I spent reflecting on my “breast cancer experience,” the more I began to feel positive about myself and the direction of my life. This will sound cliché, but surviving breast cancer really did push me to find love for myself.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
For any mother I think it is important to be proud of who you. Your kids will pick up on your feelings about yourself so you want those to be positive ones. Before having kids I always knew I’d want to help them be confident in themselves, but hadn’t thought about how to accomplish that. Now that I have little ones I believe that part of helping them develop into self-confident individuals is to set the example of being such an individual. Your kids think you’re great (at least while they’re still young) so believe that about yourself too.
In addition to being a breast cancer survivor and now a mom, Rachel Brooks Posadas is also a writer and a handmade jewelry artist. Her handmade jewelry is available through her online shop Gianna’s Jewelry Box. As far as writing, Rachel sometimes writes about breast cancer and other health related issues and has had two books published on the paranormal. She also maintains a blog, Unwise Woman, where she chronicles her many misadventures trying to navigate life as an “unwise woman.” Rachel also has a background in Criminal Justice and Psychology and before she was a full-time writer and jewelry crafter she used to work with mentally ill inmates. These days she remains connected to her Criminal Justice roots through occasional adjunct teaching and curriculum development.