Survivor Stories 2015:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
I was pregnant with my third child at 36 and suffered a miscarriage. Shortly afterwards, most likely due to the hormone fluctuations, I started experiencing sharp, shooting pains in both breasts. I had the same symptoms when I had stopped breastfeeding my second child, so I went to the doctor, just to be sure. After an exam, my OB/GYN sent me for a mammogram with the full expectation that, because there were multiple lumps, they were most likely cysts. I had a baseline mammogram two years before, so during the comparison, they noticed a new lump, and scheduled a biopsy.
I think it’s important to point out that I knew in my gut something was wrong at least 9 months before. So much so that I visited my primary care doctor and said, “I just don’t feel well. I’m tired, I get dizzy easily and something is not right.” I then asked her for a prescription for a mammogram and she turned me down, telling me I was too young.
She did blood work and all was normal. She diagnosed me as “a young mother who wasn’t getting enough sleep” and sent me off with a prescription for tranquilizers to “calm my anxiety.” If she had sent me to the radiologist, as she should have, I most likely would have had much shorter treatment because it was considered a very aggressive form of cancer.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
That’s a complicated question. Many people who have been diagnosed with cancer will tell you that the worst part is in the beginning when the uncertainty remains. You don’t know if it’s in your lymph nodes, whether it’s metastasized, you don’t know the pathology, etc. But, when they called me at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, April 20, 2012, I was not surprised. I went into survival mode. I sped like a lightning bolt to the radiology center to get my films and got an appointment for Monday at one of the top breast surgeons in the world. Then, I called my best friend and asked her to pick up my two daughters, and waited for my husband to get home. He walked in, and I smiled broadly, and said, “baby, come outside, I need to talk to you.” I had this idea in my head that if I told him in the house, he would never have a positive association with our family home again. So we sat down, and I told him.
The next few days were the worst of my life. I struggled with a despair and darkness that is very difficult to explain. I am a very hopeful, joyous person, and I felt that the diagnosis was threatening my very nature as well as my survival. I was in clinical shock – I lived on high doses of Xanax, I cried, I prayed, I screamed, I laughed at inappropriate times, then I took more Xanax to knock me out so I didn’t have to think about it.
Eventually, about three weeks after diagnosis and about 4 days before my double mastectomy, I had a sense of overwhelming peace. I don’t know where it came from,
I’m not an extremely religious person, but I felt the presence of an energy that brought me calm and I knew all would be well – regardless of whether I lived or died or how much I would have to suffer.
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
I had to have one breast removed for certain because there were 8 spots of cancer, some pre-cancer, some invasive. So, I opted to just take them both. Thank God I did, because they found an invasive carcinoma in the second breast and a 4cm lobular in situ that had not yet turned invasive. If it had, I would have been diagnosed late Stage 3. As luck would have it, none of the cancer had spread into my lymph nodes. If I had been older, and I did not have what is called “Triple Positive Breast Cancer,” I probably would have been able to skip chemo. But I couldn’t. I went through 16 months of treatment. 20 weeks of chemo: the first 12 weeks was once a week, and the last 8 were every other week. Then, I went through an additional ten months of IV drips that are not considered chemotherapy, but a drug that targets a specific her2neu receptor. In addition, I also took and continue to take Tamoxifen which suppresses estrogen.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
Menopause is no joke, that’s for sure. I was thrown into immediate “chemopause” after my first infusion of Adriamycin and Cytoxin. The hot flashes and other symptoms were terrible. I wasn’t nauseous too often because they do a great job of providing patients with anti nausea drugs and steroids – that was surprising. Also, the fact that I gained 20 pounds was a shocker. I always thought people got skinny when they had cancer, but the steroids and lethargy made me pack on the pounds, and changed my metabolism permanently.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Stay off the Internet. There is nothing positive about message boards. Many of them are trolls who delight in fear mongering. This is extremely negative to your mental health and causes stress that makes it harder to be positive and stay healthy during treatment.
I also recommend taking a close look at yourself, and figuring out what gives you power.
We are all different. For me, becoming very knowledgeable about breast cancer, my options and nutrition made me feel as if I was in control. Sometimes, the feeling you are in control, even though you may not be, is important for keeping your head on straight.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
I consider the day I had my double mastectomy the day I became cancer free since it was not in my nodes. So, May 17, 2012!
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I can’t fit them all here, but here’s some highlights:
I learned to manage anger. I was so angry, I took a bat to an iPhone in my backyard while I yelled. Can you imagine the sight of a bloated, bald cancer patient crushing a mobile device with a bat? It’s hilarious and sad at the same time.
Sometimes the worst darkness can bring the brightest light and joy.
Everyone has a cross to bear and tragedy to experience, how you handle it can build you up, change you, delight you and bring you peace and happiness.
Living in fear is more tortuous than fighting.
Realize those that love you, they will show you. Also, realize the ones that don’t, and cut them loose.
The overwhelming majority of people are kind and giving, but some people are just
mean and delight in other people’s pain. Recognize the difference.
Give the kind ones who say the wrong thing a pass, they are trying their best.
Look for love every day, because it truly is all around and can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
You’re stronger than you think you are.
Being scared and sad doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human.
Feel it. The only way to recover from trauma is to really feel all the stages of it. Cry, scream, laugh and know how you feel will change every day.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Listen to your body and don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong.
Leah Nurik is a marketing and business development consultant with more than a decade of experience in the high-technology business. Her company, Gabriel Marketing Group, based in Reston, VA, was founded in May of 2009 and provides B2B technology companies with full-service marketing and business development needs.
Her resume includes executive-level strategic roles at large companies like Motorola & Symbol Technologies as well as leading marketing efforts for technology start-ups and incubators in the B2B software and wireless markets. She has worked for companies at all funding stages, including bootstrapped, VC-funded, and public companies listed on a variety of exchanges, including the NYSE, Nasdaq and the Toronto Stock Exchange.