Breast Cancer Survivor

Breast cancer is now part of survivor’s identity

Vicki Rollf believes the blessings in her life have far outweighed the breast cancer diagnosis that shocked her just a few years ago. She relied on her family, friends and faith to get through and is now proud to be a survivor.

 

I am a cancer survivor. My life changed when I was diagnosed, changed again during and after treatments, and even continues to change now in survivorship. I found I’m stronger than I thought I was, I’m far less judgmental (which is a work in progress), and I have a lot more empathy because we all have our own story. Mine just happens to include breast cancer.

I had a routine mammogram; they saw something and asked me to come back. No big deal—I’d gone back for follow-ups twice before. During this follow-up visit, however, the conversation was different. I was talking with the ultrasound technician and had all but received a verbal diagnosis of breast cancer. A needle biopsy confirmed Stage I breast cancer.

I was in complete shock. I was sad, scared and angry. At first, I couldn’t even say the words, “I have breast cancer.” Going to a cancer center to see cancer doctors, receiving “cancer mail” with my name on it—it was far too overwhelming. I began accepting my diagnosis, however, by asking questions. I asked the doctors and the nurses, “If I were your mom, what would you have me do?” There’s so much information, you’re probably only going to hear half of it and comprehend even less. I recommend that you have someone go with you to your appointments or record the conversations to listen to later.

My treatment plan started with the option of lumpectomy versus mastectomy. I opted for a lumpectomy. Unfortunately, the margins on the first procedure were not clear, so I had to have a second lumpectomy. Originally, surgery would be followed by radiation but no chemotherapy. I was very relieved, but when my HER2 results came back, that changed. My oncologist told me that without chemo, I had a much higher risk of metastasis. As displeased as I was, I was ready to start treatment after I recovered from surgery. My regimen consisted of docetaxel (Taxotere) and carboplatin, given every 21 days. I had six of these chemo cocktails, then 16 treatments of trastuzumab (Herceptin) for almost a full year. I also received 35 radiation treatments as originally promised.

A lot of people say one of the hardest things to deal with when you're diagnosed is not feeling in control. Fortunately for me, a pattern of symptoms emerged after receiving my chemo drugs, and I was able to work my life around it. I felt my best on week three of the cycle, the week just before the next treatment. I’d schedule all of my work meetings and anything else I needed to get done for that week. It also gave me hope during the bad days because I knew when they would end. It was a comforting feeling.

The treatments caused nausea comparable to morning sickness; I lost weight and my hair, and was exhausted. The docetaxel closed my tear ducts so my eyes watered all the time and would just stream down my face. The condition required a special procedure to open the tear ducts, which also gave me black eyes for six weeks! Thankfully, the black eyes went away along with the other side effects after treatment.

Before treatment, I had osteopenia in my back; after treatment, that developed into osteoporosis and osteopenia in my back and both hips. As a result, my endocrinologist recommended teriparatide (Forteo) for two years to hopefully build bone. I’m also taking anastrozole (Arimidex) to help reduce any chance of recurrence.

It’s important to remember that everyone is different, from each individual diagnosis to the treatment plan to how you react to your treatments. Do what you need to do to feel better. I chose to wear a wig and put makeup on because I needed to go out in public and not look sick. Looking better helped make me feel better. But you need to meet your own needs, whatever they are, and don’t feel bad about it because it’s your body.

Even though this diagnosis isn’t something I would’ve asked for, it’s not something I regret. I’ve met beautiful, amazing women who became new friends. The little things that used to bug me don’t seem so important anymore. The hair loss, which was devastating at first, turned into something awesome: There are great wigs available, getting ready was really fast, and I never had a bad hair day! I truly believe the blessings from this journey have far outweighed the diagnosis. Just hold onto your family, friends and faith, and you’ll make it. Breast cancer doesn’t define us as women, but it’s now a part of who we are, and that’s OK.

 

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