Breast Cancer Survivor
Blessings Abound for Grateful Survivor
Vicki Rollf believes the blessings in her life far outweigh her early-stage HER2+ breast cancer diagnosis. She has met people, participated in events and learned about organizations she otherwise wouldn’t have. She has grown in her faith and had the opportunity to mentor others going through similar diagnoses.
I am a cancer survivor. My life changed when I was diagnosed, changed again during and after treatments, and continues to change now in survivorship. 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. It was no big deal. I’d gone back for follow-ups twice before. During this follow-up visit, 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 61 years old.
I was in complete shock. I was sad, scared and angry. Going to a cancer center to see cancer doctors, receiving “cancer mail” with my name on it — it was overwhelming. I began accepting my diagnosis, however, by asking questions. There’s so much information that you’ll probably only hear half of it and comprehend even less. I recommend having someone go with you to your appointments or recording the conversations to listen to later.
My treatment plan started with deciding between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. Because the tumor was very small, my surgeon thought I would be happy with a lumpectomy to be followed by radiation and hormone treatment. I had initial visits with my radiation oncologist and hormone oncologist; however, when the results from my HER2 test came back, everything changed. I was HER2 positive (HER2+), and my hormone oncologist added chemotherapy and targeted therapy to my treatment plan.
I’d never heard the term “HER2 positive” before. My oncologist told me that the breast cancer was more aggressive than we originally thought and, without this regimen, I had a much higher risk of metastasis. This was like a punch in the stomach. I had finally wrapped my head around my diagnosis and treatment plan, but this was new, serious information. She was, however, very pleased that a targeted therapy was available for me. I was very thankful for that, especially if it would help me stick around for many more years.
As displeased as I was about having to do chemotherapy, not doing it was too scary. Unfortunately, the margins were not clear, so I had a second lumpectomy and a port implanted. My regimen consisted initially of chemotherapy plus targeted therapy, and then treatments of just the targeted therapy. I also received radiation to the breast. A lot of people say one of the hardest things to deal with is not feeling in control. A pattern of symptoms emerged and I worked my life around it. I felt my best on week three of the cycle, the week before the next treatment. That’s when I’d schedule my work meetings and anything else I needed to get done for that week. It gave me hope during the bad days because I knew when they would end.
The treatments caused nausea comparable to morning sickness. I lost weight and my hair, was exhausted and got painful mouth sores. One of the chemotherapy drugs closed my tear ducts so my eyes watered all the time. The condition required a procedure to open the tear ducts, which gave me black eyes for six weeks. I also had neuropathy that returned as a late effect.
After the combined regimen, I continued with just targeted therapy. That part of treatment was a piece of cake. My side effects went away, and my hair began to grow back. I felt good enough to drive myself to and from treatment and, some days, I even stopped to do a little shopping on my way home.
Before treatment, I had osteopenia in my back; after treatment, that developed into osteoporosis and osteopenia in my back and hips. I was on a hormone treatment to help prevent recurrence, and its main side effect is bone loss. My endocrinologist recommended bone growth and strengthening agents, and my oncologist recommended I stop taking hormone replacement after five years.
I recommend finding resources and a support group because when you’re first diagnosed, you don’t understand everything. I wish I'd had the benefit of advice from someone who had “been there, done that,” so I volunteer by talking to women going through treatment. If my story helps even one person, then I feel like I’m paying it forward.
Since I chose a lumpectomy, I have an annual mammogram and it always makes me a little nervous. I wonder if I should have had a mastectomy. But, as cancer survivors, we live with the fear of recurrence in the back of our heads whether we had a lumpectomy or mastectomy. There will always be “what ifs.” I made the best decision for me based on my diagnosis, research and the time in my life.
I encourage women to talk to their doctor about side effects during and after treatment, even the ones that may be personal, such as vaginal dryness. The HER2+ diagnosis prevents women from taking estrogen supplements, so there is no estrogen in the body. That really brings on vaginal dryness, which affects intimacy as well as daily life. Definitely ask your doctor about the products and procedures that may manage that issue.
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. Just hold onto your family, friends and faith. Breast cancer doesn’t define us as women, but it’s now a part of who we are, and that’s OK.