A few years back, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was devastating news to hear. As a family, we banded together and got through it. We informed ourselves and supported one another through the journey, and we were lucky. Today, she is healthy and living a full life again.
A year after her diagnosis, I felt a lump in my left breast. I scheduled a mammogram and the results shocked me. I was a 43-year-old doctor and I had breast cancer.
Before making my surgical decisions, I met with a wonderful geneticist and counselor. I underwent an extensive panel of tests based on my family history and discoveries in breast cancer genetics, and I learned so much. Ultimately, I tested positive for CHEK-2, a mutation I had never heard of that increased my risk of breast cancer by more than 25%.
Based on my increased lifetime risk of another cancer, I chose to undergo a double mastectomy and lymph node dissection. I knew this decision was the right one for me, but it was an intensely personal one. It certainly is not the answer for everyone.
My treatment involved major surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation. From start to finish, my healthcare team has been amazing, but I have to admit that it’s been a long and taxing year. One thing was very clear throughout: I was not going to allow cancer to change how I looked or felt. Or, at least I was going to try to look and feel as normal as possible—for myself and for my family.
There were times when I felt far from normal, but determined to keep my promise to myself, I found several things that helped me through the battle.
First, I tried cold cap therapy, which involves wearing a specially designed cap to cool the scalp and has been shown to reduce hair loss during chemo. I very much wanted to be seen how I always look, with long shiny hair. I figured, by keeping my hair, I would show up as Everyday Me, not Me Going Through Cancer Treatment.
The cold caps were mildly effective at first, but by the end of chemo, my hair was gone, and so was my concern for “looking normal”. It turned out the hair loss wasn’t so awful after all. My children came to fondly refer to me as “Bald Mom,” as we laughed around the dinner table. When it came to feeling well, the giggles were probably more helpful than the cold caps.
For those of you who read our monthly contributions on Brazen Woman, you know that my business partner and I created a line of personalized multivitamins and supplements. During chemo, I found that our Power Up™ Situational Supplement provided electrolytes and a blend of B vitamins that my ailing body badly needed. Also, I was particularly susceptible to illness, so I kept our popular Immune Blast™ Situational Supplement close at hand to nourish my white blood cells.
During my cancer treatment, I also found great comfort in following an exercise regimen. Don’t conjure up images of marathons and spin classes here, but every day, I made a conscious, purposeful effort to move.
On some days, I took a short walk around the block, on others, I’d muster up enough energy to ride my bike. Regular moderate exercise has been found to have health benefits for people with cancer, so why wouldn’t I try it? At the very least, getting my muscles moving while being able to breathe in fresh air made me feel gorgeously alive.
This journey has been humbling, enlightening, and full of love. I have returned to work as a more compassionate physician and am personally and professionally influenced by my cancer battle.
A few lessons I’ve learned from having breast cancer:
1. Get your mammogram! Regular screening tests are the most reliable way to find breast cancer early. Like most clinicians, I urge women to begin screening at the age of 40.
2. If you have a strong family history of breast or other cancers, discuss your risk with your healthcare provider. Although a small percentage of breast cancer is genetic, you may benefit from a consultation with a geneticist. Unfortunately, one in eight women will get it in their lifetime.
3. Listen to your body and follow-up with your healthcare provider if there is anything concerning.
4. Count your blessings, take your vitamins and wear whatever hair you have with confidence!
Romy Block, MD, along with Arielle Levitan, MD created Vous Vitamin® to provide people with quality vitamins that are suited to their individual needs. They are the authors of the award-winning book The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear the Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health.