Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women, according to breastcancer.org. Additionally, about one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. But because of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness, breast cancer incidence rates have been decreasing since 2000. The following women have all graciously shared their stories of courage in the hope of helping NAILS readers who may now be facing the challenge of breast cancer and to encourage awareness and prevention for everyone.
I found out I had breast cancer when I turned 39 and had two girls under the age of four. My mother and sister were diagnosed with breast cancer previously, and they urged me to have a prophylactic mastectomy — but at the age of 22, I was so young, naive, and stubborn that I refused. Needless to say, after my diagnosis, I elected to have a double mastectomy with chemotherapy and radiation. I was diagnosed as stage 3A and estrogen receptor positive, which meant that after my chemotherapy and radiation, I was to take Tamoxifen for five years.
An important thing I have to share with everyone reading my story is that you have to be your own medical advocate. I got three different opinions from three surgeons. One was a regular surgeon whom I despised immediately, as he said he could see why I wanted to have a double mastectomy, but he would not do them both at the same time because of contamination of instruments. I know: You’re scratching your head with this ludicrous comment. I also sought an opinion from my mother’s and sister’s surgical oncologist at the John Wayne Cancer Clinic at UCLA. He found out that I had pre-cancer cells in my left breast. I finally made my decision by interviewing a third doctor who was an oncological breast cancer surgeon. I elected to have reconstruction at the same time as my mastectomy.
The emotional trauma I experienced afterward was intense. I had 1-year-old Becca, and Hanna was going to be 5 and starting kindergarten. How could I possibly take care of these two angels and yet heal myself from the scars of my surgeries and impending chemotherapy and radiation? But I did it. I had no choice. I didn’t want to die.
Would I have done anything differently? Maybe. I may not have done breast reconstruction at the time of surgery. I ended up having two additional reconstructions done because one leaked and the other had skin so thin from radiation treatment that you could see through a tiny hole in my implant. The second reconstruction was horrible. They did a latismus flap procedure, which meant they took some muscle, skin, and fat tissue from my back, brought it around to the front, and created a new skin/pocket for the new breast implant. It was extremely painful and took a long time to heal.
I would tell anyone facing the challenge of breast cancer that support — friends, family, Facebook, etc. — are very important in keeping a positive attitude. I have been an advocate for other women who have been newly diagnosed, sometimes just holding their hands, as they just wanted someone to talk to who knew what it was like to go through breast cancer. The one thing that got most of them through it was having a little bit of faith — not thinking it was a death sentence. Breast cancer is curable. Check and feel yourself. Know your breasts. Get checked out.
Kathy Weltman, Soft Landings Towels, Scottsdale, Ariz.
In April 2014, I received an email from my aunt telling me that she had breast cancer for the second time in 16 years. She urged me to get a baseline mammogram just so we’d have it. After the initial shock wore off, and she reassured me that she would be fine, I made an appointment for a mammogram so I could send it to her and tell her to “Leave my boobs out of this!” One mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer on August 5, 2014. I am BRCA 1 positive and was Stage 2b. I opted for a double mastectomy because of my aunt’s experience and started last Breast Cancer Awareness month off with my surgery (it was on October 1st).
A few weeks after my surgery, several friends, family members, spa/nail team members, and a couple of clients participated with me in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Johnson City, Tenn. as Team Frances. We raised about $1,000 and are incredibly thankful for the support and for anything we can contribute toward this cause, because now more than ever, it’s so close to our hearts.
I had to take two months off work after my double mastectomy, and I missed my clients and coworkers terribly. I worked through chemotherapy and now I’m undergoing radiation. In May, I had to take two weeks off for breast reconstruction, and even after being cleared by my doctor, I had to reassure a few clients that I was fine to do their appointments! I’ll never be able to thank them properly, so the idea of publicly thanking them through this article means so much.
I am currently closer to the end than the beginning of my 25 radiation treatments and still have a hysterectomy (BRCA 1+ patients have a 35-70% higher chance of getting ovarian cancer, so I’m taking precautions) and possibly another breast reconstruction left. I went through fourteen chemotherapy treatments from October 2014 to March 2015 and am still in disbelief at how fast this year has gone by.
As much as I hate that my aunt (Dr. Lynn Dahl of Cape Coral, Fla.) had to go through this again, she is my angel, and she is doing great. She has been my example, and I’m so happy to say I’m that much closer each day to total health.
I am so thankful to be able to share our story to encourage early detection, genetic testing if it’s called for, and simple awareness that you have to be your own advocate for your health. The idea of reaching and possibly helping anyone with my story helps to make up for the pain of this past year. I want to encourage everyone to get their yearly checkup. I’m 32, and if it hadn’t been for my aunt’s second run at this, I would not have known when I did. Some days it terrifies me, but for the most part it just reminds me of how grateful and lucky I am for my family, my friends, and my spa/nail family near and far who provided so much love and support.
Frances Pentland, Austin Springs Spa & Salon, Johnson City, Tenn.
In November, 2007, I was diagnosed with invasive Stage II breast cancer. It all started in October of that year when my good friend told me she’d been diagnosed. I decided I should get a mammogram, and the next day, the doctor called me to say that there was a suspicious mass in my right breast and that I needed to see a surgeon. I had a mastectomy on November 14. It had been 10 days since I had the mammogram. Had I not had it, I most likely would have found out about this sneaky cancer too late. (You can read my entire story in the May 2008 issue of NAILS. The article details how nail technicians from around the world rallied, and a bevy of “Helping Hands” was arranged to see me through this ordeal.
Today, I am healthy and happy. Looking back with a little perspective, I’m grateful to say I never let the “Big C” define me. Yes, it was shocking and overwhelming, but I had the best support system in my fellow nail technicians and my clients. The group dubbed “Karen’s Angels” rallied around me and carried me right through.
I chose to have a radical mastectomy and begged the surgeon to take the second one at the same time, but for insurance purposes, he could not. We sent away samples for analysis and they said, “You have an 80% chance of it recurring in your other breast.” I called my surgeon and asked, “Now will you take the other one?” During the removal of my second breast, a plastic surgeon stepped in and inserted tissue expanders under the muscles of my chest. After healing, I had months of driving to Miami to have saline injected into the expanders, then driving home, aching. I had six months of chemotherapy, physiotherapy exercises, infections, and complications — all the while trying to keep my clientele going. After two years and 11 surgical procedures, the expanders were switched out for permanent implants, and I was able to return to my regular programming.
My best advice for others facing breast cancer is to never let cancer own you. It’s just one thing; you deal with it and you focus on the good things in your life. Embrace your therapies. Manage your own care — do not rely on a single physician, but develop a team and remain the captain. Honor your body and listen to its messages — when you are tired, take a nap. Never stop doing what you love, even when the process is all-consuming. I truly feel that knowing I’d be seeing my clients kept me going every day.
I am grateful to be here and living with a 2% chance of cancer cropping up again. I am still attempting to dig out of the financial hole created by medical bills and missing work. My career has shifted — I am in the salon only part-time and am very busy developing my online educational training courses at salongurus.com. I’m very hopeful for the future! Karen Hodges, Salon Gurus, Fort Myers, Fla.
Our mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time our dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. She opted to get a lumpectomy and let her local doctor treat her. A nurse client told me that in her professional experience, most women who got lumpectomies saw the cancer come back within three years.
I passed along that info to Mom and we begged her to go to the cancer specialists at Vanderbilt hospital in Nashville, but she didn’t want to make that 2-hour drive for radiation treatments. She had a positive mental attitude about it and ultimately it was her decision. We were all thankful when she didn’t lose her hair during treatments, too.
All seemed fine for a few years. Mom was still working every day at her job, but started having frequent headaches. We thought it was the stress of Dad dying and the fallout from the financial mess he’d left her in or possibly it was due to her house having longtime mold issues. Then one day she became delirious, collapsed, and was taken to the hospital.
Sure enough, the cancer was back — in exactly three years. The breast cancer had metastasized, spread thru her lymph nodes, and into her brain and then lungs. The doctor said she had 7-9 inoperable brain tumors, and they started treatment to ease her headaches. She only lasted a few months, and this time she lost all her hair.
Watching my mother suffer was the most tortuous experience of my life. Mom died one week after we got back from running the Nail Tech Event of the Smokies in 2013, and we were so thankful she held on until we returned. I said my goodbyes to her on a Sunday, and she died the following Thursday.
I joined the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study after that. They’ll follow 300,000 of us for the next 20 years to discover causes or even miraculously a cure. The last study of this magnitude was when they discovered the link between smoking and cancer, so I’m hopeful. One thing’s certain though: If my sister or I ever get diagnosed with breast cancer, we will be having a double mastectomy immediately.
Jill Wright, Event Coordinator and Nail Tech, Nail Tech Event of the Smokies, LLC
My cancer was a fluke. I had been getting mammograms every year since I was about 35 because of a couple of lumps that had turned out to be nothing. Then my husband and I relocated to Indianapolis in November, 2009. Being on hormone replacement, I needed to find a gynecologist who could refill my prescriptions. During the initial exam, he asked when my last mammogram was. “I don’t remember. Maybe three or four years ago,” I said. I had been given the prescription to have the mammogram, but I always found an excuse: too busy at work, they never find anything, what’s the point, etc. He suggested we schedule one and get a baseline so he could compare it to my previous film from my other doctor. Two weeks later, his office called to say there was an abnormality and I needed to come back in for an ultrasound. I went in as scheduled and sat in the waiting room, waiting for the radiologist to look at the ultra sound. As I watched other women coming in and then later leaving, I realized suddenly that I was the only person still in the waiting room. I thought to myself, “Oh, my God. Am I the one in eight?”
The nurse took me into an exam room, and as the radiologist entered she pointed to the monitor and said to him, “See? Right there.” He wanted to order a biopsy because they hadn’t yet received my old films. They told me it was probably nothing, but wanted me to schedule it to be on the safe side. A few days later my doctor called and said, “It’s cancer.”
I, however, am one of the lucky ones. It was Stage 1. There were three tumors: two benign and one malignant. I would have to have a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation. All I could — and can to this day — think about is what would have happened if I’d not gotten that mammogram. The malignant tumor could have been Stage 3 or 4. Given its size, it was almost Stage 2, and it was hormone positive. The hormone replacement I was on was feeding it! December 3, 2015 will mark my five-year anniversary of treatment completion, and I’ll be officially cancer free.
Debbie Escamilla, Hand to Toe Nail Services, Merced, Calif.
It was August of 2007. I had just lost my father to lung cancer, and shortly thereafter I realized my 51-year-old, slightly saggy, nursed –three-babies-breast was getting firmer. Was it my imagination? I had just had a mammogram, and then another for additional views, but the radiologists told me I had calcifications and to come back in six months. Then the firmness really started. I blew it off, thinking maybe it was a clogged duct or something; after all I had just had those two mammograms. A couple of months later, I had a physical scheduled. I told the doctor about my breast, and after he examined me, he said I needed a breast MRI. And then I went to see the surgeon. By then it was very close to my middle son’s wedding date on October 7, and I told the surgeon I didn’t want the results until after then. October 12, while home alone, I got the dreaded phone call from my surgeon, telling me I had breast cancer. I remember putting the phone down and just sitting on my bed and crying — all alone. I called my best friend and she came over and we cried together. Soon my family came home and my nightmare really began .
I will tell you all that happened only so that you will all realize that you can survive it all — even when it doesn’t seem like you will.
By the time all necessary tests were done before starting chemo it was now the end of October 2007. I had my port put in about a week before Halloween, the first of about 11 surgical procedures that year. By Halloween I was in the hospital with blood clots in my upper right arm, near where the port was put in, and also they found a clot in my lungs. I was put on blood thinners for six months. November started my chemo regimen. I had four treatments of A/C (adriamycin and cytocin): one treatment every two weeks. This protocol usually made patients nauseous, but because I had great anti-nausea medicine (Emends) I did not ever get sick. I did, however, lose all my hair after the second treatment, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. Losing my hair did not bother me but losing my eyelashes really did. I felt that it really made me look like I had cancer. I wore wigs but wasn’t always comfortable with them; at home I went bald most of the time. I found buying wigs at www.wigsalon.com the best place — lots of choices and very reasonably priced.
Next in my chemo protocol was Taxol. Again once every two weeks for four treatments. I did not tolerate this drug well. I woke up the next day and I couldn’t walk! I had such nerve pain in my legs, feet, and hands. My oncologist stopped that drug and went with Taxotere, which, I didn’t know, was buffered taxol. My protocol changed and I had to have that drug for nine weeks, receiving it every week. Slowly, side effects occurred. Up until this point I had been working part time. Somewhere around February 2008 my eyes started tearing up a lot. I had a severe rash on my upper chest, neck, and the tops of my hands and my nails. My nails! They started to ooze — eventually I lost all 20 nails! They just fell off. Later on I read that Taxotere attacks the skin and nails on some patients. Today my nails are still bad. I wear tips and acrylic, but I have to keep them very short because about four of them are not attached fully. If I do not have product on them they continually break and split vertically.
March 15th I finished chemo. Yay, I did it! Chemo leaves you “cloudy headed” for lack of a better description, so I was kind of dragging myself around, not able to do much, but I was functioning. One good side effect was that I lost weight. I lost 55 pounds in about 9 weeks (I don’t recommend that diet)! Taxotere is an accumulative drug, so I didn’t feel the total effect until I had been finished for almost two weeks.
By then I ended up in the E.R. with severe pneumonia. By the middle of the night my fever was well over 104 and still rising so they put me on an ice blanket to lower it. My oxygen saturation level was also dangerously low. Finally, my fever went down enough to take me off the ice blanket but my oxygen level was getting worse so they put me on a ventilator. At this point I was sedated and don’t remember anything . I wasn’t responding to any medication. At this point I had double pneumonia and both my lungs were filling up with fluids. The doctors decided to do a lung biopsy on me so they could figure out which medicine to give me. A 15-minute procedure turned into 30-45 minutes —both my lungs had collapsed and my heart went into atrial fibrillation, sending Drs. And nurses flying all over the place trying to get things to save me. Nothing was working , and I was turning blue. My husband and son were told to say their goodbyes , and a priest gave me last rites, when all of a sudden things started to turn around. My color started to come back. My cardiologist got my heart stable and my lungs started to work again. I awoke a day later, still with the ventilator in. I spent another week in ICU and then a week upstairs in the regular hospital. I tried going home but couldn’t walk — something had happened either from the chemo or from being in bed for 10 days and not walking. I finally started walking with a walker right before they released me but my home had steps and we realized that I just couldn’t do it, so I went to rehab for two weeks. That really helped and then I finally went home. My legs have never been the same though. They constantly ache and are much weaker than before. The doctors all called me their miracle!
All this happened before my bilateral mastectomy. The month of May I just worked on getting stronger so I could have surgery. My diagnosis was invasive ductal breast cancer, stage 2-3, in my left breast only. (I also had 3 lymph nodes affected, which they removed.) I opted for a bilateral (double) mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. That means at the time of the mastectomy, after the surgeon finishes his part, the plastic surgeon takes over and implants expanders under your skin. These expanders get filled with saline (oddly enough it is called going in for fills) about every two weeks until your desired size is reached. After the skin is appropriately stretched, the expanders are removed and implants are put in. After my surgery, I had 5 1/2 weeks of radiation every day except weekends. I did burn but because I had had my surgery I was numb in some parts so I didn’t feel it . So I had to wait until everything was healed to continue with the stretching process. When my plastic surgeon determined the time was right the radiated side didn’t want to stretch, so I had another surgery called a latissimus dorsi flap, or lat flap for short. Because I had the complete node dissection I will always be at risk for lymphedema occurring (and of course it did after the lat flap surgery) but luckily I went to OT and the technician did her magic and it went away.
My official diagnosis from the lung debacle in the hospital was double pneumonia caused by drug toxicity. The Taxotere attacked my skin inside also, so when it healed, my tear ducts closed up. The only side effect I still have, besides aches and pains and my nail problem, is what happened to my eyes. I have to see the eye doctor every three months and have a surgical procedure involving sedation every 6-8 months to take care of the problem.
My two closest friends took me to chemo every time I had to go and my husband came from work and met us there. After chemo we would try and go for lunch, and my hubby went back to work. When I was in the hospital, my husband did not leave my bedside until I was out of danger and then only to go home and shower and change. He slept there every night. He could read the machines better than the nurses and many times he explained things to them. (Slightly scary if you think about it.) I had so many visitors while in ICU, it really was amazing. It was very humbling knowing so many cared about me!
Debbie Doerrlamm, from Nailtech, sent me a package with so many cards and letters from my fellow nail techs, which I still have. I have always had a great support system with my family and friends, and for that I am eternally grateful.
So finally I can say I am here and doing well. I have started to work again and am building clientele nicely. October 12th is my diagnosis day and I will be able to say I am an 8-year survivor and cancer free!
Pati Shcembari, Pampered Nails, Montrose, N.Y.
You Might Also Like: How to Support a Client With Cancer
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.