As part of our October breast cancer awareness blog series, we will be publishing stories from our clients and who are (or have been) faced with a breast cancer diagnosis.
This blog is written by client Salina “Sally” Teltow. Sally was diagnosed in 2011 with triple negative breast cancer at 44, just 9 years after her mother died from the same disease.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I was expecting it because my mother had died from this disease 9 years earlier. But the staging? I am glad I was sitting down because Stage III triple negative breast cancer was not what I was expecting. At all.
How could my cancer be so advanced when I had been so diligent? Especially after my mother’s death? Quite simply, I didn’t trust myself. I had gone to my primary doctor after I felt something odd during my self-exam, but she didn’t feel anything, and the diagnostic mammogram she recommended also revealed nothing so I was reassured. 9 months later, I was Stage III. I was in shock. I felt betrayed by my health providers who did not take care of me. I learned afterwards that it is difficult to distinguish cancer tumors in dense breast tissue (like mine), using regular mammograms. My “negative” diagnostic mammogram was not as “negative” as I had believed.
I went into treatment immediately: chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiation. That first week passed in a whirlwind of oncologist appointments, PET/CT scans, port surgery, heart scan and my first chemo infusion. My poor father had flown in that weekend from abroad expecting to travel to Europe with us for a family vacation. “Sorry Daddy, but I have a better offer: chemo.”
I elected to have a bilateral mastectomy, fortuitous for me as the non-diagnosed side had pre-cancerous tissue. Instead of dancing my 45th birthday away, I spent it recovering from a bilateral mastectomy and dealing with the emotional trauma to my kids. My 10-year old son had begun acting out at school and was suspended the week of my surgery. I hid my drains in my jeans jacket while I drove my son to counseling sessions. It was a tough week.
But perhaps the most visceral memory I have is how I felt when I unwound my bandages after my surgery for the very first time and really looked at myself in the mirror. My breasts had been replaced by two concave spots – the surgeon had gone deep. The train track stitches were raw. It was crushing. That feeling still overwhelms me when I think about it. When I emptied my drains, I felt like I was pouring away my pre-cancer life, my hair, my breasts and my identity.
That was 6 years ago and I have no evidence of disease! I am not sure that I will ever feel completely “cancer-free” but I am grateful to have the support of the BCRC. I first learned about the organization through my oncologist, who had handed me a tote from the BCRC on my very first appointment – pillows to support my arms after surgery, a calendar to record my appointments, a booklet about cancer with prompts to record feelings, questions and answers, physical symptoms, general information. I used all of them.
More than this help was the quiet reassurance and guidance of my patient navigator Runi Limary. She helped me through the deaths of friends who were diagnosed with triple negative as I was, by reminding me that not everyone’s cancer story was the same – circumstance, diagnosis, treatment, genetics – individual and different.
Through the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls, a support circle run by the BCRC for those diagnosed at 45 and younger, I was able to get the emotional support I needed. I know there is a group of sisters out there who understands my fears and doubts; who know what the pain, anxiety and distress is about; who can empathize with my need to vent and brutally prioritize. I have come to rely on my sisters in the group sharing their physical and emotional experiences – because they have been through it.
I still meet with my Pink Ribbon Cowgirls whenever possible and I support those who have been diagnosed, as I have been supported and continue to be.
During the last few years I have been blessed to be able to have more lunches with my sons, dates with my husband, travel with my family, tea with my friends. I’ve been working on a better physical, mental and spiritual me and started working on my bucket list items: writing and working my way towards a black belt in karate. Even as an adult!
Finally, if it is one thing that I’ve had to learn since my diagnosis it is to focus on the things I can do, and not on the things I cannot. What are the possibilities?
The BCRC thanks Sally for sharing her story. Sally is an aspiring author, and is muddling through life with the support and love of her two sons and husband Gunnar. Sally blogs about her experiences at http://familyhumancapital.blogspot.com/ . You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @AustinTrini
If you or someone you know is facing breast cancer and could use our support, please visit our website or call our helpline at 512-524-2560.
Consider making a donation to BCRC this October and give the gift that makes a real difference for the women in Central Texas facing breast cancer right NOW. Visit bcrc.org to learn more about how we can help, or click here if you wish to give back today.