About 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. With statistics like that, none of us can turn a blind-eye and none of us can sit on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to take charge of the fight for a cure. It is the responsibility of each of us to get educated and get moving! Do it for your mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend and partner; do it for you!
In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, HerExchange spoke with Deb Applequist, breast cancer survivor, about her prescription to beat breast cancer; routine screening, aggressive treatment, a strong support team and the power of positivity!
Allow Deb’s courage and attitude to inspire you!
SG: Deb, start me at the beginning, when & how were you diagnosed?
DA: It was through a routine mammogram in 2008, I was 47. I didn’t have a lump or anything, it was a routine appointment but the technician saw something on the film that looked like a spiculated wheel, which is indicative of breast cancer. The technician, and my doctor, sent me right in for an ultra sound and from there it was still not conclusive, so I had a biopsy. The next day I got a phone call that it was breast cancer; it was invasive ductile carcinoma, stage one.
Immediately I said, ‘OK, I’ve got breast cancer, now what are we going to do about it?!’ I thought that I would try and do a lumpectomy to try and save the breast. I went to go see my surgeon and he told me the pros and cons of doing a lumpectomy versus a mastectomy, and of course I investigated everything on the web also to try and find out what would be best for me.
SG: What was the conversation you had with your children or moments when they were nervous or shaky?
DA: With Doug, I told him over the phone and he came running home and just hugged me. He said we are going to beat it and we started investigating our options. My husband was with me every step of the way!
When we told the girls we never talked about death, we only talked about what we needed to do to get me better. I think because I wasn’t gloomy it didn’t affect them as much as other children whose mothers had breast cancer . My youngest daughter, Amanda, we tease her about needing to clean up after herself more but after I had surgery and couldn’t get around well, she surprised me by vacuuming and cleaning he house – it was really sweet!
You are going to have one or two days where you feel bad or have a pity party, but you can’t dwell on the negatives. You have to stay positive. I don’t know why, maybe because I’ve had a good example with my mom, but I always tried to stay positive. She had a stroke and had to relearn her ABC’s and numbers and she never gave up. She always told us we can do anything we put our mind to and to stay positive so that’s a part of who I am. She has the start of Parkinson’s but it doesn’t keep her down. And that is the example Doug and I are setting for our girls.
SG: Researching breast cancer online can be overwhelming; there are so many sites with so much information! Where did you go for information?
DA: I went to the Mayo Clinic website (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/breast-cancer/DS00328), it’s trusted and accurate. There is so much useful information online such as locating a good surgeon, surgery options, chemo treatments and reconstruction options. The web is a great tool to use to answer a lot of your questions. You should ask your surgeon for recommended websites.
SG: What action did you take?
DA: So when I first was diagnosed, I thought I would do a lumpectomy to deal with the cancer but I wanted to talk to my surgeon and a plastic surgeon too to find out about breast reconstruction; it was important to me to have my breasts look normal when it was done. But because of where the breast cancer originated, in the milk duct, the surgeons could not save the nipple and the breast would be really deformed. My second thought was then to get a mastectomy of my right breast. That option wasn’t going to work either; the plastic surgeon didn’t think he could make me symmetrical. I found out my breasts were pendulous. You find out all kinds of things about your breasts! We laughed about it! It’s important to always try and keep a sense of humor. It was like when I went to the plastic surgeon and we thought I was a ‘C’ cup and he said, oh no, you’re a ‘B’ cup! I said, ‘Well then OK then I’m going to be a C cup, I’ll get the boobs I’ve always wanted!’
Ultimately, I decided to do a bi-lateral mastectomy. I had a scare in my left breast a couple of years before and I didn’t want to take any chances, so it was for peace of mind and cosmetics.
During surgery, the plastic surgeon put in tissue expander immediately after the bilateral mastectomy. They have to cut through the chest muscles to put them in. It was very difficult to do some things after surgery. I couldn’t sit up in bed by myself or lift my arms. And then you have to deal with drain tubes coming out of both sides of your chest, too. Over the course of the next several months, I went to the doctor weekly so they could pump up the expanders and get me ready for breast implants. I only cried twice during this whole ordeal. The first time was when they couldn’t schedule the surgery as soon as I wanted it and the second time was when I couldn’t go to my daughter’s volleyball tournament because I had drain tubes. You can’t have the word can’t in your vocabulary, you just have to find other ways to do things and get around. It’s only for a short period of time.
The main thing is to stay positive during the whole thing. I had so much support between my family and friends. It’s your attitude. I’m a positive person and I’m always talking to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. One day a woman called me and said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer 5 months ago and she still hadn’t done anything about it! And I was thinking, why are you waiting!? I was fortunate my cancer was just stage 1, but hers was stage 0, so the cancer was contained. But fear holds some many people back.
SG: How do you feel about your body now, post-mastectomy?
DA: You know, it’s awesome, Doug said I’ve upgraded and look even better now! Our sex life wasn’t hampered except when I had the drain tubes – that would be a little awkward! It really hasn’t suffered at all. We always try to take a trip together and go away one week without the kids. I think this really helps our sex life because we don’t have to worry about kids! Now, it’s just as good or better with or without a vacation without the kids! My husband is great and his approval is important to me – I just turned 50! Doug and I have a great energy level and that helps keep your spirits high, too!
I meet yearly with my oncologist. It was the right decision for me to do the bi-lateral mastectomy because I don’t have to worry about cancer showing up on in the other breast and I did not have to undergo chemotherapy because the cancer was not in my lymph nodes. I am very happy with the decision I made. No two people are alike and no decision is right for everyone. I have no regrets with my personal decision. Women need to just do their homework and make the right decision for their self. For me, the bilateral mastectomy was the right choice because I did not want to have the worry hanging over my head.
SG: With the research you found, what were other good resources?
DA: You need to find a doctor you trust, that’s really important. They will point you in the right direction and give you good resources. There are some goofy places out there that can confuse you. www.BreastCancer.org is a great website that gives you a lot of great information. It’s also important for women that have girls to do that genetic testing if they can.
SG: Did you ever feel overwhelmed? I’m overwhelmed hearing it all!
DA: My doctor had a good response to me and he said, Deb when I go in there I’m not worried about how your breasts look, I’m only concerned about getting all of the cancer out of there.
You have to think that everything’s going to come out OK, dying was never an option; I kept thinking I was going to get the boobs I’ve wanted! It’s what you make of everything. Surround yourself with positive people, a good team!