- About Us
- Cancer Survivors
– an essay in honour of Jennifer Berrigan
By: Amanda Hancock
In February 2014, at age 31, breast cancer declared war on my womanhood. At the time, I had no idea how certain kinds of cancer and their treatments could target all things feminine — breasts, hair, fertility, hormones, and genetics. One year later, I am still coming to terms with just how targeted an attack it was. I feel grateful for the challenges I have been presented with, learned from, and am overcoming. I am proud of the support systems near and far that have helped me fight back over the last 12 months. For every punch cancer threw, something or someone was in my corner helping me fight back —from the skill of positive thinking and reframing, to reminders that authentic love embraces you in every form, to a short note or words of encouragement from a friend, to the Power of Hope program and the success of the Ultimate Egg Hunt. Together, we have realized success in the face of cancer’s adversity. This essay is in honour of Jennifer Berrigan, whom I did not know personally, but feel connected to her journey. I hope to honour her legacy and follow in her footsteps of advocacy and kindness. With that, I will start on a positive note by saying my most recent scan was clear and I have another in a few weeks where I hope for similar results. Here is the play-by-play starting with my diagnosis.
I found the lump in my right breast in January. Happy freaking New Year. Enter: blood clot, ultrasound, mammogram, biopsy, and diagnosis. In the days and weeks leading up to my diagnosis, taking off my shirt and baring my breasts became a routine thing. Sometimes more than once a day, with multiple people in the room, some days for hours at a time. Toss modesty out the window and make room for cancer. Clothes off was just the beginning – I was regularly poked, prodded and pin-pricked. So, how did I find a way to accept this invasive nakedness? It was a matter of reframing. The alternative of not taking off my shirt and going untreated would have been far worse than being naked and studied by medical experts. With that in mind, I got used to it pretty quick…. bring on the poking and the prodding! And, hey, now I’m a little more in touch with my European roots where nudity is not such a big a deal.
Following the diagnosis was the surgical decision. People would ask if I was having one breast removed or two. At the time, I was very sensitive to this and sometimes felt this question was being posed with the same breeziness as a single or double-double coffee order at Tim Horton’s. The thought of losing any part of either breast was horrifying and, I felt, worthy of a certain seriousness when being discussed. Lumpectomy, single mastectomy and double mastectomy are just words until you are facing it. I could barely even say the word mastectomy. Although our surgeries were different, having undergone major surgery makes me feel connected to Jennifer. I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to her about her experience.
Furthermore, breasts serve biological functions: they attract mates and they nurture young. Having cancer forced me to question how useful these body parts would be at the end of treatment. Surgery would change my body’s shape and I was afraid of how I would look to myself and to my eventual life partner. Radiation would change their internal composition and, most likely, eliminate the option to breastfeed in future. I dread the thought of not being able to breastfeed if my time ever comes to nurse a baby. Nice move, cancer. This was a tough one. Thankfully, my support network rose to the occasion. They reminded me that authentic love is unconditional. I leaned on family and friends who convinced me that no matter what hardships my body endured during treatment, things would be okay. With a lot of help, I replaced fear and dread with love and acceptance. I started a blog and shared my struggles with the world. The response was overwhelming support. 11 months after surgery, I can report that I pictured the end result following a partial mastectomy and lymph node removal to be far worse than it actually is. It is also nice to know that my blogs have been shared and are helping others with their struggles. On to Round Three!
There was a limbo period after surgery as we waited for the pathology results. I accepted that I would need radiation therapy but I was hoping – okay praying – to escape chemotherapy. That was not the case. Chemo started in May. I was so upset by the thought of losing my hair and I could not get up the nerve to shave my head. I gradually let my long hair fall out over the summer months. It was traumatizing, but it was fixable – scarves, hats, and wigs were easily accessible. When my hair was gone there were days I was sure it would never grow back. I was wrong. Just five months after my final chemotherapy treatment it is growing back – hats and scarves are no longer necessary. Was the hair loss a blow to the ego? Definitely. Would I trade my hair for a clear bill of health? Absolutely! Besides, it was just a temporary trade and my new crew-cut look is actually pretty cool.
The worst punch was chemotherapy’s impact on fertility. The thought of entering permanent menopause at the age of 31 was gut wrenching. As the saying goes, “The most important thing is to keep the most important thing the most important thing”. That is how I felt about my fertility since the day of diagnosis. I had always known I wanted to start a family eventually, but I wasn’t quite there yet so fertility preservation was my primary concern during treatment. At times, my oncologists reminded me that survival was a requirement for fertility. This was, of course, true but ‘ever-the-optimist’ I felt the need to plan for life after cancer. The fertility fix was more complicated than going to Shopper’s and buying a headscarf. I am so thankful for my timely introduction to the concept of oocyte cryopreservation and Fertile Future’s Power of Hope Cost reduction program that made my procedure a reality.
Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are beyond the childbearing years. As such, post-treatment pregnancies are not a common topic of discussion between provider and patient. With the help of medical teams in St. John’s and Ottawa we finalized Easter Weekend as the date for my egg freezing procedure just before my first round of chemotherapy. I flew to Ottawa on Good Friday and had eggs retrieved on the Monday following Easter Sunday. To this day I find it ironic that my egg retrieval was so close to Easter. Why am I not at home looking for chocolate eggs under the couch like everybody else?! As this day approached, there were multiple phone calls to the Fertile Future office. At the other end, Jessica or Alyson were supportive and kind while guiding me through the administrative processes, while Dr. Jackson and her medical team at the Ottawa Fertility Clinic were top notch. My mom travelled with me and my brother flew from Alberta to meet us. When the procedure was over we made the most of our time in the nation’s capital. We went to see Cher and attended Fertile Future’s First Annual Capital Evening of Hope. I cherish the memories from that trip and often watch the video of the three of us at the concert singing along to Cher and Bono’s “I Got You Babe”.
After successful egg retrieval we returned to St. John’s and I had my first round of chemotherapy. Three weeks later, one day before the second round of chemo, we held a fundraiser called “The Ultimate Easter Egg Hunt” in June. The event was lovingly named after the ironic date of my egg-freezing trip. The purpose was to raise funds for the remaining costs incurred during the trip and also to raise awareness about the options available to other young adults facing similar challenges. Never in a million years did I envision myself standing in front of a crowd of 300 people talking into a bullhorn about my fertility, but I did and now it is a proud memory. The event was a huge success and I was happy to donate $10,000 to Fertile Future following it. I was touched by the outpouring of community support and the generosity of friends and strangers that made the contribution possible. To build on this success the organizers of “The Ultimate Egg Hunt” are planning the 2nd Annual event for 2015 from which 100% of the proceeds will be donated. The Ultimate Egg Hunt was a major cancer victory and one of my favourite examples of making something great out of something horrible. My support network and I definitely won that round!
Fast forward for more good news: By November 2014 I had made it through six rounds of chemo and 30 rounds of radiation. Pathology showed my tumour was ER/PR positive, so I started Hormone Therapy. For the next five years (age 32 to 37) a monthly injection of Lupron will put me in an induced state of menopause while I take an estrogen-limiting pill called Aromasin everyday. Some women would relish the thought of not having a period for five years. It upsets me because I feel it is more than a loss of menstruation, rather it is a temporary loss of the ability to reproduce. Any attempts at pregnancy are on hold until I am out of the five-year window of high-risk recurrence. Less than ideal for so many reasons! Initially, I was devastated by this, however, knowing that my 31-year old eggs are waiting for me in a freezer in Ottawa makes it all seem okay. When I finish five years of hormone therapy, Ottawa will be my first stop.
More recently, I have had blood work to test for several genetic mutations. If the test shows a genetic mutation (BRCA1, BRCA2…), I will be at a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer in future. The jury is still out since the sample was sent to California and is still there; however, a positive result will lead to a referral to surgery to talk about treating the other breast and potentially removing my ovaries. This is what sealed the deal on calling my cancer journey ‘the War on Womanhood’. Nothing is off limits when women get cancer in the childbearing years including the ovaries and maybe even breasts that have not even yet been affected. This is such an overwhelming and tragic possibility that young adult patients’ wellness depends on organizations like Fertile Future. Pending my genetics results, I could have another reason why access to fertility preservation is so important to me.
That is my story from diagnosis to today. Round Five is underway and will continue until at least 2019. I know that breast cancer is also a reality for males and I acknowledge the struggle in that; however, I wanted to use this opportunity to explain my current sentiment that some female cancers can be a full-fledged attack on all things feminine. I try not to entertain “what if” possibilities of recurrence. Access to fertility preservation is consistent with that kind of positive thinking – it gave me a look into my future where there will be life after cancer treatment and in doing so has helped me cope. It has given me hope that my dream for a family will be realized; it has helped me overcome feelings of helplessness about chemotherapy’s impact on my fertility; and it has allowed me to continue to be excited about the future. Egg freezing was a bright light in a dark and scary journey.
I am a proud recipient of the Power of Hope cost reduction program and I am forever grateful to Fertile Future and the Ottawa Fertility Clinic for helping me thrive in my War on Womanhood! In sisterhood, I will forever honour Jennifer Berrigan’s memory and strive to emulate her positive spirit.