My name is Nicole. I am a 44 year old wife, mother, marathon runner, vegan, speech pathologist, professor, mentor… and more recently, breast cancer survivor.
I was diagnosed on October 20, 2020, ironically smack in the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Looking back, there were signs everywhere. When I went for my routine mammogram on October 15th, I even bought a cute, flowered insulated lunch bag in the requisite pink theme, as a celebration once my mammogram was complete.
I didn’t know , at the time, that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer over the course of her life. I didn’t realize that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breast cancer was the most common cancer diagnosed in women in the United States. And, most upsetting, I wasn’t aware that more than 41,000 women die from breast cancer annually.
Now I know and it’s my mission to speak out on this epidemic, and help others, like me, get to the other side.
I am so grateful that even before my diagnosis, I was well versed on self care and healing from the inside out. Over the course of my adult life, I had learned from thought leaders (hello Brene Brown and Nancy Levin) about the importance of your mindset, of the words that you use to create your experience, and of the necessity of setting boundaries. As a people-pleasing, extremely empathetic, perfectionist–the idea of putting my needs first was a foreign concept. It always felt more comfortable for me to put myself at the bottom of the barrel – and take care of my children, my patients, my students first.
But, when I got the call from the doctor who biopsied me, that the lump(s) in my breast (there were actually 2) were found to be cancerous, I knew what I had to do to take care of myself, and that looked like putting some boundaries in place.
Here’s what I did to keep myself sane:
1. No Advice Until I Was Ready To Hear It
I didn’t reach out to any of my friends who did have breast cancer (it is unfortunately too many), until I was ready to have the conversation and really absorb what was being said. I have a good high school friend who sat down with me and told me everything she went through, learned & knew, once I was ready to hear it. Our trajectories were turning out to be very similar and she wanted to share what she had learned. I was grateful, her insights were helpful and I was willing to listen and ask questions. If I had entertained speaking to her (or anyone else whom I was recommended to speak to) before I was ready–it would’ve undoubtedly caused me much more anxiety than I could handle. And trust me, I was basically treading water this entire time–just trying to keep my head above long enough to breathe to be able to show up for my husband and children as the mom and wife they know and love.
2. Stop Googling
In the same vein, I did not read any books or allow myself internet deep dives, until I was ready. If I found myself going down a rabbit hole on the internet–I stopped it, every time. It just wasn’t healthy for me to be overwhelmed with all of the information–many of which did not apply to me and my specific cancer. I did find The New Generation Breast Cancer Book by Elisha Rush Port extremely helpful and this was given to me from a family member’s friend who was a survivor. But I remember when I was gifted this book and a few other items, I could not deal. I put it in our hall closet, all the while knowing it was there, until I was absolutely ready to read it.
3. Comfort Is Key
When a doctor, who came highly referred, made me feel incredibly uncomfortable with his sexist, misogynistic remarks during our consultation, I refused to go back. Two weeks later, I was happy to hear that the practice was looking to refer to another plastic surgeon and that they took my word seriously. I remember telling the nurse that I could see how some women would just not say anything. It is such a hard time and the thought of having to consider removing your breasts can be nauseating and honestly pouring salt on a wound after you have been dealt a diagnosis of cancer. Bottom line–if you do not like a doctor–for whatever reason–find another. Your team to save your life must be one you feel comfortable with.
4. Refer to Referrals As Needed
Everyone had a referral -I always took the information down and put it on a spreadsheet and honestly only looked at it if I needed it. On a few occasions, going back to this document proved helpful, but I did not feel the need to follow every referral. I always thanked whomever shared the information and kept it moving.
Throughout this experience, I curtailed my social media intake as best as possible. Once I began sharing my story, the internet knew what was up and conspired to send me all of the images, advertisements and organizations affiliated with breast cancer. Every other post was a woman, in a bathroom, without hair–holding her head in her hands. I just couldn’t take it. The imagery was daunting and debilitating. I allowed myself to unplug in order to stay present and plugged into the experience in front of me.
As a distance runner, with four (soon to be more!) marathons under my belt, I have frequently compared my breast cancer journey to running a marathon. It is grueling. There are many twists and turns and moments of doubt, sometimes even complete breakdowns. But there are also glimpses of pure joy and moments of deep gratitude. This is an experience unlike any other and I have learned that while I cannot control cancer or the subsequent surgery and treatments (and ongoing screenings in the future), I can control my thoughts and the boundaries I set for myself and others.