by Derek Benoit July 28th
This piece is very personal to me for several reasons:
- My mother is a breast cancer survivor (thankfully only stage 1)
- Jen Crosby was kind enough to volunteer many, many helpful tips that helped my mother through treatment
- When I had my GI catastrophes, I used Jen’s incredible and impossibly positive attitude as inspiration
From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Jen Crosby!
1.) When did you receive your diagnosis, and how was breast cancer discovered?
I felt a large lump that seemed to come out of nowhere on the side of my breast on June 4th. I was able to get in to the Dr a few days later, and in for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound a few days after that. I could tell by the look on all their faces that it was cancer at that point, but they’re not allowed to say anything except, “Start researching surgeons and oncologists, just in case.” The scheduled a biopsy for the following Monday, but they uploaded the test results from the ultrasound showing 95% certainty it was cancer that afternoon. The biopsy wasn’t confirmed until June 17th.
After that, I had bloodwork, a CT scan, and MRI to get better images of the cancer, and how far it had spread, and an Echocardiogram to make sure my heart was strong enough to handle the treatment plan they had slated for me. My main tumor was 4.9 cm, and there were two satellite tumors, and 2 lymph nodes involved. It put me at Stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
2.) How intense was the treatment regimen, and how did your body react?
The Saga in a Nutshell
I have been told by my nurse friends that they hit me with one of the hardest regimens that they have. My nurses warned me that they were going to hit me hard because I was young and so healthy (besides the cancer, of course), and my cancer was so aggressive. I have what is called triple positive, which means that it’s fed by estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 protein. Because of the incredibly aggressive nature of my cancer, I was scheduled to do Chemo first, to try to knock the cancer down before going in for surgery.
So, with that said, my treatment started with surgery to place my chemo port, then 6 rounds of Taxotere, Carboplatin, Herceptin, and Perjeta (TCHP), with an additional 12 rounds of Herceptin and Perjeta for a total of 18 rounds of infusions every three weeks which took a little over a year. After the 6 rounds of TCHP, I went in for a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, followed by 6 weeks of rest, and then 28 radiation treatments. At that time, they also started me on Tamoxifen, which is an oral hormone blocker that I will be on for the next 5-10 years. 4 months later, I was able to go in for my next reconstruction surgery and have my port removed. I had my final infusion and my final big surgery the same week, July 12th and 15th.
Still Pushing Forward
I was very blessed to handle the treatment well. I have a pretty demanding career, and I worked through the entire treatment, with the exception of 6 weeks of recovery after my mastectomy. The first round of chemo was the hardest, because I didn’t know what to expect or how to manage it, and my hair started to fall out in giant clumps on day 14, leading me to shave my head, and keep it that way throughout treatment.
After I learned how to stay hydrated, treatment became much easier!! Most of my side effects were just plain annoying, and individually, they were no big deal, but cumulatively, they just got real old, real fast! Things like split fingers, scabbed nose, sensitive gums, upset stomach, a little fatigue, and super dry skin were the norm.
I was surprised with how hard radiation kicked my butt! I was blistered and burned, and just in pain for 4 of the 6 weeks. I also got radiation esophagitis, where the radiation essentially burns your food pipe as well, and manifests as constant nausea. It was brutal! I had to stop working out, and I had to be very careful about what clothes I wore, and how I moved my body.
The most important part of how my body reacted to treatment is that IT BEAT THE CANCER! I had a complete response to my chemotherapy, and I am officially CANCER FREE!!
3.) What was your self-care plan during treatment?
I was a powerlifter before I got sick, so I continued that throughout chemo, until surgery, then radiation took me out of the game for a whle. I continued to lift weights whenever I was not recovering from a surgery or being burned with radiation, lol. The Tamoxifen has had an incredible impact to my strength and endurance, which I did not expect! I was squatting and bench pressing within 10 lbs of my prechemo numbers during chemo, and I was at about 85% strength after surgery, but once I started Tamoxifen, my strength fell to abut 60% of my pre treatment strength. This was HARD on my psyche. I’m a bit of a meat head, and failing some of the lifts I was failing was devastating.
Outdoors to the Rescue
In addition to that, I hunted… a lot. I was fortunate enough to be invited to go on a week long ladies only archery deer hunt opening week of Missouri, and had SUCH an amazing time with some women who will be lifelong friends of mine. We also bought a camper, and I spent every weekend bow hunting with either my son or my boyfriend (now fiancé). Bow hunting and doing hunting chores gave me so much joy. Thus, I was able to take my weekends, disconnect from everything, spend quality time with my loved ones, and forget that I was fighting for my life. I didn’t have to look in the mirror. Moreover I didn’t have to talk to anyone about being sick, I didn’t have to visit a doctor… I just enjoyed God’s creation and the people he blessed me with.
4.) You kept a very detailed and personal of your experience on your Facebook page. The attitude you displayed was incredibly positive. How were you able to keep that up?
Digging Deep, with an Assist
God. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t possess the level of grace, strength, and power that I was able to sustain; I would tell people that I didn’t know why or how I was able to see things in the positive manner that I was, but that was just how I felt. I wasn’t angry or feeling pity for myself; I was overcome with a powerful peace throughout the journey. Don’t get me wrong, if I’d get a hit, I’d fall, but it would only take a few hours before I was able to recover my balance and move forward with that peace.
The funny thing is that I was really not a firm believer before this journey. I would say that there’s something that connects us, but I didn’t know what it was; that was it. Well, now I know what it was. That was the Holy Spirit that I always felt, but I never identified it as such.
More than Things Falling into Place
There started to be so many things stacking up that were just too “coincidental” to be coincidence. I started taking notice of the things that God was doing to take care of me, and one day, I called my Christian friend, and just unloaded. I told her I felt like I was losing my mind, that I had all these feelings, and that I was searching for my bible, and… aaaaaaahhhhh!!!!!! She told me that I wasn’t losing my mind, that God was trying to get my attention, and it was working. I started praying, and again, too many times, I would pray for understanding, and I’d get a sign, or I’d pray for a friend, and they would immediately call me, or I’d ask for grace, strength, guidance, and it would be provided.
I never prayed for healing. God knows our hearts, and he knew that I wanted to live, but what I asked him for was grace, strength, and guidance.
5.) I started watching the Outdoor Channel during the worst of my illness. It helped keep me sane and gave me a new hobby for motivation. How did you keep yourself sane during this treatment and recovery process?
I clinged to my pre-Cancer identity with a death grip! The lifting, hunting, working, etc was my way of coping with the grind. That identity has crumbled, and I’ve finally been granted the grace and guidance to walk away from that rubble, and start seeking my path elsewhere, but for the time that I was able to hold on to who I was, it served me well. Now it’s time to use the ashes of that old identity as compost for the next season’s harvest.
I was also introduced to an organization in St Louis called Pink Ribbon Girls who offers meals, rides to treatment, housekeeping services and most importantly, peer support. I didn’t realize that I needed those women, and I am so grateful that they were there to hold my hand, walk me through some of these challenges, and cheer me on through all my challenges and milestones. Having a group of people who truly understand the journey because they’ve walked it themselves is priceless.
6.) What changes to your activity and exercise routines were you forced to make?
The biggest change that I’m facing on a permanent basis is the fact that the maintenance drug that I’ll be on to keep the cancer away decreases my strength is a couple of different ways. Unfortunately, due to the mechanism behind the strength loss, that will not change. I am significantly weaker now since starting this drug than I was while I was undergoing treatment.
Since I am one of those people who is always competing with myself, I have decided to let go of strength sports, so you won’t see me competing in powerlifting again. Instead, I am going to do something that I’ve never done before and focus on a well rounded fitness routine. I tend to go to extremes; marathons, half-ironman, powerlifting, 3 day Eventing, etc. This new life of balancing cardio+weights, and doing things in moderation is untested territory in my world.
7.) How has your appreciation for the outdoors changed since you began treatment? Are there any new goals you have?
My appreciation for life in general has skyrocketed. The big change that I’m working towards making now is retiring early and spending more time with my loved ones in the outdoors. My fiancé and I just went under contract on 61 acres that will be our retreat and eventually, our retirement home. We’re trying to retire in 10 years, and living simply, and closer to the land is something that I couldn’t be more excited about.
We’re getting married in October, and backpacking Sequoia National Park for our honeymoon. I’m so fortunate to have found a man who’s excited to go backpacking on his honeymoon, am I right?!
8.) What is the best advice you can give to outdoorswomen facing the same diagnosis?
- Oh, so many!!
- You will not walk out of this the same person that you walked into it. Be ready for that. It’s hard. Survivorship is way harder than you think it will be.
- Find a positive group of women who are survivors and warriors. There are tons of groups full of toxic complainers… stay away from them!!! Call me; I’ll talk you through it!
- There are resources out there for you… find them and use them! Many Cancer Centers have Nurse Navigators who are a wealth of knowledge. Hit them with all your little questions; they’re SO valuable.
- Accept help.
- Intermittent Fasting. It increases effectivity and decreases side effects.
- Imodium AD, Biotene, ultrasoft toothbrushes, Aquaphor, and WATER
- Water. Did I mention water? Drink lots of water. I drank 1 gallon by 2 pm, then stopped counting.
- False lashes and eyebrow pencils will become your new best friends.
For more information on breast cancer, please visit: https://www.breastcancer.org/