I had a long set up and cute story to set up this post for my friend Penny Rebecca, But after reading her story on paper I realized there was nothing I needed to say or add to make this post more poignant. I would simply like to introduce you to my friend Penny Rebecca I’m absolutely honored she would take the time to write her story for us for Breast Cancer Awareness Month “Pink…No Longer Just a color”
Pink…no longer just a color
Being a tomboy most of my life, pink wasn’t a color I was very familiar with, actually I think I went to great extremes to avoid pink and all the girly-ness associated with it. That is until my world changed and pink was no longer just a color, but a symbol of hope, strength and survival.
On a balmy summer evening as I lay in bed reading, I placed my hand across my heart out of comfort and suddenly felt something strange. While flat on my back, I noticed a dime sized bump protruding from the top of my right breast. I turned to my husband and asked, “Have you noticed this before?” He shrugged and suggested I go see my gynecologist the following week. My doctor checked me out and concluded it must be just a cyst. After all, it didn’t bother me, it was mobile and being a marathoner who didn’t smoke, do drugs or drink alcohol and kept to a healthy diet and weight, I was one of the healthiest patients she had, She suggested I wait three menstrual cycles. At the age of 29 and in such good health, she figured the cyst would go away on its own. I’m not sure how to explain it, but something in me said no, that’s not good enough, I want a mammogram to be sure. She wrote my prescription and a few days later I was at the radiologist’s office having a mammogram and an ultrasound. When the doctor looked at my films I was told, “it doesn’t look like anything to worry about, but if you would feel better, we’ll get a biopsy”. Again my gut said to me to get it checked out just to be sure. I headed to a breast surgeon, had the biopsy done and went on my merry way. After all 2 doctors had told me there was nothing to worry about and I was a 29 year old healthy women; it couldn’t be breast cancer! I had to wait 2 weeks for the results so I headed to Aruba on vacation and tried not to think about it but now I noticed that little bump sticking out of the top of my bikini.
After vacation I came home and the craziness of back to school and coaching swept up most of my time and energy. I barely thought of that little bump at all until one night I came home to a message on the answering machine from my doctor asking me to call her. When I got her on the phone she asked if someone was there with me, and then said something I will never forget “Penny, I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but you are the 3rd woman under the age of 30 in the month of August that I’ve had to diagnose with breast cancer”. I was in complete shock…me? Breast cancer? My biggest fear in life had just come true; at the age of 13 I had lost my mom to an unrelated cancer and knew all too well that when it comes to battling cancer, you don’t always win. I’m not sure what my doctor said after that but the next day I landed in her office and had some serious decisions to make. Based on the pathology of my cancer (estrogen positive, progesterone positive and HER2 positive) I was told the cancer was extremely aggressive…I was diagnosed at stage 2; had I waited those 3 menstrual cycles, I probably would have been stage 4 and may not be here today to share my story with you. That’s something that terrifies me; too many people would have just said, ok I’ll wait, it’s not a big deal, but thank goodness I didn’t. I had a few choices of treatment, but the one that gave me the best chance of survival and the greatest chance of growing old was also the one that might kill me in the process. Being the extremist that I am I figured I had no choice but to give this battle everything I had. So as a beautiful 29-year-old woman who hadn’t had any children yet, I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. In my head I figured, no breast tissue, no breast cancer, but this decision was one of the hardest I have ever had to make. Being a confident woman has a lot to do with how you look and how others perceive you. I wondered if I would look different, and would I still be attractive? I knew if I ever was blessed with children, that I would never breast-feed them, but I just wanted to live; everything else was meaningless. I also had all the lymph nodes on my right side removed and began the reconstructive process.
A month later came the really hard stuff, I had 8 rounds of chemotherapy which really took a toll on my body and caused me to lose my gorgeous long hair. Truth be told, I think that was harder than losing my breasts; I could feel my femininity slipping away and found it hard to look in the mirror. The chemo made me so sick that even my favorite foods weren’t appealing and I spent many nights sleeping on the bathroom floor, too weak to move after all the vomiting. After chemo was finished I had a year- long infusion treatment called Herceptin, which is a medicine that targets the Her2 protein in the cancer cells. Once that was complete I started on a medication called tamoxifen, a pill you take once a day that blocks the hormones that my type of cancer would feed off of. The side effects of this drug were a lot to handle but I kept telling myself that if I could last the 5 years with the nausea, vertigo and headaches, that I’d be protected from breast cancer for the long haul. I was lucky, I made it the five years. Some people can’t tolerate the drug for the full duration.
Now here I am, 6 years since my biggest fear became my reality and I have to tell you that I’m better off than I was before. I’m not going to sugar coat it, this disease kicked my butt and really forced me to look inside myself and find a strength I never knew I possessed, but it has also brought me so many gifts. I learned who I really am and what I want in life. I wake up every day and am glad to be alive. I speak my mind and tell people how I feel on a daily basis because I learned that life really could be too short, and there are no second chances. I have been blessed with wonderful people who have supported me along the way and now stand by my side in an effort to spread awareness about the real face of breast cancer, the young women who think, “It can’t happen to me”.
So if you met me today you would probably think I’m a girly-girl or that pink is my favorite color, and I guess in some ways that is true. I’m girly in the fact that I was forced to find beauty in myself and in the world when life seemed so unfair. I struggled for years to become “pretty” again as I adjusted to my new body and my hair grew back. I now wear pink with the pride of a survivor and for all my “sisters” who continue to fight this disease. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It is hard not to notice the pink items you can buy; the ribbons tied around trees and lamp posts and the countless races and benefits that are held to raise money and awareness about this disease. I would say from a survivor’s point of view that October is bitter sweet. The love and support you feel from people, strangers and loved ones alike, is immeasurable but the reality of your mortality and the battle you’ve been through and that you will keep fighting for the rest of your life is front and center everywhere you turn. It is so important to get out there and do something, anything you can, to show your support in the fight against this disease. Walk, run, donate, wear pink to show your support or just reach out to someone and listen to their story, which can help more than you will ever know. I’m glad you took the time to listen to mine- Penny Rebecca
Thank You Penny for sharing your story. I could not explain in words how you inspire me and the respect and admiration I have for you and the light you shine on me every day. Thank You- Tommy
Aside form the traditional colors of October, Pink is seen everywhere. You may notice players in the NFL wearing pink the past few weeks as part of the their Crucial Catch campaign. You may have also seen products in the store supporting a pink label or packaging. Recently, at the Airport I saw a pink American Airline Plane, and a pink cement mixer driving down the street. I’m proud of all the Companies , foundations who get behind such an important cause. Share your thanks to Penny with me and let us know about other unique ways Pink showed up this October.