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When a Cough Turns Out to Be Extra Than Only a Cough

In August 2010, I was doing my routine breast self-exam in the shower when I noticed a small, hard mass in my chest. I was immediately concerned as it definitely felt out of place. After an appointment with my family doctor, I was referred to a breast surgeon for a biopsy as a precaution. Nobody expected the mass to be anything more than a cyst.

I was 26 years young, healthy, and had no family history of the disease. I was also newly married for four months and had just scratched the surface of my career as a pediatric RN. But when I met with my surgeon about the results, I heard four words that changed my life forever: “You have breast cancer.” I was immediately referred to an oncologist and started treatment.

Treatment consisted of six rounds of chemotherapy with all nasty side effects. I lost my hair, most days did not have the strength to eat or take care of myself, and I had to take extended vacations from my job. I was grateful that my cancer was diagnosed early on stage 1b and that a positive response to treatment was expected.

After finishing chemotherapy, I had a bilateral mastectomy to remove the tissue from both my breasts and nipples. I then had implants placed and surgery done to create the appearance of nipples. After a year of targeted therapy drug, I received a clean health certificate. I would have to take a hormone therapy called tamoxifen for at least five years, but otherwise my life returned to “normal”.

Four years later, with the support of my medical team, I gave birth to my first daughter. This was a great blessing as I was told that chemotherapy may have impaired my ability to have children naturally.

And at the beginning of 2016 I celebrated five years of being cancer-free! The cancer world assumes that you will be in complete remission after five years and your chance of recurrence is extremely small. If that wasn’t monumental enough, I gave birth to a second, healthy girl in December of the following year.

The new year began with the expected and understandable changes in my body. I was exhausted, but what kind of new mother is it not? I had an energetic 3 year old toddler and a lively newborn. I didn’t sleep at night and woke up early every morning to prepare my older daughter for school.

It was the height of the cold and flu season and everyone in my house had been sick. When I got a cough I thought it was my turn. When winter ended and spring was in the air, my family finally felt better. But I still had a cough. My doctor assumed the cough was related to my asthma and allergies, especially since the allergy season started. He prescribed a new inhaler, an antibiotic to treat a sinus infection, and some oral steroids, and I was given nebulizer breathing at the office.

A few weeks later, my cough got worse. I was now concerned that this might be more than an asthma attack. Once again, my doctor ordered the same procedures, adding a steroid shot instead of pills. I expressed concern and asked for a chest x-ray to get a better view of my lungs. He refused.

I didn’t improve in the next few weeks. At that point, I decided to schedule an appointment with an allergist, hoping to be more lucky. I pushed for a chest x-ray again and got one. When the results came back, the allergist was completely surprised. I had a huge pleural effusion (fluid) around my right lung, so I coughed and was short of breath. I was immediately referred to a pulmonologist to drain the fluid and determine the cause.

On May 11, 2018, almost eight years after my initial diagnosis, I was back in a doctor’s office, this time with my 5-month-old husband in tow, and heard the same four words: “You have breast cancer.” My cancer had returned and was now in my lungs, liver, and several bones. I started my metastatic breast cancer journey as a mother of two young children.

I started chemotherapy right away and have had great results in controlling the growth of tumors. Right now my lungs and liver are both clean. I also get an infusion to treat the areas of weakened bones that remain after treating the cancer cells in those areas. In 2019 I had a seizure and it was found that I have cancer in my brain too. I have now undergone a procedure called the Gamma Knife, which is a non-surgical, specialized radiation treatment, to address these areas several times.

This is my new normal. I do infusions every three weeks. I have lab work, CAT scans, and MRIs on a regular basis to monitor my progress. I can take medication for the rest of my life, but I’m still here. I am still fighting. I am grateful for every day that I can spend with my family. Grateful for every memory I can make with my girls.

It’s been 10 years since my initial diagnosis and what a ride it has been. I beg women (and men) to take care of their health. Early detection is key. Make sure to do monthly self-exams and speak to your doctor about your concerns. Never stop being diligent about your health. Be your own lawyer.

Although my initial diagnosis was early, my aggressive form of cancer returned. It was so important that I kept listening to my body and not taking no for an answer. As a result, I am healthy today and my cancer is stable. I am grateful for my body and the life that enables me to live.

This resource was created with the assistance of Daiichi Sankyo and Sanofi Genzyme.

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