If you’ve been following along for over a year, you’ll remember when my college roommate Chelsea got diagnosed with Breast cancer. I kept you guys posted every so often with her progress––some of you even donated her to GoFundMe to help cover her medical costs ❤️ (It’s moments like that one that make me more grateful than words for this incredible community!) In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I asked her if she would be open to sharing her story on the blog––and of course, she said yes!
Most of you don’t know Chelsea in person, but fate brought us together as the only two Seniors in Scottsdale going to Indiana University for college. We met through mutual friends and decided we should be roommates seeing as neither of us knew another soul in the state of Indiana. Despite deciding this before even meeting in person, we lucked out. We were the perfect match, both equally goofy, VERY messy, with an affinity for ANY sort of theme party. (She’s since grown up into an organized human, I have not). She is known affectionately as “Chelpac” to all of her friends.
I have her to thank for turning me onto the power of a good sleeping mask, my appreciation of Father of the Bride (AND of course, Father of the Bride 2––which she watched EVERY night before going to sleep) but she also taught me so many lessons in friendship, in optimism, the power of an infectious laugh, and how to show up for the people you love. She’s the kind of friend you can go years without seeing, but you still pick up right where you left off whenever the other one happens to be in town! Not once was I surprised as I watched her go through this insane roller coaster of a cancer journey with the grace of a saint.
I asked her to share her experience not just because I know it will inspire you, but because of the reality that many of us are going to be affected by Breast cancer in our lifetimes––whether it’s ourselves, or a loved one––I hope Chelsea’s story helps us all become more proactive with our own health, and that her journey gives you strength in any kind of adversity you may face!
Now, I’ll turn it over to Chelsea to share her story followed by a Q + A. We hope that it can help you and/or any loved one who may be battling Breast cancer!
Hello Golden Girl readers! In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to share my very personal story with you, just as many other women have shared theirs with me.
This experience has given me the opportunity to meet incredibly strong women who have been there to cheer me on and help me get through my journey. It’s been an eye-opening experience, to say the least, to see how many people I know connected to someone going through breast cancer.
My goal is to be there for women everywhere, just as the important women in my life have been there for me. And my biggest hope is that this post can help spread awareness about the importance of being an advocate for your own body.
Me and Breast cancer–how it all began:
When I was 23 years old, I decided to get tested for the BRCA1 genetic mutation. I was at my yearly check-up with my gyno who asked about my family history with cancer. And I informed her that my mother is a 3-time breast cancer survivor and my grandma is a breast and colon cancer survivor.
She then asked if my mom had the BRCA gene (there are two types – BRCA 1 and BRCA2)–and I didn’t even know what this was or what it meant. She explained that having the BRCA genetic mutation increases your risk for developing breast cancer in your lifetime by up to 87%. This is especially important to know in the Jewish community, as 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carries a BRCA gene mutation, nearly 10 times the rate of the general population.
I immediately called my mom when I left the appointment to ask if she was a carrier of this genetic mutation. She was surprised that I was asking, but let me know that, yes, she was a BRCA1 carrier. She was always told by her doctor not to let my sister or I (we are twins) know until we turned 27–apparently. The suggested rule is to let your children know 10 years before the age you were diagnosed.
My mom was first diagnosed at 37 years old, so she was always going to wait until we were 27 to have this conversation with us. After learning this, my sister and I both decided that we wanted to get tested right away. As there was no need to wait 4 years just to find out if we are carriers of this gene.
We did an easy mouth rinse test at the doctor’s office and a month later were called with the results. My sister had the relief of finding out that she is not a carrier. However, I received the news that I am, in fact, a carrier of the BRCA 1 genetic mutation. Giving me a high risk of developing breast cancer.
I felt nervous, but also extremely lucky that I would now be able to be monitored yearly with MRIs, mammograms, and pelvic ultrasounds, as this gene also creates a high risk of developing ovarian cancer. I felt very fortunate to know that I would have an incredible team of doctors monitoring my health. And if we were to ever find something, I would catch it early.
Pursuing a Double Mastectomy
After years of educating myself and meeting with many doctors, I made the difficult decision to have a preventative prophylactic double mastectomy last year when I turned 30, to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer.
Being that cancer is a common trend in my family, I decided this surgery was the right move for me. Especially since we found out that my grandma was also a BRCA1 gene carrier. My doctors had always told me to start thinking about the surgery when I turn 30, but in my head, I always knew 30 was the right age for me because my own mother was so young at her first diagnosis. After all– I was single with no kids and knew this was the time to take care of myself, without any distractions. I felt anxious, excited and nervous, but mostly ready to take control of my body!
The surgery itself was pretty invasive. No matter how many women you speak to beforehand, you don’t really know what to expect. The surgery took about 4-6 hours and they keep you in the hospital for one night (although every surgeon has their own rules about this and they will not send you home if you aren’t ready). I also suggest having someone stay in the hospital overnight with you.
Yes, the hospital nurses are amazing, but you start to feel bad to constantly call them in to help. I had my sister sleep over and help with simple tasks, like moving my pillow to a more comfortable position. You won’t be able to use your arms fully for a couple of weeks. And the first few days after surgery are definitely not easy. I am lucky to live close to my mom. And I actually ended up moving in with her for 4 weeks post-surgery.
If you are considering this surgery, I highly suggest having a family member or close friend come stay with you or have you stay with them. You will realize that you can’t do simple tasks for a few weeks. Even flushing the toilet! I remember that being a very exciting day for me – the day I was able to flush my toilet with my hands again. You will be in a very vulnerable state and will need to learn how to ask for help. You kind of feel like a baby again, not being able to do things for yourself. My twin sister had to help me shower for two weeks (perks of being a twin!) and my mom and stepdad had to help get me out of bed.
If you ever find yourself in this situation, quite honestly, the best advice I ever received was to take my pain meds. Don’t be a hero and act like you don’t need them. You will need them and you don’t want it to get so bad that you are trying to catch up with the meds. Just stay on top of a schedule, set a timer, and write down every time you take something!
The Most Unexpected News
Exactly one week after my surgery, things took an interesting turn. I received a call from my surgeon letting me know that they had found breast cancer in my right breast, after sending the breast tissue off to pathology.
Luckily, the tumor was very small (7mm), but this was pretty rare – my doctor told me I was only the second person this has ever happened to when doing a preventative surgery. However, the more I talk to other women about this, I have been finding that it’s more common than you think! Even more reason to always go with your gut and trust your body.
From there, it was a bit of a whirlwind. Four days later, I had another surgery to remove 5 lymph nodes to make sure that nothing had spread, which luckily it didn’t. After this, they were able to stage the cancer at stage 0/1.
In just two weeks, I went from being a cancer “previvor” to a survivor.
I remember leaving the hospital after my double mastectomy thinking that I had just prevented cancer. Clueless to what the next few months would bring me. I thought I’d be back at work in three weeks, with the surgery behind me and my daily routine to get back to.
It’s a strange feeling to be told you have cancer after it’s been removed from your body. It’s a scary feeling to have to go back in for a 2nd surgery to make sure it didn’t spread. And It’s crazy to find out you still need chemo as a safety precaution, even though the tumor is gone.
It’s nerve-racking to learn that you’re going to lose your hair and will need to go wig shopping. It’s interesting to learn that you must do fertility treatments to freeze your eggs before chemo starts, as it could affect the development of your eggs in the future.
At 30 years old and still single (at the time), these were all very scary realities, especially the fertility treatment part––I have an intense fear of needles.
I thought there was no way I’d be able to do this, but I somehow managed to give myself those shots every night for a month, even in a park porta-potty at my cousin’s wedding!
Didn’t I have a double mastectomy to PREVENT all of these things in the first place? But here I was, going through it all anyway! On one side–that wasn’t fun. However, I feel lucky that I was smart enough to make the decision to have the surgery when I did, because the timing couldn’t have been better.
The tumor was small, it didn’t spread, and I was presented with opportunities to ensure I live a long, healthy life. Nobody knows your body as well as you do. So go with your gut feeling and don’t let anyone talk you out of it!
The next few months were a bit of a blur and flew by. Two rounds of fertility treatments, four rounds of chemo and six surgeries. Two surgeries for post-fertility treatment egg extractions, then one final surgery to put implants in after two months of having expanders. (I like to describe expanders as a water balloon that goes into your breast after the double mastectomy. After you have healed for a few weeks, they begin to inject the expanders with saline every week until they reach a size you are comfortable with. It’s kind of a fun process to watch your boobs grow each week and then deciding where they fit your body best!)
After it’s all said and done, I am proud to have made this decision to save my own life.
More details on each step of the journey:
On Fertility Treatments
The process of the fertility treatments was intense, expensive and time-consuming, but very much worth it. Again, because chemo can affect your fertility, this was a precautionary procedure.
Treatments consist of a two-week process of nightly shots into your belly. And visiting your fertility doctor every other day to check your levels. You have to be very precise and follow the schedule they give you to get the best results. After the first round, they were able to extract 8 eggs. This was less than a typical 30 year old, as I learned that being a carrier of the BRCA gene gives you fewer eggs than a “normal” person. Cool. ?
So, the doctors determined that I needed to do another round, as they wanted to get as close to 20 eggs as possible. After my second round, we got another 8 eggs, making a total of 16 frozen egg babies!
With all that being said, I still may be able to get pregnant naturally. By the time I am ready to have children, the chemo will be long gone out of my system and my ovaries could be working correctly. There is always a chance when going through chemo that you will stay in menopause for a long time. And it may affect the ovaries, but there is no guarantee.
I will, of course, try the natural way. But it’s a relief to know I have my frozen eggs as a backup plan! I was also lucky that I had the time, before starting chemo, to do 2 rounds of treatments. Many women who get the news that they will be starting chemo don’t have the flexibility on their start date.
Because I had already removed the tumor from my body and we were doing chemo as more of a preventative to make sure there weren’t any cancer cells floating around in my body, I was able to push back my start date and do an extra round of fertility treatments. Everyone’s timeline is different. Which is why it’s important to get all of the information you need from your doctors and to also get second opinions.
On Choosing the Right Doctor
Speaking of doctors, I highly urge you to choose your doctor for you and not for anyone else. You will experience many people who believe they have the best doctor. And they will want you to get a million opinions.
I suggest getting 2 or 3 opinions, asking your current doctors for referrals, and making the decision on your own––ask a LOT of questions, and do a lot of research.
For example, I almost chose a breast surgeon solely because her office felt like a relaxing spa environment. But after further discussion, I found that she performs the actual surgery completely differently than what I wanted. (Without getting into too much detail, she places implants over the muscle and I wanted mine under the muscle––doctors will explain the difference and how they prefer to do it, but it’s important to ask and find out which way is best for your lifestyle).
On taking time off work
Throughout this journey, I was very lucky that I work for a very supportive company. They allowed me to take the time I needed to rest and heal. (I also work at a school, and couldn’t go before and after chemo treatments, as I didn’t want to risk getting sick or an infection.)
So I was able to go on disability for six weeks after the initial surgery. And once that was over, I went back to work, mostly working from home. I would go into the office 1 – 2 days a week if I felt up to it. But it’s important to use your best judgment and the proper amount of healing time.
I want to briefly talk about chemo. Again, I had no idea what to really expect. You can do all the research you wan. Talk to many people who have gone through it, but no two experiences are the same.
Moreover, you need to go in with low expectations and just trust that your nurses and doctors are going to do everything they can to take care of you and keep you healthy.
You will have good days and bad days, and you just have to figure out what is best for you. I was most comfortable laying on the couch or in bed with soft blankets. In addition, I didn’t want to talk to anyone and needed to just veg out. Watch some good TV, and movies.
I know Cannabis can be a touchy subject. But it really helped me get through the side effects associated with chemo. I used a Cannabis lotion to help with the bone and joint pain I had from a shot they give you to increase your white blood cells.
Smoking helped with nausea and to at least make me hungry the week after chemo, because I rarely wanted to eat. I lived off of smoothies and toast with butter. When it comes to your hair, there is no guaranteed timeline on when you will lose your hair or even if you 100% will lose it. This was really hard for me. I am a planner and I like to know when everything will happen. The unknown is scary, but you will get through it.
On my head-shaving party
When it came to losing my hair, I was terrified. I knew I wanted to make this a fun experience/party. I invited my closest friends over. And had my best friends from out of town FaceTime in to be a part of this experience. Making a party out of this really helped me to feel ok with the situation. As well as feel the love and support from my closest friends and family. I even had them each cut a piece of my hair off and had my twin sister cut off my prized possession — my bangs! You can watch the video I made of this day here.
(Jess’ note: You’re going to need tissues. ?)
On wearing a wig
Wearing wigs has been quite the experience. I am having fun with it, but let me tell you — they get hot and itchy! Trying on wigs was fun, but I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for. I suggest getting a wig that looks similar to your normal hair. So you can do what you can to feel like yourself. You never know who will donate wigs to you. And you can always buy some cheap colorful ones mix things up!
You have to find the right wig caps and I swear by this velvet wig grip — it helps keep the wig in place! I had a total of 8 human hair wigs donated to me, which was an enormous help and stress relief. Finding the right wig is not an easy process and now I have over 10 to choose from! Once I found the wig that felt most like me, I was relieved. I was excited to get dressed and go out in public.
Although I had a traumatizing experience at the first wedding I wore it at. The wig fell off on the dance floor! Yikes. Talk about embarrassing. I quickly picked it up and ran out, but I survived. Barely anyone saw and it was mostly in my head, but these things happen and you will get through it. I promise. At the time I couldn’t laugh about it, but now it’s a funny story I tell.
On Support Systems
I had an incredible support system throughout this journey. Which truly helped me stay positive and make it through each day. My family, friends and people in my work community have been an incredible support system for me. Not only did they create a meal train for my family and I for a full month after surgery, but they created a GoFundMe to help with the stress of medical expenses, raising over $25,000. It’s not easy to ask for help, but you quickly learn that there is no “I” in cancer. That goes to show that I would not have been able to get through this without the love and support from the people surrounding me.
Many people have asked me how I managed to stay so positive through this entire journey. I was gifted a book with a very beautiful poem, explaining how we can’t control our life events. But we can control our attitude and how we handle them. The poem is called Welcome the Rain, by Michelle Sedas, and I thought it might be beneficial to share:
And now, a Q + A:
What advice do you have for women who are contemplating getting tested for the BRCA genes?
I feel that it is so incredibly important to get tested for the BRCA genes. If breast cancer runs in your family, get tested. Do not be afraid of the results. Knowledge is power. If you have the gene, you will be monitored yearly by amazing doctors who will be there every step of the way. If you ever find something in the future, it will be early because you are doing the steps to be preventative.
Please do not let your fears keep you from getting tested. You can save your own life, just like I did! It’s an easy test — don’t waste your time contemplating doing it, just do it and you will be ok!
When do you know if you should get tested or not?
You should get tested if you know that your parents or grandparents have or had the gene. If breast cancer runs in your family, find out if anyone has been tested. The gene does not skip a generation, so if your parents do not have the gene, then you won’t either. We knew that my mom had the gene. So it was important for both my sister and me to get tested. Talk to your doctor about your family’s medical history with cancer and they can help you make the best decision. In my opinion, the earlier the better, as people are getting cancer so much younger these days.
What advice do you have for those currently battling breast cancer? What did you find most helpful and impactful during your journey?
My best advice is to make sure you have a solid support system. As I’ve mentioned, you cannot get through this journey on your own. Keep positive people around you and cut out any negative energy in your life. You will learn not to sweat the small stuff. You are also going to have opinions from anyone you come in contact with. Be open to listening and simply say thank you for your advice. Do not let it get overwhelming and remember to listen to your gut. Everyone is going to tell you that they have the best doctor and that you must do x, y and z. But every person has a unique experience and you need to form your own opinions based on your experience.
What preventative steps should we all be taking? And at what ages/stages of life? Is there anything you wished you had done differently/sooner/etc?
Go to the doctor! If you feel like something is not right in your body, do not wait. Call your doctor and do what makes you feel most comfortable. Especially if cancer runs in your family, don’t wait. Take the necessary steps in being preventative, because you never know when you can save your own life. I am proud that I wasn’t afraid to get tested at 23 years old. And I don’t think I would do anything differently. I had many people, even my grandma and my twin sister, who were against me having this surgery at such a young age. So I respected their opinions, but in the end, I knew that this was the right time for me. And boy am I glad I didn’t listen to them!!
You started dating your adorable and amazing boyfriend WHILE you were going through chemo — which is kind of an intense time to be dating! How did you navigate dating during that time of your life?
Ah, dating through cancer. We need another entire blog post for this ?I used to be a serial dater before this journey with cancer. I would go on multiple dates a week from the dating apps, with a 0% success rate.
I wanted to still find a way to go on dates and have fun during treatment. So I continued to talk to men from the apps. And I decided to go on a date the night before I shaved my head. My hair had started falling out like crazy and I only had one purple wig at the time, so I decided to wear that. I walked into the date and he immediately says “Oh wow, why did you dye your hair purple?”
I decided to be open and let him know that I was going through chemo and had started to lose my hair. He asked what type of cancer and when I said “breast cancer” his response was, “Oh, breast cancer. My aunt died from that”. I instantly knew this was not the guy for me, but at least I put myself out there.
Then, a strange thing happened. A very good guy friend really began to show me that he cared. He showed up for my family and me after each chemo. He brought me snacks when I wasn’t feeling good. And he came to visit me at my mom’s after surgery and proved what a good friend he was.
We had always had chemistry and joked about getting married one day. But for so long I couldn’t see him as more than a friend. Going through this very difficult and emotional time in my life, I was able to wake up and see that he was there for me during the hardest time of my life.
I realized I liked him and had to say something, because, YOLO. I brought him to dinner to celebrate my last chemo and his birthday and asked him if he wanted to date me. His reply was that he had a crush on me for 8 years and the rest is history.
10 months later and we are moving in together in two weeks! You never know when these things might happen — so keep your mind open to the possibilities. I was single for 8 years in LA and needed to go through all of this to really find myself. Feel comfortable and confident in who I was as a person. This journey has helped me do this.
How do you feel like your life has changed post breast cancer? Can you elaborate a little bit more about what you’re doing now?
My life has changed in so many ways. I am confident in who I am as a person and proud of who I have become. And I’m so happy to be here healthy and loving life.
I have become involved in different cancer organizations, as I feel it’s so important to share your story. You never know who you are going to help. I am making it a point to be there for as many people as I can, just as people were there for me.
I have been nominated for the Women of the Year campaign through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to help raise money for cancer research. This is a huge honor and I am so excited to see where this takes me. I have been asked to share my story at different events at my temple and in the medical field. If I can make a difference in one person’s life, I know I have done my job. Thank you for listening!
Even if this helps only one person, I am grateful to make a difference in someone’s life journey. If you or anyone you know is going through a similar experience, please feel free to reach out to me via email at [email protected]. I am happy to help guide you in the right direction or answer any questions you may have.
Cheers to being cancer-free!