A Quick and Personal Note About Cancer
The vast majority of those reading this can probably figure out what the main topic of this post is about so I won’t worry about “spilling the beans”. I’ve known Brekka for a long time and helped her orthodontic transformation when she was young. I still remember the day she interviewed for an assistant position and it was more of a “hey how have you been?” as opposed to an interview. Brekka “has everyone at hello” as the movie line goes and has been a valuable team member ever since, bringing her own energy and style to Warford Orthodontics, changing lives one smile at a time.
We’re all lulled into a sense of complacency when things are going well in our lives and we also tend to think that when life is challenging, things hopefully shouldn’t get worse. As you’ll find out in Brekka’s story, this isn’t always the case. I still remember getting “the call” and I still remember revealing “the news” to our team. Instant “thousand mile stares” and tears of shock. Brekka is special to us all and with all she’s gone through we were hoping that it was turning around for her.
There’s a reason for all challenges however, and she’ll emerge stronger yet from this battle. Brekka speaks at the end toward proactively acting to diagnose breast cancer, but I’d like to add a little spin on the concept of “action”. Act with courage and boldness and live the life of your dreams starting right NOW. You never know when the next challenge will arise for you and you don’t want to have regret for not living like you wished you had. – Dr. John
What Is Normal Anyway?
As many of you already know by all the pink flooding social media, and everywhere for that matter, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month! It is a time to support those fighting, admire those who have won, honor those who did not, and bring awareness to all.
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful its ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.” -LR Knost- Author, wife, mother and currently living with cancer.
Here is our story…
I grew up in “The Middle of Nowhere” North Dakota, on a ranch with my parents and 3 older siblings. We worked hard, but we played hard too! I would say I had a good, but “normal” childhood filled with love and adventure. I had braces as a child at Warford Orthodontics and that sparked my interest in the dental world. I knew my smile made me who I was and that gave me the inspiration to become a dental assistant. I wanted to help give that gift to others. Lo and behold, I did just that! Not only did I become a dental assistant, but also started my first “real” job at the office the started it all for me!
Fast forward over 5 years working with Warford Orthodontics. Here I was, doing “normal” everyday things. I had my wonderful husband Garrett (my high school sweetheart) a beautiful daughter Adley, and another on the way! You could say life was good!
At my 32 week checkup we were given the news that our expecting baby would be born with some birth defects. A cleft lip for sure and possibly a cleft palate. We were crushed, we knew it wasn’t life threatening, but let’s be honest…everyone wants things to go “normal” and this wasn’t in the plans. Working in the dental world this was something I was familiar with, but had never thought a ton about in the early stages. No family history, an otherwise healthy pregnancy and no real answer to “why did this happen?”. We did our research and prepared for the arrival for our sweet baby. It was hard to think of the challenges we were about to face and knowing our tiny baby would require surgeries, but we were ready and so excited-like any expecting parents would be!
In February little Mayzee Grace entered the world screaming…all of the worry and stress went away and it was replaced with pure love! She was perfect, bilateral cleft lip/palate and all. Little did we know, there was more to her story. Her pediatrician came back after her newborn hospital check bearing news of an “abnormal” murmur when listening to her heart. An echo was performed and it was confirmed that she did in fact have two holes in her heart causing the murmur. Our sweet baby girl was going to have a long road ahead. We knew it would be tough, but she just gave us a perfect look with her big beautiful eyes and we knew that is was going to be okay. We needed to be strong for her…and so we were.
Cleft lip repair at 10 weeks old, open heart surgery at just over 4 months, a long 3-week recovery in the Children’s Hospital in MN that ended up requiring a feeding tube and many medications due to poor heart function…lets just say she had a rough 6 months. It was hard on everyone. I know I am a biased, proud mommy, but she is one amazing little girl, hence the name! She stayed so happy and strong though the mess and taught us more than you could imagine. She has a purpose and she was letting it be known by anyone that met her. She is so full of life and such an inspiration, a breath of fresh air!
We came home from heart surgery mid July and by mid August things were feeling “normal”. I was back to work full swing, she was able to start daycare for the first time, we were getting into the groove of life with two under two! We celebrated the milestone of her turning 6 months and just days later we got hit again…
Here is my “why” to this blog post and the rest of our story:
Back in December 2014, around the same time we found out about Mayzee’s birth defects, I found a marble sized lump in my right breast. I remember the moment telling my husband I was a little concerned and we both joked that “I’m sure it’s nothing” we couldn’t be going through pregnancy news and something else at the same time…”I’m sure it is just because I will be having a baby soon and my body is gearing up and changing.” Honestly I didn’t think much of it and finished out the pregnancy like “normal”. We talked so much about baby at each checkup it never even crossed my mind to point it out. With baby came lactation and even more breast changes.
Mayzee was unable to nurse due to her cleft palate, but I chose to exclusively pump to provide her the best nutrition. A few months in I noticed that marble sized lump not only hadn’t went away, but had actually grown. My mind said “clogged duct” so I would apply heat, massage the area and still no change. This lead me to “act” and I placed a call requesting a mammogram. I was then told I was “too young” at age 26 to qualify for a mammogram and I would need to see my general doctor and start there, so I did just that.
She didn’t take the findings lightly, but wasn’t overly concerned either. Other than it being a noticeable lump, all the signs led to it being nothing of concern. To be safe we did an ultrasound right away. That led to meeting with a breast surgeon. We went over those initial ultrasound images. We talked about the mass and that I was lactating. We talked about Mayzee’s health concerns and the fact that she would be having open heart surgery soon. We discussed my family history and my age. At the end of the appointment my husband, the surgeon and I all came to the same consensus that A) I am young, B) I was recently pregnant and currently lactating C) my daughter has special health concerns and breast milk is best for her right now (we were reassured that even if it was cancer the milk is not affected) and D) Other than stress and lack of sleep I was feeling “normal” and in good health. With the overall assessment I was given a 2% chance of it being cancer (the mass could be many things, but they were thinking a fibroma).
Well this was May 22nd and on that day we made the educated decision to not biopsy and wait 3 months with plans for another ultrasound to check for growth. Fast forward 1 month to late June and we were in Minneapolis for just over three weeks loving on little Mayzee. During this time I could feel the lump had grown, so in my mind I planned to go in as soon as I got home. It took some time to settle in and then I called to go in early for a follow up ultrasound. Since I knew the mass had grown I decided on my own it was time to “dry up” and my last day of pumping was the morning of July 28th. A few days later I had the ultrasound. It was confirmed to have grown and a biopsy was ordered. Everyone was surprised with the quick growth and we knew it was time to investigate further…even with that I still never expected cancer.
August 20th 2015 our world was rocked once again…Breast Cancer had indeed crept its way into our lives and this “normal” feeling we were enjoying with Mayzee doing so well came to a quick halt. TESTS, lots and lots of tests and doctor’s appointments, as if we hadn’t spent enough time doing that already this year. What a way to celebrate turning 27 that week. “Stage three” was hard to hear after additional biopsies confirmed that it had moved to my lymph nodes as well. This was real, this was happening, the “but it would never happen to me” mindset was out the window.
Here we are, 3 chemotherapy treatments in, no hair, no energy, not feeling “normal” AT ALL. My advice to others? ACT PEOPLE, get rid the the excuses that it won’t happen to you, stop searching for reasons why it’s nothing and make sure it really is nothing. You can’t necessarily keep it from happening, but you can catch it early. My oncology nurse was funny when I asked about overall Patient health. She said there are marathon runners, couch potatoes, young, old, big, small…there is NO “normal” or typical cancer Patient. Yes there are things you can do to reduce your risk, but sadly no one is immune to cancer so please stop thinking, “but I’m sure it’s nothing because…(fill in the blank)” and start thinking of early detection plans and ways to reduce your risk.
Likely this cancer had been present for 8 months or more prior to my official diagnosis. Do I wish we had biopsied sooner? No, and with the above paragraph I know that sounds hypocritical, but the reason I say that is because Mayzee needed me. There were times that she may not still be with us had we not been proactive and there for her 100%. I was a mother through and through well before I even became a mom. It was always my biggest dream and now I am living that dream. I always have and always will put my children first. With that said, they need me too. I cannot take care of my children if I do not take care of myself.
We are moving ahead full force! I will beat this! Now Mayzee’s health is more stable and it is better timing for this. Not that there is ever a good time to find out that you have cancer, but an even worse time would be when your daughter’s heart is failing and she is surviving on medications, surgeries and around the clock care from us or nursing staff and doctors. I would not have been able to handle all of this when we were in the children’s hospital with Mayzee and so far from home. We learned so much from our experiences with her and she gave me the strength to take on this battle full force. I can be strong like her!
I am trying to not live with regrets or be angry. My silver lining in this mess is you…if I can convince even one of you to act fast and to not ignore the signs this is all worth it. I am talking to YOU, all of you or your loved ones. Investigate things, make sure you are not the version of my 2% odds. People beat the odds all the time, unfortunately they don’t always fall in your favor, find out, get answers.
I am on #3 of 16 chemotherapy treatments, yuck! Surgery to remove what is left of the cancer will follow the chemo. I elected to do a double mastectomy and removal of the affected lymph nodes to ensure it can not come back…at least not as breast cancer that is! I will finish out with 6 weeks of radiation. This isn’t an easy fix, there isn’t a quick cure, our goal is long term remission…VERY LONG TERM! Week by week we press forward, the countdown is on to hear “your tests/scans look “normal” and free of cancer!”
Like with everything Mayzee has endured, we have learned SO much! Have have learned about our strength, our never-ending faith and our AMAZING support system. Everyone has been so wonderful to us in many ways. This year has been a very humbling experience and that grows each day. It takes a village to raise a child, and I think the same goes for spirits. Our spirits are high because we have SO many good things to fight for and too many people cheering us on to not WIN! Embrace that good things can come from bad times. It’s scary, nerve-wracking and sure not how we pictured 2015 to pan out, but we are going up from here!
If I can leave you with one thing it is this… Believe it or not I heard it in one of Dr. John’s wife Beth’s Pretty Loaded classes, well before any of this happened. It stuck with me for sure. This not only applies to personal safety, but in life. “DON’T LIVE IN FEAR, BUT BE AWARE” I don’t want you to drive yourselves crazy thinking everyone has some sort of ailment, but I do want you to check yourselves OFTEN and know the signs. Research what to look for and perform self exams, press for answers. If it doesn’t feel or look “normal”, ACT! So this month (and always) when you see pink, think! It’s about supporting, admiring, honoring and awareness.
Happy Breast Cancer Awareness Month, be aware! – Brekka