It’s personal for B4BC friend and supporter Samantha Kuhr. Unfortunately, Sam was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, but we were so happy to have her join us for our Chasing Sunshine Project Ocean Retreat in Encinitas, California this past Fall. Take a peek at the full retreat recap HERE.
After her experience with B4BC, Sam connected us with her friend and employer Erin Condren (you may recognize that name). Erin Condren is not only an amazing woman herself, but runs an awesome company of the same name that produces the cutest planners, stationary, notecards, etc. We were so stoked to hear that Erin Condren wanted to create a product benefitting B4BC. The planner covers are a beautiful watercolor pink and feature an inspirational quote. You can support B4BC and get them HERE! So far, our collaboration with Erin Condren has raised over $6,000 and we couldn’t be more excited. We want to thank Erin Condren and the oh so inspiring Sam Kuhr for this amazing collaboration. We make quite the team if you ask us!
Sam bravely documented her entire journey with breast cancer so others could learn about her journey. Check out an in-depth look at the rigors of the disease and get Sam’s point of view and insight on the entire situation below. We are so inspired by Sam and are so grateful to have her in our lives. Read her story here:
My world as I knew it changed on March 27, 2015. I was a 43-year-old mom of two very active boys, wife of 17 years to Hot Hubby, active, non-smoker, with no family history of cancer. We work hard and play hard. Perfect right? Turns out that none of that mattered when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer.
After my diagnosis, I quickly became an expert in the field of cancer, to ensure I would not die. I documented each step on my blog, and I’m going to share my story with you, hoping that just one person might conduct a self-check, or schedule their mammogram.
My routine mammogram was scheduled for March 9, with the usual small talk and freezing room (seriously, why is the air at 65 degrees?)
MARCH 13 I received a callback—not to be confused with the “You almost got the part” kind, but they wanted me back for a ‘diagnostic mammogram.’ Mildly concerning, but according to my research, less than 10% of women called back are diagnosed with cancer, so surely this was the case.
MARCH 23 was Callback Mammogram Day. The technician spent the next 75 minutes, nervously pulling out equipment I’d never seen. At some point, I texted Hot Hubby, ‘Babe, I think I’ve got cancer.’’ He told me I was obviously crazy and to chill out. I’m not a chatty person, so the nervous prattle from the technician was really starting to irritate me. Eventually, she said “Ok, let’s go to ultrasound!” with a fake joy. We both knew what that meant, but we continued the charade. The ultrasound technician was lovely, but there was even more small talk. Are medical professionals taught: “Act normally and start mindlessly blathering about their kids, the weather…in fact anything, except the ugly tumors you see?
An hour later, a doctor arrived. I point blank asked her, “In your expert opinion, and you’ve probably seen about 25 people today, do you think I have cancer?”
The doctor said I had two suspicious masses and suspicious calcification that was ‘greatly concerning’ and she wanted to take a biopsy. I continued to ask my researched questions: Are the masses jagged? What size? Is calcification an indication of breast cancer?
I asked, “Based on what you see, do you think the biopsy will be positive?” The doctor gave me her professional responses, but also couldn’t lie to my direct questions. She said, “You seem to be the type of person who doesn’t like surprises.” I wanted to say “Did you know that I’d unwrap my Christmas presents from the tree, peek, then rewrap them from ages 6-30 years old?” She then patiently and candidly answered my questions, walking me through the ultrasound findings. And it was not positive.
I asked: “So basically I’m showing four red flags for breast cancer?” Very professionally, she answered, “Yes.”
So that was that.
I called Hot Hubby, who of course tried to remain positive, but we both knew that we were likely facing breast cancer.
MARCH 25 was Biopsy Day. My BFF was taking me and was so worried. She had a vile tasting red juice for me. Knowing her, she probably researched the best juice for cancer because that’s the type of friend she is. I pretended it wasn’t vile; she pretended she just picked me up a juice, and we headed to the appointment. We joked about me needing to hold her hand in there, as she tried to remain positive.
The technician was again warm and kind, but again, it was clear, she already knew that I had cancer and she felt sad for me. I lay on the table as she prepared the syringes. Not quite as much small talk this time, thank goodness. BFF stayed in the room, and I was secretly so happy. I didn’t want to be alone with the sterile equipment, pretending to be brave. Truth was, I was terrified. The technician gave me warm towels and prepared me for the biopsy. It was all very clinical. She used the ultrasound to guide the needle into both masses, and took a syringe of gunk from four different places in each mass.
I asked the doctor the next steps in the event of a positive result. Again, she didn’t even give me the standard “let’s wait and see what the biopsy shows”… she had sadness in her eyes and began to tell me how treatable cancer is these days.
It was pretty clear that I had the big C.
MARCH 27 was Results Day. Driving to the Torrance Memorial Breast Diagnostic Center, I was strangely calm. I told Hot Hubby I’m pretty sure I have cancer, I just hope it’s not the type where I’m dead in a month. I also told him if so, he’d better marry someone fabulous quickly, and not wallow in grief if I die, since our boys would need a really great mom. Hot Hubby cried, we held hands, and drove in silence.
We were immediately taken to the facilitator’s office, and she gave the news that it was indeed cancer. Immediately, I kicked into problem solving mode, asking about survival statistics. Hot Hubby began to tear, and I had to remind him to keep his shizzle together. This is a valid question. I needed to know if I should write letters to my boys for their milestone days. The oncologist proceeded to state statistics: One in eight women develop breast cancer, 95% of the time this type is treatable, blah blah…. I calmly asked, “So why do 5% die?” He paused, told me I was very blunt, then had an honest and clinical conversation about my tumors.
It was stage 2, grade 1, invasive cancer. Two tumors, a third suspicious calcification area, and next was MRI and genetic testing. I’d then meet a team of doctors to discuss options and whether chemotherapy and radiation were needed.
My brain was spinning. Hot Hubby and I left in stunned silence. I began searching through my brain’s Rolodex, formulating a plan to attack this in the most aggressive and efficient way possible.
We decided to go to Hennessey’s on the Hermosa pier, look at the ocean, have a glass of champagne, and figure out how to possibly tell our sweet boys that mommy has cancer. I hate you cancer! You can take my hair, my breasts, and require many major surgeries, but I was so angry that my sweet boys would now live with sadness and fear. Hot Hubby and I felt oddly at peace, and in a strange way even slightly lucky.
I know I was just given a cancer diagnosis, but it was the ‘good’ kind; I wasn’t going to die (95% or so chance, but who’s counting) and it would mean a long road for me. BUT I’m young(ish), never in better shape to undergo major surgery. So I was ready.
Cheers to the ‘good’ cancer…I was ready to get this party started!
So I was just given a cancer diagnosis … now what?
After receiving my breast cancer diagnosis in late March, I quickly scheduled consults with breast and reconstructive surgeons. I needed to remove these vile, growing, tumors, STAT! I wanted multiple opinions, and as I quickly discovered, there wasn’t a ‘one size fits all’ to breast cancer. I’d need to remove the tumors, have them sent to a pathologist who would grade them precisely, then meet with oncologists, to discuss adjuvant therapy. This is treatment given after surgery, to increase chances of long-term disease-free survival.
My husband and I broke the news to our boys, ages fourteen and ten. They were very scared. They were tearful, shocked, and had many questions. Their biggest concern was that I’d die. It was truly heartbreaking to see the pain and fear in their little eyes.
I learned my treatment options: lumpectomy, single mastectomy or double mastectomy. Although it was the most aggressive, a double mastectomy seemed the best choice for the following reasons: My tumors covered a large area and the cosmetic outcome of a lumpectomy wouldn’t be ideal, my cancer had a 20% recurrence rate in my right breast, I had two boys who were counting on me being around, and my boobies were trying to kill me so now they were dead to me! This was a very personal decision, not one we made lightly, and once I found my ‘dream-team’ of surgeons, I was ready to move quickly.
APRIL 20 was nipple-sparing surgery. This procedure happens one to two weeks prior to mastectomy through the planned incision. The surgeon lifts skin from the breast, removes a small piece of tissue behind the nipple, which is analyzed by a pathologist. This rules out cancer directly behind the nipples, which would make preserving them dangerous. Additionally, it encourages extra blood flow, which reduces the chance of skin loss after the mastectomy. Also my sentinel lymph node was removed and tested. This is the first lymph node where cancer cells are most likely to spread. My nodes looked clear in MRI, but my surgeon wanted to be 1000% certain they were clear.
We arrived at the surgery center, dream breast surgeon reassured us I’d be fine, and prepped me for surgery. Hot Hubby kissed me, tearful of course, and then it was showtime. My anesthesiologist gave me a ‘little something’ to feel good, and I started to float around the room. Then…suddenly, I woke up in recovery. It felt like a time lapse. I wanted that floaty feeling to last forever.
I arrived home and the boys wanted to snuggle. Naturally I let them, despite feeling dreadful. I was sore, had two 6-inch incisions, and felt woozy from the drugs, but we lay there, completely still and cuddled.
APRIL 23, I learn nipple/sentinel node biopsy results. I’ll start with the good news. I was healing, my nipples were cancer free, and I could keep them during my mastectomy, giving a more cosmetically pleasing result. But, my sentinel lymph node tested positive for cancer. Only a small amount, but this was a huge blow. This meant more lymph nodes would be removed and tested, and my cancer may have spread further than we initially thought.
APRIL 29 was mastectomy day. I walked with a BFF (’cause why wouldn’t you the morning of a major surgery?) I needed to see the ocean, breath fresh air, and clear my head, before filling it with mad drugs. Hot Hubby drove me to the hospital. It was a beautiful day, we listened to Bob Marley, I closed my eyes, and he held my hand. I felt peaceful… which quite possibly was the drugs kicking in!
We checked in, and dream reconstructive surgeon arrived to mark me up. She was so precise, wrote measurements to the nearest millimeter, was calm, and we had no problem putting my life in her hands. Hot Hubby kissed me goodbye (tearful of course), and I was wheeled through the corridors. It seemed to take forever to reach the operating room and I was petrified. There was no turning back. It was time for me to lose my breasts. Dream Team surgeons were behind scrubs and masks, anesthesiologist was already putting a ‘little something’ into my IV, and the last thing I remember was them watching me drift into la-la land.
This was a loooong two-part surgery. Dream breast surgeon would remove both breasts, all the tissue in my chest, and 12 lymph nodes. Dream reconstructive surgeon would then insert ‘expanders’ underneath my chest muscle, slowly stretching my muscle and skin, ultimately reaching my ideal breast size (there were many jokes about my future DD’s!). Hot Hubby sat in the waiting room, praying for good news. After nine hours, he was taken to my bedside in recovery. I remember bright lights, beeping machines, a flurry of activity. I asked Hot Hubby if I was OK. He cried (naturally), said there were no complications, and that my cancer had been evicted!
I was transferred to my room and lay in excruciating pain. I was nauseous and dazed. Nine hours under general anesthesia was taking a horrible toll; I felt hideous. Hot Hubby arranged a team of BFF’s to manage my care. They charted meds, worked on my respirations to avoid pneumonia, managed my nausea and watched me sleep. I eventually managed to eat, shuffle to the bathroom, as gradually the anesthesia left my body. My nausea slowly subsided, and I felt I might not be trapped in this vortex of vomit and pain forever.
MAY 2, I was discharged. Before settling into my new ‘command central,’ my boys had cleaned, organized and even picked up their clothes. We were all relieved to have the surgery behind us. It was time to prepare for my recovery and the boys could not have been more attentive. I had four drains, and everyone pitched in to help empty, measure, and log. It was a team effort. The first week was rough. I had intense pain and discomfort. I had medication and boy did I need it. My arms needed to stay by my side to help rebuild and regenerate my blood cells, and for my skin to grow onto my muscle. Any slight movement could jar this process, and cause problems. The boys told me I looked beautiful, but I think they were especially happy when I could finally shower!
MAY 7 and great news! Finally, at my post-op appointment, I learn my right breast was totally clear and all 12 lymph nodes were clear. Theoretically, I was cancer free. Dream breast surgeon thought a few cancerous cells had traveled to my sentinel lymph node, which did its job, and caught and contained them. Hallelujah!
I still had a long road ahead with appointments, adjuvant therapy, breast expanders, PET/CT scans, physical therapy, and reconstructive surgeries, but I was ready to continue to fight for my life. The outpouring of love and support from our village was incredibly comforting, and as a family, we vowed that fear would not rule us. We would live large every day!
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I needed to quickly find a breast surgeon and reconstructive surgeon. I reached out to friends who had traveled this journey, friends in the medical industry, and of course the internet. I felt fortunate to live in a city with some of the best medical care in the world, and I soon gathered referrals. For me it was important to meet with multiple experts, compile information, then decide who I was going to hand my life.
Not all of my referrals were ‘in-network’ for our insurance plan (which by the way is a top tier PPO). Along with a devastating cancer diagnosis, I also faced unknown medical expenses. Each doctor we met was brilliant, talented, and we’d trust any of them with my life. Well, except the reconstructive surgeon who dropped equipment throughout the whole consult, and said “Sorry, I’m clutzy today, but promise I’m a good surgeon!” Seriously, you cannot make this up!!
Ultimately for me, it came down to chemistry. When I met Dr. Kristi Funk at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills, she had me at hello. She was smart, had brilliant advice, and most importantly we had chemistry. Of course it didn’t hurt to discover during my internet research that she was Angelina Jolie and Sheryl Crow’s surgeon. Brad has nothing on Hot Hubby, and I couldn’t help but feel if Angelina and Sheryl trusted her then I felt comfortable putting my life in her hands.
Hot Hubby and I left the consult feeling confident in my breast surgeon. I felt the same connection with my reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Tiffany Grunwald. She held my hand, listened to my fears, eased my mind, told me her job was to take care of my body after this, and that she would help me recover and look as perfect as possible. Sold! We decided to move forward ASAP, and within ten minutes her nurse navigator had coordinated my surgery with Dr. Funk and St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.
Dr. Kristi Funk saved my life, and she and her husband are striving to help women with no insurance or who are unable to afford services, with the newest chapter of her practice, The Pink Lotus Foundation. This is a nonprofit organization that enables underprivileged women to receive free breast cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment services. Simply visit their website, pinklotusfoundation.org, to apply for care. Please, don’t let your insurance or your financial situation prevent you from getting a mammogram for you or a loved one.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I never dreamed it would all be so complicated. I also didn’t realize I’d have to make decisions that would affect my “survival rate” or “cancer recurrence rate.” I thought a team of doctors would tell me what to do. Everybody I met had a different take, and ultimately, I had to make decisions about surgery and treatment each step of the way.
Hot Hubby and I pondered such delights as potential recurrence and survival rates versus percentage of potential side effects for various treatments. And as Hot Hubby pointed out, I decreased my survival rates by driving to these appointments with the crazy LA drivers out there!
After meeting many respected oncologists, we found the third trifecta of our dream team. Dr. Philomena McAndrew walked us through the pathology of my tumor and showed us data on the effectiveness and recurrence rates of hormone therapy and IV chemotherapy. She believes breast cancer has been treated as “one size fits all” in the past, instead of a more personalized approach. She strongly believed the data on my tumor from two FDA approved genetic tests that showed me at low-risk for recurrence. McAndrew didn’t believe IV chemo would lower my risk of recurrence. I looked her in the eyes and said clearly she’s the expert. I trusted her guidance for adjuvant therapy, and I needed her advice for my next steps. She very calmly said, “I believe that IV chemotherapy would not lower your risk of recurrence to warrant the side effects. I’ve showed you the data, but YOU have to believe that.” So that was that.
We discussed how the next ten years would look with hormone therapy. By the way, this is no “get out of jail free” card. Tamoxifen is supposed to cut my risk of metastatic disease from 20% to about 10%, which means I should grow old with Hot Hubby and die in my sleep holding his hand after a long walk on the beach with our grandchildren. But there are no guarantees. Tamoxifen also comes with many uncomfortable side effects including moodiness, hot flashes, risk of stroke and uterine cancer.
My battle is far from over, and I could be sharing a very different story or not be here to share at all had I detected this disease later. According to my PET/CT and bone scans, I am cancer free (YAY!), and I am taking a daily magical pill that suppresses the hormones that feed my cancer, and will prevent a recurrence. (Frankly it seems like a huge weight to put on one measly pill!) I had breast reconstructive surgery in September, I’m recovering nicely, and have my fourth and hopefully final surgery scheduled for December. It’s been quite a year!
Now that we’re on the other side of cancer, I see that we attacked this disease as a family, and we learned important lessons. Before, I never worried about cancer. A plane crash? A car accident? Maybe. But cancer?
As it turned out, cancer had a lot to teach me:
- This is science and doctors are all “practicing” medicine.
- The little things that would really freaking irritate me… well, they seem so insignificant now.
- Nothing is more important than family and friends.
- I am incredibly grateful for so many things. And gratitude is so powerful and healing. I’m especially grateful for the people who showed kindness and helped us through our toughest times. I wish I could write every single name down to thank them, but they all know who they are.
- Cancer takes a toll and it’s constant. It’s not just a massive shock the day you are diagnosed, but it’s a continual attack. At times it’s manageable, but other times I want to scream: “Hey, remember I’m going through cancer and this freaking sucks. I might be making jokes and smiling, but this is just a coping mechanism to help me through this crappy time.”
- I’m not angry that I had cancer. The closest to anger is when I think about the worry, pain and fear that forced my sweet boys to grow up more quickly.
- I will not be ashamed of my scars and my reconstructed breasts. I am proud of my body and what it has overcome, and I feel lucky to be alive.
- Once cancer touches your life it’s there forever. I am certainly not going to live in fear of a recurrence, however I realize I don’t have time to waste, and understand now more than ever how fragile and unpredictable life is. I make the most of every second.
- I’m not afraid to die. Before learning the stage of my cancer, I felt strangely calm and was already planning next steps for my boys. Thankfully this wasn’t my path and I feel content with my life and have no regrets.
- Our family can do hard things. We can face a scary diagnosis. We can figure out a treatment plan. We can manage the treatment. We may not want to do it, but we can. That feels pretty awesome.
I’m told that my five and ten year anniversaries are significant. Each headache and knee pain over the next few years will be stressful with the “what if’s,” but I refuse to live in fear. I will continue to live life full and large, and as Nemo said, “Just keep swimming!”