Donna's Breast Cancer Story Part 2

Angelina Breast Cancer Quote
Angelina is my new 'breast' friend...

I have just read an open letter written by Angelina Jolie for The New York Times (May 14th 2013), and a diary of her surgeries (March 24th 2015).  Our stories and the operations we had are basically 90% the same.  I've never really paid much attention to her before, mainly because I was an insanely jealous person for most of my twenties, but this has led me to read up more about her and now, I want to be her 'breast' friend...we can be bosom buddies!?!  Ha!  In a weird way, I do kinda feel a bit connected to her now because our experiences of the genetic test, our check-ups and operations are nearly exactly the same.

But really, what a cool chic!  And she is really getting the message and awareness out there for genetic testing.  Which I believe is so important.  But, for me, what's MOST important is telling anyone, who finds out that there's a 'faulty gene' in their family, that they might be able to take preventative steps and a certain level of control over the situation.

Apart from the fact that Angelina has the BRCA 1 gene and I have BRCA 2, one of the biggest differences in our stories, is the fact that three of her close relatives died from cancer (her mother, grandmother and aunt).  It must have been so tragic for them.  Thank the sweet sweet universe that that wasn't the case for me.

My family's BRCA experience...

When my granny was 56, while having a shower, she discovered a lump on her breast.  She went to get it checked out, and after a biopsy was carried out, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  My beautiful granny then had a mastectomy to remove her breast, followed by a hard dose of chemotherapy.  The following year, at the age of 57, she noticed that her stomach was feeling very hard.  At the time, she was doing a bit of yoga, but the hardness in her stomach was different to the tightening of muscles after exercise, so she got it checked out.  This time the diagnosis was ovarian cancer.
Beauties: Aunty Joan, Granny and Granda Byrne, Ma, Aunty Anne
She was quickly brought into the hospital for an emergency hysterectomy.  I can only imagine how scary it was for my lovely granny because, during the 90's, hysterectomies were very invasive surgeries.  But, being the strong woman she is, she got through it and braved the following treatments of disgusting chemotherapy.  

I was very young at the time and it was my first real encounter with cancer, I didn't know much about it at all.  I remember hearing people talk about the big 'C' and how bad it was.  But, I also remember thinking that it couldn't be that bad, because my granny put on such a brave front.  I was oblivious to the hardship.  Despite my mother and aunties being very upset, my granny never let on to her grand-kids just how tough it was.  I didn't even know at the time that she had lost her hair, she hid it that well.  My granny is amazing.

During that time, the cancer researchers in the hospital were beginning to really focus on testing for 'faulty' genes and how they mutate and get passed on through generations of families.  They looked back on our family history and discovered that cancer of the female organs was a regular occurrence among the young women of the family. 

My granny's mother (my great-granny) got breast cancer at 46 but died at the very young age of 49.  Back then, it must have been so traumatic and scary to experience dying from breast cancer.  It's very sad to think about it...we're extremely lucky these days.  My granny's aunty then died of breast cancer at 46 and her cousin died at 28.  They are unsure whether it was breast or ovarian cancer that she died from, but my god...28 years young!!!!?  

So a genetic test was carried out, and it was realised that my granny was a BRCA 2 carrier.  Shortly after this, the same genetic blood test was done with my mother and my two aunties.  My two aunts got clear, but my mother (my ma) was told she was a carrier of the 'faulty' fucker. 
During the following years, as I began to get older too, my ma and granny would make the day trips to St. James' Hospital together to get regular blood tests, mammograms and MRI scans.  They'd go into Dublin city then afterwards to have a walk around town...maybe browse in a few charity shops!  It is nice on those days to organise something else to do, and definitely to treat yourself. 

Then, at 36 years of age, my ma decided to take the preventative approach to ovarian cancer and underwent a hysterectomy.  This decision was not made lightly.  But because of little miss BRCA bitch being such an aggressive cow, and the fact that ovarian cancer is very hard to detect, my strong courageous mother made the difficult choice to lose her womb and ovaries...and straight into experiencing menopause. 

Every time I think back on that period of time though, I feel such compassion for my ma because, in the middle of all this happening, my ma was putting up with a 15-year-old me.  And let me tell ya, I was a NIGHTMARE of a teenager.  That selfish little harlot I was, didn't give a shit about what was happening to my mother and I just gave her, and my da, HELL...everyday.  Something I utterly regret now, but I'll talk about that again some other time. 

On my ma's side of things though, she was facing a very scary period of her life, menopause (if ya get a's not intended), but like my granny, put her best side out.  So unbeknownst to me at the time, my ma was a way, facing the death of her femininity, and she just wanted to be my friend.  It shows me now, how loving and caring and beautiful my ma truly is.  And how self-centred I used to be.  Thank God, I've changed!  

At 46, after a routine mammogram, my ma was told that she was developing the first signs of breast cancer.  More specifically, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).  This is when my ma lost her breasts, and implants put in their place.  Because of the behaviour of the BRCA 2 gene, she had to lose her nipples too.  I was bit more grown up at this stage and had a daughter of my own, so I was more mature and loving this time around.  And my ma, she was like Wonder Woman.

The surgeons did a great job at reconstructing my ma's breasts.  Apart from a little puckering of skin in places, and of course the scars, they have a very natural shape.  She also got nipples tattooed on so that there's that little bit of normality.  They look good.  

Without getting too personal about my mother though, she did have a period of grief from losing her breasts.  For some women, it is very difficult to accept.  But, then again, I do think it's important for any woman who is going through it, to take a bit of time to reflect on things, grieve and accept it and learn from it. 
The story of my 'Barbie Boobs'... 
I was 21 when I had my genetic blood test.  At this point, I was well used to the idea of cancer and the possibility of me having the BRCA gene.  Weirdly enough, it never really freaked me out or overwhelmed me.  I sometimes think that this was down to the strength and determination that my beautiful role models showed me.  Witnessing how my ma and granny got through their cancer journeys, with such dignity and determination, must have left an influence on me.

However, it did shock me when at 29, the doctors found a 6mm tumour on my left breast, following a routine MRI scan.  I always knew that cancer would affect me in either my breasts or ovaries, but not that young.  Yet, for my 30th birthday, I lost my breasts and nipples and I got my Barbie Boobs in their place...well, expanders to begin with.  These are temporary tissue expanders that are put in to allow the skin and muscles to gradually stretch, making room for the final implants.  

To be honest, the morning of my operation, I did let myself believe that I could die on the operating table.  I had never had a major operation before, and I had often heard those horror stories of people not being able to handle the anaesthetic.  Or even worse, waking up during it, feeling everything but not being able to scream.  I have to say, I was kinda shitting it....until they were eventually wheeling me down to the operating theatre.  

To me, it was like how I always saw it on TV.  I was being wheeled on a big hospital bed down a long corridor.  All I could do was lie back, look at the sides of the heads that were wheeling me, and watch the lights go by, one by one.  As I lay there, I let the idea that I might not wake up, sink in.  I thought of my daughter, my family, my boyfriend, whole life...what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, things I wanted to experience.  I know that that might sound very dramatic, but for me, it was me facing a HUGE fear I always possessed; the fear of death.  And right there and then, I let myself fear it and feel it and accept it.  All of this wasn't pre-planned either, it all just happened naturally.  Very surreal!
So, as I let my thoughts and fears go by, one after the other, I REALLY let them go.  With the risk of sounding fruity, I put them in God's/the universe's, (however you want to describe a higher power), I put them in their hands.  Even if you don't believe in a higher power, the exercise alone of freeing all of my energy outwards and letting a bit of silent space inwards, I have no doubt that it worked for me.  I quickly accepted what was going on, and I became very calm.   I felt so light, that I was having a laugh with the anaesthetist, and my heart rate was normal, just before she put me to sleep.

Another thing which I believe helped my being at the time was the collective intentions and prayers of all of the people who wished me well in the days and weeks leading up to my operation.  I received the most beautiful love and support from all of my friends, family, my boyfriend, my neighbours, my hometown of Newbridge and even people online that I have never met.  It was such a special, beautiful experience to invite it all into my being and feel the love.  

I believe that all aided in me being able to face my ultimate fear, and I believe it invigorated my spirit in a serene and healing way.  Also, it opened me up to a new level of restored faith in humanity and I have been so grateful for every moment of my life since.  (Sidenote: To each and every one of you, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  I am forever grateful to you, even if you just sent me a nice thought...THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!  I have such a BIG LOVE for you all!)

I healed very quickly after the mastectomy but felt different in my presence.  In a great way!  I felt more relaxed inside.  Even if, every now and then, I'd lose the rag with cancer, my boyfriend or sister, even when my family home burned down, something inside didn't attach itself like it always did.  I became able to let things go quickly, and be less affected by things.  How liberating!!  

Now, don't get me wrong, I do still get scared, pissed off and angry just doesn't last long and it doesn't overwhelm me or take over.  It was a completely life-changing experience.  And, I don't have such a strong fear of death anymore.  That is HUGE for me.  Anyways, I'm waffling....back to the breasticles.

So, a month and a half after my bi-lateral mastectomy, I had to face my next big oophorectomy.  This is when the ovaries and fallopian tubes are removed, thus removing hormones, which quickly leads to full-blown menopause.  This one, for me, was a much bigger bastard to face.  Not so much for the operation side of things, but for the onset of 'the change'.  

The thoughts of hitting menopause with a bang, at the fresh age of 30, frightened the shite out of me.  You always hear such horrible stories about menopause.  Completely sane women going crazy, bones drying up and losing interest in sex and affection.  I was scared.  

And to top it off....because of the behaviour of the BRCA bitch, I can't take any Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).  No help to relieve the symptoms of menopause.  I didn't feel ready to battle through menopause with just calcium and vitamin D.  I was really scared!  Again, I'll talk about that experience in another blog, if you're interested of course.  But I will tell ya, I did experience ALL of the above symptoms.....and more!!!
So, over the course of the following year and a half, I got my tissue expanders filled to their limit.  Another operation was then carried out to remove the expanders and put in the final saline implants.  This was like a huge weight off my chest (again..pun not intended!).  The expanders were so boxy and high up, it was such a relief to get the rounder, softer implants instead. 

I really don't mind my scarred, nippleless, Barbie Boobs.  They do have pros and cons, but my real ones tried to kill me, so I accept the new 'puppies'.  Size wise, I went from a 32C to a 36D.  I never really have an issue with that...heehee!!  I will eventually get nipples, but for now, these bad boys will do!

And don't let Google images scare you either.  Most of the women are like me, and have changed their outlook on life to a more positive, loving one.  So, with most women, the appearance of the body becomes less of a priority when it comes to living life.  Also, in some cases, women, including myself, feel proud of their scars and experiences.

So, with my new-found meaning and understanding of life, along with my Barbie's, I intend to live life to the fullest and do more of what I love.  Travel more, look after my body, practice yoga, write a blog, learn an instrument, read more books, get more creative, the possibilities are endless.  And I know my gratitude, love and compassion for life and the people in it, will continue to grow, and hopefully spread faster than that little fucker, cancer!!!
And now?...

Me, my beautiful granny and my beautiful mammy are still here.  Thanks to the knowledge the doctors have of genetics, and to the love and support of the loving people that were around us and supported us, we are alive, healthy and well.  The dreaded bitch called cancer tried to take us down, but didn't succeed in my family.  I truly believe that I come from a long line of strong-willed, warrior women, and I couldn't be more proud to be part of my family.  

But I also believe that every woman has this Amazonian spirit in them.  We are all Wonder Woman.  Each and every one of us!  We just have to be determined to get through whatever life throws at us, and accept it as it's, good or bad.  I believe there is a higher power at work, and I release everything to that, and I am grateful for it all.  The positive side of my cancer story changed my life completely, for the BEST.  Thank you little shit!!!

I will say to women, who haven't found their warrior within yet, don't give up.  I'm not suggesting that you need to be super happy and positive ALL the time, because there is a certain amount of time, I believe, that we need to give ourselves to process things.  So go through the sadness, loss and grief as it is for you...just try not to attach yourself too much to it.  You are totally entitled to feelings of body image issues, emotions and fears but I believe that if you persevere, try to learn from your experiences and be grateful for them, magical things will begin to happen.  You are all warrior princesses girls.

Before I go...remember what I said about family history and genetic testing.  If you suspect that there could be some sort of 'faulty' gene in your family, get it checked out.  It is a simple blood test, but could be the best thing you could do.  And as my new 'breast' friend, Angie said, "It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power."

It made all the difference in my family's story.  I feel rest assured now, that when my daughter goes for her test, she will be well looked after.  And I know that she will face it with the same Wonder Woman courage that is in us all.  I have no doubt, EVERYTHING is as it should be and EVERYTHING happens for a reason.

Thank you for reading my blog.  Feel free to share away if you feel it could help someone out.  

If you are in any way interested to hear more, follow me on Instagram, Facebook or my website (links below).  Feel free to contact me with any comments or questions, and I will do my best to respond in the right way.  

Donna x

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