Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Guest blogger Laila (@2sweaterpuppies on Instagram) gives you a glimpse into what it’s like to be only 28 years old and fight breast cancer. She’s a scientist. And, no joke, she finished her PhD in cancer research less than two years before she learned she had cancer.
Laila Roudsari is not your typical badass, she’s next level: brains, beauty, and ingenuity. She’s a realist so you won’t find sugar-coated smiles or bubblegum optimism here. Instead, she details the important stuff: an almost missed diagnosis (everyone told her she was too young to have breast cancer), the science behind treatment options (because this is a comfortable space for her, unlike many fellow survivors, so she’s leaning in to shave the jargon off the science-speak), how-to’s on making it through tough treatments, and lifestyle changes she’s employed to live a balanced, happy life after cancer.
Imagine your approachable doctor friend, who studied your disease, sat in the chair next to you, having undergone the treatments herself, and shared her notes with you. This is Laila’s space. She’s about advocating for yourself and your health first and foremost, and she does that by sharing the honest details about treatments and support (because how else will you know what to expect), spreading awareness about breast cancer in women under 40, getting real about which organizations are making a (scientific) difference, arming women with knowledge about the disease so they feel confident making treatment decisions, oh and advancing breast cancer medicine. Laila is a vibrant, enigmatic, kind soul who now researches cutting-edge technologies to advance what we know about tissue regeneration. So basically… a full-time badass whose proper title is Dr. Roudsari.
For a healthy dose of real talk that informs and inspires, 2sweaterpuppies can be found here:
Laila’s pre-cancer bio:
I was born in Charleston, South Carolina and I love the coast. I'm half Persian, half Southern. I have 1 sister, 2 brothers, and 2 awesome parents. I went on to do lots of schooling to earn my PhD from Duke in Biomedical Engineering. I'm now a researcher at a biotech company working on growing lungs for people with chronic lung diseases. Oh yeah, and I have 2 cute sweater puppies (actual dogs, not boobies) named Pharah (plott hound/pit mix, age 3) and Willa (wheater terrier, age 5) and a super cute boyfriend (who is also a former cancer researcher), Joe.
Laila’s cancer bio:
Diagnosis in January 2018, double mastectomy with reconstruction in February 2018, axillary node dissection February 2018, 6 cycles TCHP chemo regimen March-June 2018, 25 rounds radiation August-September 2018, continued HP infusions every 3 weeks until February 2019, daily Letrozole pills and monthly Goserelin injections for 5 years.
Stats: stage 2 invasive carcinoma, HER2+/ER+/PR+, BRCA negative
Push Until You’re Certain: Trust Your Gut
A technician at an imaging clinic spent less than 5 minutes looking only at the breast with the mass, then told me nothing was there and that I had nothing to worry about. I never saw the radiologist himself.
It didn’t make sense to me. If nothing was there, why did I feel a distinct mass? I know I’m young and my breasts are dense but there must be another way we can see it. I even asked the technician about getting a mammogram or doing a biopsy. She annoyedly reassured me that, “You can’t biopsy something that’s not there.” She was certain we had taken the necessary precautions. I called my gynecologist later that day. She also insisted I was fine. She read the radiology report aloud to me and explained we were being cautious by having it imaged.
I spent the weekend tormented. The only clear memory I have is holding Joe and crying together face to face. Somehow, I knew already that they were wrong and I had cancer. We researched the 2 best university hospitals in the area, found the breast clinics, and wrote down the phone numbers for calls first thing Monday morning. I worried I was being crazy and overreacting but I knew I had to do more.
Wisdom from the unwise:
I knew the genetics: I’ve always been worried about breast cancer. I'm a cancer researcher. I did an internship at the #1 cancer center in the world. I shadowed a genetic counselor there and learned all about the BRCA mutation. After that summer, I was inspired to have my family tested since my aunt had breast cancer very young. She tried but her insurance wouldn’t cover it since she was cancer free for more than 10 years. Every year I talked to my gynecologist about it but nothing ever came of it. I tried to be proactive, but I wasn’t proactive enough.
I had first-hand exposure: In 2017, I saw a high school friend who was 28 get diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t check myself. I also attended the funeral of my Farsi school teacher who died from breast cancer. I still didn’t check myself. Not once in all of 2017.
So here are my messages to all of you: Check your breasts every month, trust your gut if you do think something is wrong, and fight for yourself. Find your rescue radiologist, and don't be stopped by the rude NPs with years of experience who can't be bothered to spend more than 5 minutes on a diagnosis call or the technicians who question why you need a second opinion. You're your own best advocate. The scariest part of all of this is that I could still be walking around thinking I was cancer free. And so many young women do.
Dear Pinktober: Message From A Survivor Scientist
What do I think of all the pink in October? As a patient, I feel very fortunate to have a cancer that’s so visible; a cancer that so many people know about, talk about, and recognize. But I think our focus needs to be not just on wearing pink. As a scientist, I believe that raising money for research should be the number one priority. And I’m writing today to convince you that you should feel the same. Research is what will advance detection and treatment and that is what will ultimately end cancer. Make your pink mean something by making sure your focus is on ending cancer.
Here’s an example of a game changing advancement in breast cancer treatment. You may have heard of the term ‘HER2 positive.’ I am HER2 positive. For those of us that have HER2 positive disease, that means our cancer is very aggressive. It used to mean your chances of survival were a lot lower than women that were HER2 negative. Recent advances in cancer research have led to the development of targeted chemotherapies for HER2. What does that mean? That means the cancer cells have a lot more HER2 receptors on their surface than normal cells (picture a bunch of baseball gloves on the outside of my cancer cells, orange cups in the pic below). These HER2 receptors send a lot more signals to the cells to grow out of control, which is why it makes our tumors aggressive. Scientists have developed drugs that bind to the HER2 receptors to prevent the cells from further growth (picture baseballs that get caught in the baseball gloves, yellow squares in the pic below).
Your First To Do List
Alright breasties, I made you your first post-diagnosis to do list. Reflecting back, there are a few things (6 to be exact) that really helped me right after getting diagnosed and I’m here to share those with you.
1. Share your news on social media. Of course, you’ll tell your closest friends and family, but I could not have dreamed up how much support I got from sharing my news on social media. I was inundated with supportive messages, to the point that I even felt a little overwhelmed by the desire to reply to everyone. It cast a little ray of light on me when I was at my lowest point. Don’t get me wrong, I still had plenty of anger and I was more devastated than I had ever been, but it helped. People I didn’t know very well shared with me ways that I had impacted them in their lives. It was incredible. It also led to an outpouring of cards and gifts. I mean, who doesn’t want to get presents in the mail every day? I really do mean every day, enough to cover the walls of my bedroom with cards. People sent lotions, flowers, baskets, blankets, and jewelry; the list could go on. When I felt like my whole world was turned upside down, my support system was bombarding me with positive things to push out the bad. And it kind of worked. I would caution that some people will try to tell you what treatments you should or shouldn’t do, and share (very unhelpful) stories of relatives or friends who died from cancer. But all of that will be outweighed by the love you will receive. A community I didn’t know existed rallied around me, and for that I am forever grateful.
A few of our favorite Instagram posts:
These are my dreams, my wildest hopes for my life. This is me, here today, speaking them into existence. This is what I am manifesting. First, I'm a survivor. I never have to fight cancer again. I'm a lead scientist involved in the first engineered lungs going into a person. Once I accomplish that, I become a leader in breast cancer research. In this role, I make real treatment changes, getting treatments into the clinic faster. I work to disrupt the focus of academia on publishing and onto moving findings past the bench to the bedside. I start a company to culture patients' own cells to advance personalized medicine. I seek out causes of breast cancer in young women and once discovered, I push for awareness about these causes. I travel the world to form global partnerships with cancer researchers and improve the state of cancer detection and treatment worldwide. Through this, I gain a deep understanding of other cultures. I use this travel to experience life to the fullest, exploring the wonders of the world to feed my thirst for adventure. I use my knowledge of science to empower women with breast cancer to make informed decisions about their care. I change the way people envision a scientist by mentoring women in STEM. I have a family. I raise strong, smart, children who are open-minded, good people. I master yoga and salsa. I play the cello to feed my artistic side. I live a fully balanced life and I am happy. Inspired to speak my dreams aloud. You should try. It was such a good way to bring back the excitement I used to have about my future. For so long as a cancer patient, I've been afraid of planning ahead, refusing to even think about what I'd be doing in a couple months. I was afraid that if I made plans, I'd be let down if the cancer took my life away before I could do those things. But I'm here right now. And I want to try to live as though I've gotten the one miracle I wish for every day, the assurance that I'm going to get to live out all of my dreams. Pic taken the day before my mastectomy.
I am a scientist and I chose biomedical research so I could #movemountains to offer patients treatments when they otherwise didn't exist. A mass was found in my breast in January, a week after my 28th birthday. I got an ultrasound and was told it was nothing by several medical professionals. #imovedmountains to get diagnosed with stage 2 triple positive breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy in February and #movedmountains by freezing eggs after so I can have kids one day. Then came chemo - 6 rounds of one of the toughest regimens. I didn't start moving mountains when I started chemo - my family and friends #movedmountains for me. My parents and boyfriend shaved their heads to become my baldie crew. They made countdowns to tear off the wall and checklists to help me track my food, meds, and side effects. My co-workers and friends made me meals. I ended up #movingmountains by going to the gym for 5 hrs a week, even if I was barely moving my legs on a stationary bike. I also #movedmountains by tossing aside the scarves and hats and putting my bald head and smile out there for the world to see. And then radiation. 25 doses I finished this September. #imovedmountains by going to work every day to do the science I love. Now #imovemountains by helping other breasties through their journeys, sharing tips for what helped me. #imovemountains by striving to enjoy my life and really live it to the fullest (I'm on an endless #cancermoon). This has been the hardest year of my life but I've come out still smiling, still me. I have big plans for how I want to continue moving mountains and impacting breast cancer. I didn't intend to have to move these mountains, but I have. As a former cancer researcher, I can do a lot to help other young women by forming bridges between patients and the medical field. Maybe this is what I was meant to do.
So what did we tell you? Badassery on another level. Laila has clearly found her calling and we can’t wait to watch her journey continue to unfold. #longlivelaila