My name is Renata, and eleven years ago I moved to the US from Italy with my husband and our two children.
In February 2022, I was doing a regular check in the shower, when I felt a mass on the exterior side of my left breast. I immediately called for an appointment with my doctor. I had to wait a few days because I wanted to change doctors and I had to wait for the insurance to confirm it.
In the meantime, my breast started swelling and it hurt. I was worried, but at the same time I knew that tumors don’t cause any pain, so why worry? I didn’t say anything to my husband. I tried to hide the swelling and the pain, and found excuses when he wanted intimacy, up until the day of the doctor appointment. Last year my husband lost a dear aunt to a neglected breast cancer, and it hit him hard. Showing him that the woman he sees as the column of the house, was vulnerable, wasn’t easy for me. But probably, I didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable.
When the doctor saw me, he confirmed that it was most likely just a cyst, as tumors don’t generally hurt. But still, I was worried. At this point I talked to my husband, explaining to him it was just a cyst, but I had to do a mammogram and an ultrasound the week after.
Testing and Diagnosis
The mammogram was concerning because it didn’t show anything, but obviously something was there. The ultrasound however, showed more. A young doctor came into the room after he checked the results, and said he thought it was Inflammatory Breast Cancer and it was imperative to see a surgeon sooner rather than later, and my doctor would call me in a few days to schedule an appointment. This was on Monday. On Thursday, I called the doctor because nobody had called me. A nurse said the doctor was on vacation and would be back the following Monday. I gently explained the urgency, and she said she would put my note on top of the pile.
I know how these things work. I understand that they probably have tons of patients who say that it’s urgent and want to be a priority, but mine really was a priority. I thanked her and hung up. Quick suggestion, keep nurses on your good side. My brother is a doctor, and this probably helps me see the doctor’s side. But still, I was a little nervous. The practical side of me said, “Hey, one day won’t change a thing,” but the patient side wanted this to be done sooner. Thinking about that now, I know why I was so nervous: when you go through medical issues in Italy, the waiting time is very long. I didn’t know that in less than a month I would have started chemo.
Less than an hour later, the same nurse called me back to tell me that she checked my report, and she already called the surgeon, Doctor J., who was waiting for me to call. So, I did it immediately. He fixed an appointment for the following Monday and my husband went with me. The doctor performed another ultrasound and said he didn’t like what he was seeing. He wanted to perform a biopsy right there.
The needle to numb the area went under the nipple, and it was a sharp pain. After drawing a few samples, he then went to numb the armpit, which was way sharper. I screamed a little and tears rolled down my cheeks.
The surgeon called me on Wednesday after lunch. “It’s cancer.” These words echoed in my head like a death sentence.
The day after, on March 31st, my husband and I went to his studio where he explained with drawings and words that were totally new for us, about the different kinds of cancer, the different stages, and different therapies. Mine was apparently Stage III Invasive Ductal Breast Cancer involving the lymph nodes. The good news, because apparently there is one, was that while Estrogen and Progesterone were negative, the HER2 was positive, and the chemo would work. Thank God for my husband, who recorded the meeting, because I was confused.
Next Steps and Treatment
The doctor scheduled for me a series of exams and a procedure to insert the IV port. The first exam was the MRI the day after, and with the result I got promoted from Stage III to Stage IV, Metastatic Breast Cancer.
With the help of my husband, I talked to my children. It wasn’t easy for me to tell them something so hard and cruel, that their mother was sick and needed help. After 20+ years in which I was the one taking care of them, it was now their turn to return the favor. Something a mother would never want to do, would never plan to do, is ask her children for help.
I started my first chemo on April 19th, with Taxol every week, Perjeta, and Herceptin every three weeks. It’s not the chemo that knocks me out, but the Benadryl they give me to prevent allergic reactions. The moment it runs through my veins, I feel myself losing power over my body. It’s a horrible feeling.
I’m at the end of this round of chemo. Next Tuesday, with the results of the CT scan (performed today, July 15th, 2022), the doctor will tell me what the next steps are.
No Major Side Effects
I’ve been lucky so far, no major side effects. I shaved my head, not because of the loss of hair. It was because my scalp hurt so badly I couldn't even sleep. Shaving my head was the right choice for me. My husband trimmed the first layer, then my daughter shaved it. I still don’t like how I look bald, even after two months, while everybody else says I actually look pretty. I bought several beanies on Amazon that are specifically made for cancer patients. They are very pretty, and I had a couple of friends who made some for me.
I never had vomiting, but I did have some nausea at the very beginning, though the medication they prescribed helped me. I took it two or three times. I sometimes have episodes of diarrhea, and that required some adjustments. For example, I can’t spend a day at the beach or hiking because, believe me, having to use those restrooms in the parks or at the beach when you have diarrhea, is not something you’d like.
Then I had to accept that my house is not always clean and shiny, because most of the time I’m too tired to clean. I had to change jobs, because the previous one required standing for long hours, and it was a full-time job. Now, I have a part-time job and I’m sitting. This allows me to be home in the afternoon and take a nap. Yes, every day I take a nap because the fatigue is tough. I struggled accepting it, and it’s my husband who makes sure I take my daily nap. Sometimes, I think I’m okay, but I am not, and that’s why we need a husband or a good friend who will be honest with you and kick your butt, metaphorically of course, if you don’t rest.
Exercise, Writing, and My Now
One thing that I didn’t compromise on was my morning swimming. Every morning I go swimming for an hour. The only difference is that while before I used to swim 45 laps/hour, now I can barely swim 20, but the important thing is to keep doing it. Physical activity is one of the most important things we can do to cope with chemo. The water is perfect for the joints and in the water you move all of the body at the same time. I alternate ten laps swimming (cardio) with ten minutes of exercises, then again ten laps and ten minutes. It doesn’t help to lose weight, but it helps with the pain and side effects.
I generally wake up at 5:30 and have a light breakfast while I chat with my sisters in Italy. At about 7am, I leave to go swimming and then to work. I work in the gym where I swim. At 1pm I go home, have lunch with my husband and sometimes one or both children. After lunch, my husband sends me for a nap (he comes to check if I’m really napping or if I’m on my phone!). I don’t want to take too long a nap, so I set the alarm for 45 minutes.
After a nap I generally write a little. I love writing stories, watching documentaries, or reading. At about 6:30pm I start fixing dinner, and after dinner I continue what I left in the afternoon. At 9:30-ish I get ready to go to sleep.
About the eating part… Since I started chemo, I was assigned a nutritionist. She explained to me that chemo would change my taste perception and also that I needed nutrition, so she didn’t want to take off some foods when maybe those were the ones I liked, and vice-versa. She asked me about my habits and when I explained that being Italian, I cook our every-day meals from scratch, she said to keep my habits and to be sure to have enough proteins in my diet. So, I did, and I didn’t change a thing. It’s true, my taste perception is completely altered. Salty food is never salty enough and often has no taste at all, and some foods are bitter. For example, I loved salad with lettuce and tomatoes, but now it tastes awful. On the other hand, sweet food is always too sweet, but I can really appreciate it
Take good care of your skin, head to toe, because it gets really fragile and dry. Use lotion, a hydrating one, in the morning and at night. Even if you don’t have hair, use shampoo, one that’s sulfate free, and then an oil on your scalp. You lose hair, not only on your head, but everywhere. Not at the same time, but later in the journey. Hair loss, especially in the intimate parts, can cause itchiness. Don’t be shy and tell the doctor. Mine prescribed a cream that helps.
There were things I wish I knew before, like the reason why some cancer patients are bald is not always for the hair loss, but also for the scalp pain.The second thing is the side effects don’t show up all at the same time and not right after the first chemo, but some show up almost at the end.
I’d like to give a few suggestions of what really helped me. The first suggestion is physical activity. Swimming is amazing, the water hugs you, supports you, and water is healing. While you’re in the water you really can forget you have cancer. Just for an hour, but believe me, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, I let the water lull me, and some other times, when anger was taking over my mood, I went underwater and started screaming. It’s been so liberating. Any other activity is fine, just do it.
The second suggestion is journaling. Oh my, how helpful this is. I make it double because I journal in two languages!
Finally, my last suggestion is to surround yourself with people who make you feel good, who listen to you, and who understand you even when you don’t talk. Just be yourself, and they’ll love you for what you are.
If you don’t have supportive family or friends, or if they’re not enough, find a good support group. I had to search a little longer to find what was good for me. At the beginning, I thought I didn’t really need a support group. I have an amazing family, here and in Italy, and great friends to support me. Then, further in the journey, I realized that, as great as they are, my family knows nothing about what I’m going through. Nobody knows how chemo makes you feel like a person that went through it. I needed to talk with someone that went through my journey, that understood what I felt. We human beings are all different, even the same therapy has different reactions on two people, and the cancer is not the same for those two people. That’s why I couldn’t limit talking with only one person. I needed to talk with more people to have a better outlook of what I’m dealing with. That’s true for me.
The first support I found was a mentor. But that is a one-to-one relation, and only by phone. That wasn’t what I needed, but it can be what you need. I then found a support group with weekly zoom meetings and a chat group available 24/7. This was exactly what I needed. Perfect for me.
SurvivingBreastCancer.org was my answer. Find what works for you.
Thank you for sharing your story, Renata. SBC loves you!
Connect with Renata on Instagram: @momrenata
SurvivingBreastCancer.org Resources & Support: