By Becki Berkeley
As I look back, it seems like a blur in so many ways. In 2020, there were exciting moments, there were new moments, and there were moments that I’d love to forget. In 2020, the pandemic had hit, and it impacted so many people across the globe. For my husband, Jeremy, and I, 2020 marked a new house that was closer to his parents. Our first baby, Carson, now had his grandparents nearby. We had met the perfect neighbors, who became friends and then family. It was like the universe had aligned perfectly for us and was blessing us with so many wonderful things, but by the end of the year that would change.
In October 2020, things changed dramatically, leaving me in a fog of disbelief. In early October, my baby sister Audrey got married, and I hosted all the bridesmaids for brunch and getting ready at my house. I remember being in front of my mirror, changing into my dress, and thinking to myself, “Hmmm, that doesn’t look right. That’s new. Oh, it’s probably nothing.” At 38 years old, I was thinking this about a new indentation on the bottom part of my right breast. Just as quickly as it entered my mind that it could be something bad, it was removed from my thoughts. I mean, it was my sister’s day, and there was no room for negativity, doubt, or myself.
As the month pressed on, I continued to see this thing, this doubter, this uncertainty in the mirror. I finally decided it was time to ease my mind and go to the doctor so they could tell me I had nothing to worry about. So, at the end of October, I told my Jeremy, “I’m going to make an appointment to see Dr. Kistler (my OBGYN) to make sure there is nothing wrong with my breast.” On October 27, 2020, my nurse practitioner told me she didn’t think there was anything to worry about (thank goodness!), but that she was going to order a mammogram just to make sure (oh, well okay).
Later that week, I had my first ever mammogram and breast ultrasound. At the end of the ultrasound, I was asked to wait in a separate room to meet with the radiology doctor. The doctor came in, sat down, and said, “I have reviewed your ultrasound, and I have some concerns. The scans are very suspicious to me. I want you to have a biopsy done.” I sat there in disbelief. What? No, this isn’t happening, I told myself. I cried on the drive home, even though there was still a chance that it was nothing. On November 2, 2020, I went back for the needle biopsy where they took breast tissue and lymph node tissue for testing.
I waited. I called the doctor on November 4 with no results. I called the doctor on November 5, and still no results. I called on November 6 and finally talked to Dr. Kistler’s nurse. She said that they hadn’t received anything and that they would call me back. I did not want to go into the weekend waiting and thinking and driving myself nuts with all the possibilities of what it could be and how bad it could be.
Finally, a little after lunchtime on November 6, I got a call from the doctor’s office. I was wrapping up a meeting at work, and I rushed to get off the call. I answered the phone with my heart pounding, and I remember it being Dr. Kistler and not the nurse or nurse practitioner. It was the doctor. I said, “I am guessing this is not good news since you are calling me and not the nurse.” She responded, “No, it isn’t good news; you have breast cancer.” She was so surprised and said she was trying to get up-to-speed as she didn’t even know I had had the biopsy. She said she was going to refer me to a specialist for further review of the results, and she was unable to tell me the stage of the cancer or much more around the specifics. I hung up the phone and didn’t know how to process what I had just heard. I was back to the worst-case scenario. I was back to thinking: I am leaving my baby and husband and I feel like life is just getting started in so many ways. I can’t leave them behind!
As soon as I composed myself, I headed downstairs to tell Jeremy (we were both working from home during that time, due to COVID). He was outside mowing the backyard, I believe. I said, “It’s cancer.” He didn’t know what to say, and just hugged me.
I went back upstairs to go back to work, but I just couldn’t concentrate. I called my boss, Holly, and I just went into freak out mode. She was like, “What’s wrong?” Bawling, I replied, “I have breast cancer!” She told me to slow down, asked some questions, and got me to a calm state. She told me to take the rest of the day off to relax, gather my thoughts, and try not to get ahead of myself.
My next call was the one I dreaded the most. I called my sister, Deana. Deana and I are 10 months apart to the day, and we have always been close. I was her maid of honor and she was my matron of honor. We did everything together and told each other everything. This was going to be a difficult conversation. I remember she was at her beach house for a long weekend with our friend, Michelle. She picked up the phone and we started chatting, and I said I have to tell you something. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, the phone was silent for a few seconds, and she said, “This sucks. This isn’t fair.” I could picture her on the other end of the phone in tears, crushed, which crushed me even more. I knew this was even harder for her because our good friend, Madlen, had been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer just months prior, while Madlen was pregnant. Before hanging up, Deana asked me, “What can I do?,” and that is where the Pink Squad was born (more to come on that!).
A couple of weeks later, Jeremy and I met with my surgical oncologist, Dr. Deberry. We were prepared for the worst, but the results were rather promising. I found out I had stage 2 breast cancer that was estrogen positive. Additionally, they found lymph nodes that were positive for cancer, but the cancer had not metastasized to other parts of my body. The tumor was very large, but it was growing at less than 15%, which is a slow growth according to what we were told. I was also negative for the BRCA gene mutation, which was great since I have three sisters and two brothers, and this was good news for our hereditary cancer risk. Dr. Deberry told me the next steps were to meet with my medical oncologist, Dr. Lang, and to get my chemo port installed. Dr. Lang would explain my treatment plan and answer any and all questions I had.
Since you, the reader, do not know me, I should say that my story with cancer does not start here. When I was 10 months old, my left eye was removed due to having a cancer called retinoblastoma. So one could ask why I wasn’t holding a self-pity party, but that simply is not in my makeup. I did not have time to think, “Why me?” I could only think that it was time for me to fight for my life. I had to fight not only for myself, but for my family. I was not going to let this beat me. I had too much to live for. That is all I could tell myself.
During my meeting with Dr. Lang, she explained that I would go through eight rounds of chemo, which would happen every other week. At the end of chemo, I would be scheduled for a single or double mastectomy based on my preferences and conversations with my plastic surgeon. Dr. Lang also stated we would want to look at having my ovaries removed within the year after chemo to prevent cancer from spreading to my ovaries, since my cancer was estrogen driven. She told me I would lose my hair with chemo, and that moment is when I broke down in tears. To this day, I am not exactly sure why. I knew my hair would grow back and that it was only temporary, but the tears definitely started flowing. Maybe everything together just hit me and at that moment, everything just seemed so real. I also remember Dr. Lang told me the cancer I had was curable and that I should beat this. It was encouraging news, but I also knew I wanted to be realistic and that maybe treatment wouldn’t work.
The Pink Squad
Deana created a support group for me called the Pink Squad. After asking me how she could help, I told her that if she could be my middle man it would be very helpful. I hated putting that burden on her, but I knew so many people would want to help, and I figured I wouldn’t have the energy to respond. So, she created this support group full of family and friends and named it the Pink Squad. I often called them my behind-the-scenes angels. My friends and family would sign up to bring meals or deliver food, they would send me gifts ahead of chemo treatments, they would send me inspirational videos, and so much more. It was incredible and turned out to be so much more than I ever asked for or thought it would be.
COVID made it difficult to be around people, so I didn’t really get to see many of the people who were helping me, but I knew they were there. On my way to my first chemo treatment, I got a video collage from some of my supporters! Wow, it was just incredible. They really helped me focus for my first treatment. I will be forever grateful for the love, energy, and time that people spend on me. I also received weekly letters from my aunt Lacey, which always put a smile on my face.
My first chemo treatment was on December 23, 2020. I went to the Start Center for Cancer Care in San Antonio, Texas for all of my cancer-related appointments and treatments. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I didn’t know how to prepare, so I sat there reading and watching movies as my body was pumped full of the drugs that were going to cure me. My mother-in-law, Pam, dropped me off for a lot of my appointments, and Jeremy picked me up for most of them. After my first treatment, I felt fine until the evening, and then I felt pretty tired. Over the next four days I had extreme stomach pain, but other than that I felt pretty okay.
As treatments continued (I had Adriamycin and Cytoxan every 2 weeks for 4 cycles, and after that I had Taxol every 2 weeks for 4 cycles. I had a port installed where the medications were administered. I was also given Neulasta after every treatment, which was placed on my arm where it pricked the skin and delivered the medicine to stimulate the growth of healthy white blood cells in the bone marrow.), I would notice that it was the four to six days after treatment when I would feel the worst. I would often feel dizzy, and it was hard to concentrate. Concentrate on what, you may ask. Concentrate on work, that is. Yes, I continued to work full-time throughout my treatment. (Even though cancer changed my life, I didn't want to get down about it. So, I tried to keep my routines essentially the same to help with that. So, continuing to work really did help me find and keep the normalcy in my life. And, it helped me become a stronger person. I believe that if I made it through that, I can make it through anything.) I would take every other Tuesday off for treatment and return to work the following day. I never wavered. It was tough, but Jeremy, Carson, and my Pink Squad pushed me through.
By early January, I had lost most of my hair, and I realized it was time to let it go. I made an appointment at a salon that shaved people’s heads for free and gave you a wig for free if you had cancer. The weather was cold and rainy, so Jeremy stayed home with Carson, which I insisted on. I thought it may be easier to do it on my own anyway. I remember walking up to the salon. It was brutally cold, and as I was walking up, I noticed someone standing there that I knew. It was my dad. He had driven over an hour to come help me through the experience; he knew it was going to be a difficult one.
As we walked inside, I was handed a rose. The salon employee said that it was from my friend, Kenya. Let’s just say that at that moment all the emotions were running through me. I sat in the chair and took off my head wrap. This was the first time my dad saw me like this, and he tried to put me in good spirits. I think he noticed I was tearing up, so he steered me in another direction so I wouldn’t cry.
At the end, the hair stylist asked what wig I wanted. I ended up getting one and later throwing it away. That just wasn’t me, and I realized I didn’t want one. I was going to rock the bald look. My dad and I got a picture afterwards. I’ll never forget that day. From then on, I would attend virtual meetings in a beanie, but my direct manager was the only person at work who knew what was going on. After a period, some would ask, and I would tell them, but I didn’t want to be treated differently, and no one ever did treat me differently.
April 6, 2021 was my last chemo treatment, and I rang the hell out of that bell! I definitely got emotional, but I saw this as a huge step in kicking cancer to the curb. It was on to the next treatment step.
The next step was to have a mastectomy to remove the tumor. I decided to have a double mastectomy. Both my surgical oncologist and plastic surgeon said there was only a 15% chance that the cancer would go to the other breast, but I wasn’t willing to take that chance. Since this was my second time having cancer in my lifetime, and I was still young, I wasn’t about to take the risk, even if it was a small one.
The surgery was set to take place on May 18, 2021. Dr. Deberry would remove the breast tissue, including the tumor, and also locate and remove a portion of the lymph nodes. To locate the lymph nodes a little easier, she would use a blue dye called isosulfan blue dye. After this, my plastic surgeon, Dr. Chrysopoulo, would place expanders under the skin in my chest area that would be in place until breast reconstruction took place at a later time.
On May 17, 2021 I had dinner with Jeremy, Deana, and my aunt Lacey. I can remember feeling uneasy about the surgery. I had had many surgeries in my lifetime, but I had never felt nervous like this. I can remember thinking and saying, “What if this is the last time I see Carson?” Jeremy lost it and had to leave the table. He was just as nervous as I was.
The next morning, we made our way to the hospital. As I was being rolled away to surgery, I remember Jeremy being so scared, and I grabbed his hand and said it’s going to be okay. The next thing I remember is waking up in the ICU. The surgery had gone terribly wrong, and I almost died. Unfortunately, we found out the hard way that I was deathly allergic to the isosulfan blue dye that was used to locate the lymph nodes. I went into anaphylactic shock and ended up coding off and on for 12 minutes before they were able to stabilize me.
I remember waking up with a breathing tube in my throat, knowing something was wrong. I saw Jeremy in the corner of the room, and I tried reaching for him, and that’s when the nurse told me I was in the ICU. Jeremy was a wreck, and he said he had to leave. I wasn’t sure if he had to leave because they were making him or because he didn’t want to see me like that. He later told me it was because he could only be in there for an hour, due to COVID protocol, and it had been close to two hours.
I spent almost five days in the hospital before I was released. As a result of these unfortunate events, the mastectomy did not take place and was rescheduled for June 8, 2021, and as you can imagine, I was extremely nervous. This time they did not use the blue dye, and the surgery was a success.
As I mentioned previously, my friend Madlen was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020. Madlen and I met when we went to college at Texas State University and worked at the same clothing shop together. Madlen and I remained good friends over the years, and Madlen and Deana became really good friends and were college roommates. Deana was even in Madlen’s wedding. And, my sister Katy introduced Madlen to her husband, James.
Madlen was diagnosed while she was pregnant with her second child, a girl. Her baby, Abigail, and Carson ended up being a week apart in age. She was ahead of me in her treatments and was going to Houston, Texas to get treated at MD Anderson. Her cancer was triple negative, which I had learned was more aggressive.
In April 2021, I finally got to see Madlen. She was great! Her hair was growing back, and she and her family were planning a Disney trip in June, just a couple of months later. As soon as we saw each other, we hugged. We hugged like we had never hugged before and just cried. We were happy, full of emotion, and just relieved. After saying our goodbyes that day, I told her I was sorry we hadn’t seen each other as much the past few years and I was going to make a better effort to get together more. She said I shouldn’t be upset and that it was part of life and that we would get together more.
Two months later, after getting back from Disney, she found out her cancer had spread to her lungs. She was stage 4 now, and I just lost it. After talking with her, she said that they were going to start another type of chemo immediately, and she had to have her lung drained due to a lot of fluid. Deana and I FaceTimed her in early July one weekend, when Madlen was in the hospital at MD Anderson. She was in great spirits. That was the last time I talked to Madlen.
Unfortunately the chemo did not work, and they ended up moving her to hospice. From there the disease overtook her quite quickly. I remember reaching out to Madlen’s husband, James, one day, and he said that it wasn’t good and that he was driving back from work (a five-hour drive, I believe) to get back to her. I immediately called Deana and told her that Madlen was declining rapidly. We took off to Victoria, Texas that day to say our goodbyes. By the time we arrived, she was non-responsive. This was August 3, and Madlen passed away on August 8, 2021, just one week before her 40th birthday. There hasn’t been one day since her passing that I haven’t thought about her. I can remember vividly, during one of my radiation appointments when I was already having a hard day, and on my way home, I felt her with me. I felt her saying, “Chin up, Becki. You got this.” Typical Madlen.
Radiation and Other Treatments
After surgery, I went through 25 radiation treatments, had my ovaries removed, and had a bilateral breast reconstruction. (Side note: If I had it to do over again I would have gone with a tissue reconstruction, which is what my plastic surgeon had recommended. Since the reconstruction, I have had rippling in my right breast (the radiated side), which I was told was a risk.) By February 2022, I had completed all of the major treatments and surgeries. I continue to meet with my doctors on a regular cadence, and I go every six months for bone injections. Since my cancer was estrogen positive, and I had my ovaries removed to prevent future cancer, I am at risk for bone loss.
Maybe my journey will never be completely over, but I am thankful and blessed to have overcome everything I was faced with. I couldn’t have made it through without my family, friends, and the Pink Squad, and I am forever grateful for all of the support and love I was provided.
What I have learned through all of this is that life is entirely too short. We have this one life to live, and that is what we should be doing with it… LIVING! Let go of the small stuff and really focus on what is important to you. Don’t ever let a day pass you by, because as Aaron Watson says in his song “Bluebonnets,” “We’re only here for a little while, so make the most of every mile.”
“Long gone like bluebonnets in the spring
We’re only here for a little while
It’s beautiful and bittersweet
So make the most of every mile
So pack light and love heavy
Give it all your heart and soul
So in the end you won’t regret one thing
Life is like bluebonnets in the spring”
Thank you for sharing your story, Becki. SBC loves you!
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