By Ashley Bell
In April 2021, at age 34, I was diagnosed with stage IV de novo (from the start) HER2+ ER- PR- metastatic invasive ductal carcinoma. I don’t necessarily have a history of breast cancer in my immediate biological family, and I don’t carry the BRCA gene mutation.
Back in 2019, I’d found a lump in my right breast. I immediately went to the gynecologist to express my concern and she blew me off, no hesitation. She told me I was too young to worry about cancer and it was probably just hormones. I had to live with this growing lump for a year because COVID shut everything down. Finally in 2021 I went to another physician and she immediately gave me a referral for a mammogram. The mammogram led to a biopsy, and I found out I had cancer two days later. A few weeks later I became a patient of MD Anderson Cancer Center, where they ran a variety of tests to stage my cancer. The results later declared that I was stage IV with metastasis to my liver.
I started receiving my first line of treatment in May 2021. My chemo cocktail was Taxotere, Herceptin, and Perjeta with a monthly Zoladex shot to preserve my fertility. Being put into medical menopause was out of this world – the hot flashes were brutal. After eight cycles of chemotherapy treatments, I had a right breast mastectomy (RIP LOUISE) with a tissue expander, followed by a liver resection, and removal of all my lymph nodes under my right arm in June 2022. I then started radiation, which was planned to be 30 daily treatments.
I thought that my little body was set to return to business as usual once I finished radiation, but NOPE. That was the thought process of a very energetic, independent, and stubborn 35-year-old. I started to have really bad headaches and vomiting, which was peculiar for me. I also started rapidly losing weight which was a cause for alarm, so I went to the emergency room where they gave me a CT scan. There I found out that my breast cancer had spread to my brain. August sucked! I only completed about 12 of my breast radiation treatments. All my positive progress came to an immediate stop. I had to have emergency surgery to remove my tissue expander just so I could get an MRI.
Long story short, it’s been a roller coaster. Two lesions were found in my brain and I had a craniotomy to remove the lesions while minimizing damage to the brain. I did five proton therapy brain radiation treatments. This process has hit me hard. I plainly remember thinking how a 35-year-old could feel so much older in such a short time frame. I could barely walk at times. They gave me a cane….an old lady cane…no disrespect! At one point, I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, too weak to walk to my bathroom, so I got down on the floor and crawled there. I often refer to these side effects as my battle wounds, and they serve as constant reminders of how the effects of metastatic breast cancer treatments can be a whole other beast to deal with.
Going into my metastatic journey, my main goal was to treat my diagnosis as aggressively as I could so that I could have a greater chance at life. I remember having bursts of strength at times, just because I knew that I needed to be strong. Even while fighting for my life, I was Ashley first – and this girl felt that she had to do all that she could to be here annoying y’all FOREVER. Looking back, I realize that the focus of dealing with the possibility of long-term side effects was not on my mind at all when I was first starting treatment. I had adapted to my circumstances. I remember just wanting to get through my diagnosis, one day at a time. My diagnosis is aggressive but so am I!
For my stage of breast cancer, I will be on some type of treatment for the rest of my life. So, now what? It is putting a game plan in motion to deal with the onset of those painful side effects that will come along because of metastatic breast cancer treatments. I have learned how to manage my side effects to a level that makes it bearable for everyday life.
And if you’re wondering what I do, I honestly just do me. I do, go, and eat what I want when I want. I do all of this at a healthy level, but I don’t put too many restrictions on myself and that helps me deal with this disease. I stopped beating myself up for how I felt; I accepted fear as normal, as part of me. And I tapped into another part of me that I discovered could beat back the fear: resilience. And when nothing else worked, I just faked being fearless, even when I felt like a fraud. Until the balance finally started to tip. I fool y’all every time, so I guess I’m mastering it.
I decided a long time ago that I was not going to give up on my diagnosis. I feel that I would be doing myself a disservice if I did not provide myself with as much self-care as I possibly can, so that I can be a better me. How much help or support can I give to others if I am not seeking the help that I need?
Thank you for sharing your story, Ashley. SBC loves you!
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