Updated: Sep 5
By Michele Schwartz
Hope seems like something everyone tries to hold onto. A feeling of wanting something to work out for the better so badly, but a feeling that is sometimes so undeniably hard to fathom having when you are faced with some of the most unthinkable tragedies that this world has to offer. But sometimes, hope is all we have to get us through.
I was 37 years old when my world was flipped upside down. It was almost the end of 2018. At this point, my husband and I had been married for 9 years and I’m a mother of two young children—our two precious boys were 4 years old and just 7 months old. Babies.
I was an elementary school teacher on maternity leave at the time, trying to enjoy what was left of my leave. Then, the night of December 9th, my world stopped. My kids were with my husband and I was in my room changing my clothes. My left breast felt really weird. Itchy. Like I wanted to scratch my skin off itchy. It was red and inflamed so I knew something was wrong. And that’s when I started to feel around, and I found a lump.
The days that followed were consumed by doctors and scans and imaging and poking and feeling and looking, and by the end of that same week, just five days after I discovered a lump, a biopsy. That was rough. 37 years old, with literally two babies at home, and my life was about to change. All of our lives were about to drastically change.
As I’m lying on that table, awake, the doctor trying to make light of the situation as best as he could and the nurse squeezing my hand at any sign of discomfort, one might ask, what do you do at that very moment? You hope. Hope that it’s nothing. You hope that if it is something, that it’s not that bad. You hope that whatever it is, it can be cured. You hope that, at 37 years old with a 7 month old baby and a 4 year old child at home, you’ll be able to see them grow up. There’s nothing left to do but to hope, because if you give up hoping, then that’s when the darkness sets in—and the darkness cannot come in. I have two babies at home. They need me.
A few days later, after waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, the results came in. Breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma. Not sure what stage yet, more information to follow. Now it’s game time. Forget about maternity leave, and nevermind that I’m a mom of two young kids with a husband who works long hours. Now, it’s breast surgeons and figuring out the next steps and… hope. Hope now that this cancer is not too advanced. Hope that I can still parent my kids. Hope that I am not going to… die. But keep hoping. Don’t let that darkness in.
Over the course of that week, I got more information about my breast cancer. I found out that it was stage 3, which was advanced, but it’s not stage 4 (silver linings). That it was hormone positive and HER2 negative, which means that it had the potential to respond more effectively to treatments and that chemo was definitely the next course of action. What to do now? Hope. Hope that the chemo kills it all. Hope that I can get through this. Hope that I can handle my hair falling out. Hope that my kids are not affected. Hope that I can still act like a mother and spend time with my baby. Hope that my husband has it in him to handle what is coming.
But I could feel the darkness coming.
My hope was slipping. The clouds were closing. I was scared, and rightfully so. I went from maternity leave to disability leave in a matter of weeks. Thrown into a world that I never imagined that I’d ever be in, let alone at 37 years old. I had just had a baby. How am I supposed to do this?? I kept searching for answers on how to parent kids while battling breast cancer, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I just had to hold onto that hope, as hard as it was to do so at this time.
I started chemo on January 16, 2019, just two weeks after my 38th birthday. Some birthday that was. Sixteen weeks of chemotherapy (4 rounds of Arythromyacin and Cytoxin and then 12 rounds of Taxol), followed by a double mastectomy with reconstruction, with expanders. Here’s the hope again. Now we hope that I heal quickly, we hope that the cancer didn’t spread, and we hope that the expanders work. Well, during the reconstruction, it was found that I did have lymph node involvement. And two weeks after my expanders were placed, I ended up with infections. So the expanders came out, I was closed up, and on I went onto 28 rounds of proton radiation. Here’s the hope again…. Please let this be over soon. Hope that my infections heal. Hope that I can lift my arms again soon. Hope that the pain subsides quickly. Hope that the radiation kills whatever cancer is left in me. Hope that I don’t have burns from the radiation. Hope that I have the strength to go on with this torture. But this torture is how I fight to make sure that I’m here for my kids. My kids were my hope, my strength, and how I got out of bed every single day throughout this craziness.
I finished radiation in October 2019—10 months of the most intense, grueling kind of treatments that a body can endure. Or try to endure as it breaks your entire being down. I chose to remain flat, as I didn’t want anything else placed inside my body and I wanted to get back to my life and my kids. Those 10 months were rough. Every single possible side effect that could be had throughout, I had, including pretty severe burns on several areas on my chest, the underside of my left arm was pretty charred, and I had a big burn on the left side of my neck that extended down past my collarbone to my chest. I was extremely fatigued and had difficulty moving my left arm because of all of my surgeries before radiation and having to lie in the position with my arm over my head. I was exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally, and I literally had to figure out a way to pick myself up and put myself back together. But I had no idea how. I equate it to a strong storm passing through a town. Maybe even a tornado. It comes, it rips everything apart and then leaves. And you are left picking up the pieces, trying to figure out how to clean it up, and how to put what is left back together. And you hope. You hope you have the strength or can somehow find the strength to do it. It might take some time and lots of help from others from your support circle, but all you can do is hope. Hope that you’ll get to the other side of this and that you can one day look at this journey, like it’s so far off in that rear view mirror.
So here we are… November 2022. In October, I celebrated 3 years with no evidence of disease. My kids are doing amazing, as my oldest turned 8 in June and my little one turned 4 in April. My husband has been our rock.
I do have lots of residual side effects, including brain fog, fatigue, bone pain, neuropathy in my fingers and toes, mobility, or the lack thereof with my arms and chest area, lymphedema in my left arm, and tons of scar tissue in and around my left breast area (even though I’m flat), and the PTSD/ anxiety that I struggle with but have sought out help for. The constant worry that it will come back is here, but for the most part I can say that I’m doing okay! I never went back to teaching. Throughout my journey I became a blogger, documenting every part of my story. I love writing and found that this is my niche… writing, blogging, sharing, helping, advocating, and educating.
In November 2019, I was picked to meet Hoda Kotb of NBC’s Today Show on The Dr. Oz Show to talk about the word “hope” and how it helped me throughout my journey. I guess it’s safe to say that all the hoping I did helped because it ensured that I never gave up. Was my hope a constant thing? To be honest, no. Sometimes I lost sight of it, but I always found a way to get it back. Now I just hope that I stay a survivor for as long as I can.
Hope. It’s a powerful word.
Note: Pregnancy-associated breast cancer (PABC): breast cancer diagnosed during gestation, lactation, and from 1-5 years postpartum. PABC accounts for 25-30% of all premenopausal women diagnosed with breast cancer.
(Source: SABCS presentation by Dr. K.P. Siziopikou, MD, PhD: Updates in the Pathology of Pregnancy Associated Breast Cancer)
More information from The National Cancer Institute: https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/patient/pregnancy-breast-treatment-pdq
Thank you for sharing your story, Michele. SBC loves you!
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