Life Is This Moment

By on October 7, 2018

2017 was to be a milestone year. I was turning 50, celebrating 30 years of marriage to my high school sweetheart and our five children were busy striving toward their goals and dreams. In hindsight, though, I don’t think we fully realize that we may take time for granted until it suddenly halts in the midst of a traumatic diagnosis.

Through my work with cancer patients, my own diligence of routine annual exams and leading, what I believed, was a healthy lifestyle, my own cancer diagnosis was a complete shock.

After just celebrating my 50th birthday and our 30th anniversary in May, I went to my doctor for my annual physical and breast health appointments. The year before, I had a clear breast exam. I had no family history and negative genetic testing for predisposition to any cancers, so I wasn’t expecting anything to be amiss. 

Shocked does not give proper credence, to the feeling which hit me, my husband and our family, when we received the news that possible cancerous tumors appeared to be on my MRI. 

I was immediately sent to a breast surgeon for a biopsy. Three days later, my husband, my daughters and I, crowded into the small exam room, joking and laughing, not realizing, that our lives as we had known them, were about to change, permanently and indelibly.

The breast surgeon walked in and got right down to business. There was an immediate shift in the mood in the room, when she uttered those dreaded words, “I am sorry, Julie, but you have Stage 3, aggressive, rare breast cancer.” The MRI showed the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes under my arm and behind my sternum. She said that she had ordered a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread further throughout my body, as this would determine the course of treatment.

If I held at Stage 3, with no other organs or bones involved, I would receive the most aggressive treatment regime that science could offer. If I was Stage 4, it would most likely be just life extending care and pain management. As I scanned the blank faces of my young daughters and my dear husband, I knew, in that moment, that I must be a pillar of strength for them. I also knew that the waiting for staging would be horrific.

As my family and I numbly filed out of her office, my surgeon hugged me hard, and she promised to call, as soon as she had the PET results and we would formulate a plan. I immediately felt a calm comfort about and from her. She, too, was a breast cancer survivor with a very unique perspective as both patient and physician.

Not even 24 hours after I had my PET scan, I received the call from my surgeon. Thankfully, the cancer had not spread! I cried tears of utter joy. She explained that she would order my port placement surgery by the end of the week, and I would meet with my oncologist within several days so my treatment could begin immediately.

Then, my life turned upside down. I had been working part-time while taking classes for my medical coding certification. All of that stopped immediately and my fight to live began – I chose life! 

My treatment consisted of six rounds of two types of chemotherapy, Carboplatin and Taxotere, and two types of antibody specific treatment, Herceptin and Perjeta, for my type of cancer. I would stay on the antibodies for a year following the six rounds of chemotherapy.

Following chemo, I would have a double mastectomy with lymph node removal under my arm. And because the surgeon could not get to the lymph nodes behind my sternum, my surgery would be followed by 30 daily radiation treatments. I chose to not have reconstruction after my mastectomy, due to a genetic blood clotting disorder that makes me a high-risk surgical patient. 

Miraculously and thankfully, I had a complete pathological response to the chemotherapy and antibodies. All of my tissues submitted at surgery were clear with no sign of residual cancer! My surgeon stated that she had never seen this type of a response with my type of cancer – inflammatory and intra ductal carcinoma.

Following surgery, I completed the six weeks of radiation and five months of physical therapy to help regain full range of motion in my arms.

Today, I am cautiously optimistic about my future. I now live very much IN THIS MOMENT! As this moment is, really, all that any of us have. I am incredibly grateful for my medical dream team, my family, my friends and all of the support that we have received upon this journey. Most importantly, I am thankful for the science that saved and extended my life!  

Julie Hernandez is a wife, mom of five, new grandma and recent breast cancer survivor. Julie and her husband, Marty, reside in Arizona with their children, Australian cattle dogs and adopted mustangs. You may follow her at julescrewkickingcancer.com.

Photo credit: Jennifer Vimmerstedt Photography, Tucson, Arizona

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Life Is This Moment