Jennifer McCrea is a returning participant of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure. She shares an update with us, and on two of her friends who are also breast cancer survivors and members of her team.
It was the third Saturday in May — the second last Saturday before I was set to run the Calgary Marathon, my first marathon. I am a 36-year-old breast cancer survivor that only took up running after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2011.
The first run I took part in and the run that started it all was the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure.
I arrived at Tot Shots Photography Studio and awaited the arrival of two fellow breast cancer survivors that have brought to my life an amazing source of support and strength. We were there to have a photo shoot to use for our upcoming Oct. 6, 2013 “Breast Friends Forever” CIBC Run for the Cure Team. In past years we have all had or been on separate teams, but this year we are all together.
Stephanie was 36 years old when she was diagnosed with Stage 2B grade 3 invasive breast cancer in May 2011. The news struck terror into her heart as her mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 37.
Her five-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, will you be alive when I have kids? ‘Cuz Grandma wasn’t around when you did…”
Steph and I had the same surgeon that performed our bilateral mastectomies, the great Dr. Rene Lafreniere. Steph underwent hers two days after her son’s eighth birthday — and what would have been her mom’s 65th birthday. She then treated the disease with chemotherapy, radiation, and, like me, is on the drug Tamoxifen for five years. We have hot flashes together and are in constant communication about how the drug is affecting each of us.
Steph and I also have the same plastic surgeon, the wonderful Dr. Lindsay. She underwent her breast reconstructive surgery and subsequent fills a few months before I did and it was comforting when I went through it to have someone to talk to who knew exactly what I was going through. We would call each other and compare notes on how many centimetres of saline we were up to and if the Percoset was giving us any pain relief. We would giggle to each other about what our husbands’ reactions were to our new breasts.
Steph is now two steps ahead of me in the reconstruction process: she has had her surgery to have her chest expanders removed and had her actual breast implants put in. And she recently got nipples!
We often joke about getting matching t-shirts that say “YES THEY ARE FAKE…MY REAL ONES TRIED TO KILL ME!”
Heather was 38 years old when she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma and her cells were grade 3 and aggressive. She chose to have a complete mastectomy of her left breast five days before Christmas in 2010. After her surgery the pathology report came back and Heather was told that her breast cancer was HER2+. It is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Hearing that she had triple-positive breast cancer was very frightening to her. However, it meant there was hope. There was a treatment plan with a potential to prevent the cancer from recurring and the ability to fight the rogue cells that were invading the rest of her body.
Heather and her husband Bryce had not yet had children, so in February they had some of Heather’s eggs removed, harvested, fertilized and frozen.
She then underwent six cycles of chemotherapy, 17 cycles of immunotherapy on the drug Herceptin and started five years of hormone therapy on the drug Tamoxifen.
The chemo made Heather very, very sick; she lost all of her hair and it made her very weak. Herceptin, albeit a very powerful and effective drug, was very hard on Heather’s heart. With the Tamoxifen, we both described it in the same way on the first night we met as “completely debilitating.”
Unfortunately, the majority of people think a person is better when their chemotherapy is over or when their hair grows back as they start to look “normal” again. Many don’t understand the long lasting side-effects that we can suffer from — everything from fatigue and exhaustion to muscle soreness and brain fog. Heather and I will get together for tea and it literally takes us five or six trips to the tea pot before we remember to pour it. Our brains just don’t work like they used to.
Heather told me, “The word cancer is only as powerful as the mind allows it to be. There is no point in dwelling on what you cannot control.It is all about the attitude you have in fighting and moving forward.”
Steph and Heather arrived at the studio and we all embraced each other. We could not hug Steph too tight as she still had bandages on from getting her nipples on Wednesday. Heather was sporting a new prosthetic as she had her right breast removed about five weeks ago.
We all lived flat chested for some time after our breast cancer and subsequent bilateral mastectomy or mastectomies. We all know what it is like mentally to go from having a chest to having nothing. And then after either your reconstruction or having prosthesis, you go back to having a chest again and it takes a while for your brain and your body image to catch up. You walk by the mirror and don’t recognize the image that it is reflecting back at you.
Off come the tops, and out come the scars. Out come the prosthetic and out come some more tears.
I remind Heather that she is beautiful with and without her prosthesis. That she is smoking hot. And we try to get the photo session started. We are all wearing some form of pink either by a scarf, a top, or jewellery.
The photo session led by photographer Jody Boryski started off by her informing us that this was her way of helping out as she cannot attend the CIBC Run for the Cure in Calgary with the team that she started a few years ago in honour of her mom, Pat. She got emotional when she talked about her mom passing away from the disease and then we all started to cry for her.
After that she simply captured the three of us with her lens. Crying and laughing and you could feel the positive energy that was in the room with us.
Jody wanted to give us these photos specifically for our CIBC Run for the Cure team and to show a piece of the strength that we have gained by sharing our stories with one another and being open about what happened to us all and how we got through it.
She photographed us together, and then individually. I felt so comfortable with my friends and so beautiful in the space that I asked Jody if she would photograph some of me topless with my hands in appropriate places as Steph and Heather encouraged me in the background.
I never did take any photos of the bare flat scarred chest that I lived with for over a year, and that is something I regret.
For me, I know that two of the greatest gifts that my breast cancer gave me were Steph and Heather. We know that when you go through this journey, you are never alone.
Jennifer will be leading a breast cancer survivor Learn to Run program with the Running Room in Calgary in mid-July, leading up to the CIBC Run for the Cure. Read Jennifer’s first Finding Hope blog entry here.