Vicky's Story: Living Better After Breast Cancer
Vicky is a member of the Breastcancer.org community.
“We have to accept there’s no going back,” says Vicky, 64, of Madison, Alabama, of life after a breast cancer diagnosis. “It’s either lemons or lemonade.”
Vicky’s diagnosis of breast cancer in both breasts in June 2016 took her by surprise. Based on family history, she’d already decided what her greatest health risk would be. With a rueful laugh, she recalls responding to the news of her diagnosis with, “There’s no way! I’m dying of a stroke!” The bilateral disease also surprised her doctors. They thought she had cancer in one breast, but an MRI after her initial biopsy found a lesion in the other breast that also was cancerous.
The cancer Vicky was diagnosed with was estrogen-receptor-positive, progesterone-receptor-positive, and HER2-positive. She received regular infusions of two chemotherapy drugs along with Herceptin (chemical name: trastuzumab), which targets the HER2 proteins in HER2-positive cancers. She now takes the aromatase inhibitor Arimidex (chemical name: anastrozole), which stops her body from making estrogen and reduces her risk of the cancer coming back. She’ll take Arimidex for 5 years.
These days, Vicky, who works with her husband Richard in his consulting company and has been married for 25 years, dedicates herself to the optimistic “lemonade” view of her life. “I want a life of thriving,” she says. “I decided I was going to be better on the other end of this experience, in every way.”
To meet her goal of remaining not only cancer-free but in good overall health, she sees a holistic team of specialists that her husband helped put together, including her surgeon, plastic surgeon, oncologist, Christian counselor, nutritionist, physical therapist, and primary care physician.
She has regular cardiovascular screening, since Herceptin can affect the heart. “My cardio results have improved” since she finished Herceptin, Vicky says. She also receives a Prolia (chemical name: denosumab) injection twice a year to reduce her risk of bone loss, which can be a side effect of aromatase inhibitors.
She has worked on getting fit and has lost 53 pounds since treatment. She also monitors her bone density and is working with her gynecologist to maintain vaginal health, as diminished estrogen levels can affect both of these things.
Breast reconstruction with silicone implants after her mastectomies helped to bolster Vicky’s spirits. “My recon went great!” she says. “I’m thrilled with it. I cried at the loss of my breasts, but it all worked out.” She credits her surgeon for the success: “The procedures he had me follow made the recon look realistic. For instance, I spent weeks with my elbows at my sides. My husband cut my food!”
Vicky’s commitment to physical activity began during chemotherapy — though she admits this was not Plan A. “A friend emailed and told me to keep moving during chemo in order to feel better,” she recalls with amusement. “At the time, I’d just had my first treatment, and I was in bed — ready to watch Property Brothers all day. In my head, I called that friend a not-very-nice name!” But she soon found that staying physically engaged during chemo helped her to feel more in control.
Vicky is an active member of the online community at Breastcancer.org. “If it weren’t for that group,” she says, “I would not be an informed patient. As things are, I share information with my oncologist. Like, I’m a big gardener. I learned that there are studies that show vegetable gardening can be especially good for people who’ve had cancer.”
She’s also grateful for good friends and a strong marriage. “My friends were phenomenal during treatment,” Vicky recalls. “And my husband — he never missed an appointment. He dedicated his life to helping me. Our marriage is stronger now — I didn’t fully understand our level of love.”
Of course, there are moments of doubt or worry. Understandably, Vicky worries about cancer recurrence and how a recurrence would affect her loved ones. Seeing younger members posting in the Breastcancer.org community, she says she can’t imagine how she could have coped with cancer “in my 30s, 40s, even my 50s.”
But most of the time, she’s enjoying a newfound calm — “I’m a happier person. I can find the joy in doing nothing, which before would have driven me nuts!” — as well as confidence in her self-advocacy. “Something posted on Breastcancer.org that has stayed with me is: ‘Always remember, this is your body. You will be left with the decisions that are made.’”