Her life after breast cancer: A Cowgirl Yogini shares her story

I’m thrilled to share a guest post by a Cowgirl Yogini from this fall. Dani, a breast cancer survivor, didn’t attend Cowgirls vs. Cancer – but when she found out about it on retreat, she pulled me aside and told me her story. She wanted to share it, and even more…was willing to share the confidence she found in her body following her breast cancer battle. Her message is one of hope and inspiration. Read on. And don’t forget we are taking nominations for our 2016 Cowgirls vs. Cancer retreat through November 15.

Cancer was a blessing for me. Although I don’t wish it upon
anyone, cancer changed my life…for the better.
At age 41, I found a lump in my right breast. I just had a mammogram
5 months earlier so assumed it was an anomaly. I was in a rigorous graduate
program at the time and remember walking out into the parking lot after class,
thinking I needed to call the hospital regarding the results of my fine needle
aspirate…when my phone rang…the hospital was calling ME. I braced myself, answered the phone then heard
those dreaded words: “You have cancer.”
My son was 3 years old at the time and my thoughts went directly
to him. Would I see him go to kindergarten? How would he be raised without the
loving touch only I, his mother, could provide? Driving home, I glanced at the
other cars on the freeway; women returning from work, thinking about what they
were going to cook for dinner that night or how much laundry they had to do.
How I wished, prayed, hoped, longed for that “mediocrity” we all take for
The next day in the surgeon’s office, I had entered my
familiar fight or flight mode. I wanted this vile disease eradicated from my
body…NOW. My surgeon sat across his large mahogany desk from me, calmly telling
me what type of surgery “most women” do and that most women “make it out 5 years.” WHAT!? What he didn’t tell me is that after 5 years, the chances of recurrence drop
dramatically. He just presented this information incorrectly to a newly
diagnosed patient. I leaned forward in my chair, beginning to seethe. I saw my
husband slump and lean back in his chair, anticipating what was coming. I
placed my elbows on his desk and slit my eyes. “I am NOT most
women,” I proclaimed. “You are going to remove my entire right breast and you
are going to do it as soon as possible.” Silence. Without a word he reached for
his phone, called surgical scheduling and asked that I be added onto his
already full schedule for the next day. I went into surgery at 4 pm the next
day and came out without my right breast.
Subsequent tests and pathology showed I had metastatic “triple
negative” breast cancer. That means my cancer was not estrogen or progesterone
driven, so my only option was surgery and chemotherapy. I was not a candidate
for any subsequent proven treatments such as Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors. I learned that triple negative breast cancer has a high recurrence rate
during the first five years. Then things got even worse. My mother had breast
cancer when I was in high school (she lived to a ripe old age and passed on
from something non-related to breast cancer), so I decided to have her and I
tested for the BRCA gene. We both came back positive for an unclassified BRCA-1
mutation. So with my only options being surgery and chemotherapy, I intended to
harness these approaches aggressively, along with some Eastern medicine
modalities. But I needed an oncologist who shared my vision. After a few
weeks of searching, an oncologist was recommended to me by other doctors. He
was known among his colleagues as having somewhat of a cowboy-esque reputation;
aggressive, unafraid to try new things regardless of what anyone else thought, independent
in his solo practice and undaunted by tough diagnoses. I had just found the perfect oncologist for me.
The dose-dense chemo regimen my oncologist placed me on was
tough – I was violently ill and lost 30+ pounds. Still, I didn’t want to miss
any of my chemo infusions. One day I remember stepping into the infusion room,
my latest blood count not looking great for me to have a chemo that day. My
oncologist looked me in the eye, immediately knowing what I needed. He handed
me a waste basket; I barfed in it, handed it back, and then told him I still
wanted to go ahead with the scheduled treatment for that day. Shaking his head, I think he understood; it was like getting bucked off a horse – you just gotta
get right back on. Once my chemo regimen was finished, I decided to continue to fight and have my ovaries removed in
addition to my other breast. So the overall loss of my hair, breasts, and ovaries
along with being catapulted into premature menopause, left me depressed and
feeling extremely un-feminine.
For the next year I suffered back pain, since I had begun
walking in a hunched over fashion, unconsciously protecting my chest full of
scars and indentations. In the locker room at the gym, I always chose a locker
off in a corner and avoided small talk with other women, petrified someone would see my mutilated body and ask questions. A few years went by before I was
rebuilt, since I was sick of doctors, hospitals and surgery. I also needed a
rest and time to find a good breast surgeon. I wanted so much to return to normalcy, but was afraid I would never feel normal
But I found hope with the American Cancer Society. Through
one of its programs, I met multiple women who showed me their extremely
natural looking, rebuilt breasts. I had my breasts rebuilt in 2008 and I’ve never looked back. With the help of a
gynecologist who specializes in cancer survivors, I also got my mojo back!
Since I could no longer have children, we adopted an older
child from overseas and our family felt complete. I also finished my
graduate degree. I’m now loving life again!
In hindsight, cancer was only a setback for me. A bump in
the proverbial road which taught me a huge lesson – I was moving too fast
through life. My type A behavior probably would have killed me, and it
was time to slow down. Like other survivors, I have a new outlook – instead of
cleaning my house, I take my kids on a hike. Instead of working a million
hours, I’m there to attend their soccer games and watch them grow up. I take
time for myself like never before. Horseback riding through a calm forest at Cowgirl Yoga reminded me how much balance is needed in our lives.
Another thing I learned on retreat is that there are moments in life when fight
or flight works, for both humans and equines. But like horses, simply enjoying
a warm, sunny day lounging in a grassy meadow can be beneficial for us too.
Teaching my children that there is more to life than professional achievement
is the message that cancer brought me. And quite possibly, maybe why it
all happened in the first place.
BREAST SURGEON: Dr. Robert Foster, University of California,
San Francisco
ONCOLOGIST: Dr. Garret Smith, Smith Integrative Oncology,
San Francisco
Hoyer, Timeless Skin Spa, Los Gatos