Last summer, my husband and I had the world at our feet. We were newly married (in our living room on Zoom with friends and family tuning in from around the world) and were officially gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime in another country on military orders.
In order to internationally relocate, we joked that our pandemic puppy and I needed more check ups and paperwork than my husband. Our sweet girl had her exam and was good for another 3+ years — but my appointments would go a little differently.
On August 26, 2020, I went in for a physical. I was having a wonderful visit. The nurse had been kind and welcoming from the start, and all the staff were on board to make sure I was good to go abroad. Because I was young, had a breast exam not too long ago and had done genetic testing that revealed I was not high risk, my doctor said I wouldn’t have to undergo a breast exam. But when my nurse checked in to reconfirm that we were not doing the breast exam, something told me I shouldn’t pass it up.
“Because you said it, let’s do it,” I replied.
When the doctor returned to the room, I asked for the breast exam. My left breast was clear. In my right breast, the lump was discovered.
I Was Facing Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
I left that appointment with the to-do of scheduling an ultrasound and pushed for the first available appointment. After the ultrasound, I was told that there was a 3.6 cm mass in my breast, and it looked mostly benign. I was given the choice to monitor it for six months or schedule a biopsy at my convenience. There was no question in my mind, and again, I pushed for the first available appointment.
At the biopsy, I had a kind and friendly team again; but truthfully, the aura in the air was almost too light. The message was clear: I was young and shouldn’t have to worry.
On September 15, 2020 I got the call: I had breast cancer.
I remember that call like it was yesterday.
I tried to take notes through the tears as the doctor gave me letters, words and phrases that I was not familiar with. I was so unfamiliar with oncology lingo that I actually asked, “so wait, I don’t have cancer?” What she was trying to tell me was that I was facing breast cancer, but we didn’t have the final pathology reports yet to know exactly what kind. I thought to myself, ” Who knew there were different types?”
After more appointments and tests, I learned that I was facing Stage 2B, Grade 3 triple negative breast cancer. Both my doctors and a separate team whom I had contacted for a second opinion advised me to go after this aggressive cancer first and foremost — as some patients opt to prioritize fertility preservation.
My treatment plan was this: eight rounds of bi-weekly AC/T chemotherapy treatment (one drug so affectionately named the “red devil”), then see how the cancer responded, move into surgery and optional reconstruction with the possibility of needing chemo in pill form. As I had chemo, I would also be administered a drug every 28 days to go into a medical menopause to try to pro-actively protect my ovaries. Yes, I would lose my hair. Yes, I would (most likely) gain weight. And yes, I was ready to battle.
Luckily, the chemo did its job. I made it through eight rounds (my last round’s celebration having been delayed due to a whopping 0.0 new white blood cells in my body) resulting in a pathological complete response.
Because of the type of breast cancer, surgery was still a non-negotiable. The extent of the surgery would be my decision. The lesser of the surgical options was a single non-nipple-sparing mastectomy-— essentially, removing all of the breast tissue on my right side. The recommended and most aggressive approach was a bilateral mastectomy.
It was one of the toughest decisions of my life. There were many tears, many bubble baths to ponder and conflicting thoughts. If I choose bilateral, do I accept that fact that I will never be able to breast feed if I can one day get pregnant? If I only do a single mastectomy, could I live with myself if the cancer came back knowing I held back?
I knew in my heart which way I was leaning. I was prepared for battle, remember?
I worked with my surgeon and plastic surgeon to prepare our game plan for the next phase of this fight, and on March 17, 2021 — a day after my 29th birthday — I had my first major surgery: a bilateral mastectomy, removal of four lymph nodes and reconstruction. My body then had time to heal until my reconstructive swap surgery in June.
That period of time was a whirlwind of little wins and hard days, but one thing was certain — I truly respected the importance of listening to my gut, speaking up, and being my own advocate. Had I not done these things time and time again, who knows where I would be today.
To Lift Myself Up, I Started the Chemo to Kindness Challenge.
I had been thinking about how I wanted to take on my treatment journey in my own way, and I could not get over the fact that my cancer was initially discovered thanks to the kindness of my nurse. I decided to launch the Chemo to Kindness Challenge on my first day of chemo, a challenge I dreamt up to honor the nurse, embrace my life mottos: “seize the day” and “make an impact” and spread awareness that this beast can make its way into a healthy, active, 28-year-old body.
The goal was 1,600 acts of kindness for 16 weeks of chemotherapy treatment. “Do an act of kindness, and tell me about it,” I requested. I wanted the good to lift me up on days I felt low, and I knew that the “telling” part would help inspire me as well as others following along. An act could be as simple as calling your mom or something more grandiose like making a donation to a non-profit of your choosing.
The challenge ignited from the start with acts coming in via Facebook, Instagram, texts and phone calls. It was truly amazing. At one point, the side effects of one of my medications they gave me to combat the side effects of chemo (go figure) blurred my vision for days on end. My husband and best friend read the acts of kindness being completed in my honor around the world. How special is that?
Then the community asked, “where can we see the acts?” and “is there a list of the non-profits that have been impacted?”
So on a weekend before my third round of chemo, I launched a website to streamline the process of counting acts, display images submitted and list the organizations to make a bigger impact.
- completed more than 1,700 acts of kindness globally
- impacted more than 75 non-profits
- paid forward more than 60 cups of coffee
- sponsored someone’s schooling for a year
- helped neighbors, friends, sisters, brothers, and parents
- let fellow New Jersey drivers go first — if you know, you know.
This challenge not only lifted me up, but it lifted up a community who dared to follow along and positively impact the lives of others. We truly embodied the phrase, “better together.”
I Learned to Embrace the Journey: The Bad and the Good.
On our wedding day, I vowed to my husband to embrace every adventure — planned and unplanned. And together, we did just that. A cancer diagnosis is earth shattering, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find positivity as you pick up the pieces. There will probably be tears, tough decisions and days when you don’t feel like yourself. But I can attest, there are beautiful moments of generosity, support and community along the way.
After my diagnosis, we learned that we would no longer be relocating abroad and found ourselves in the charming Land of the Pines. What a special place to heal and rebuild after months of chemo and surgeries. We thank this amazing community for helping our little family pick up the pieces and keep moving forward.
Whatever beast you face, my wish for you is to embrace it. Embrace the suck. Embrace the good times and bad, whether they are planned or unplanned, because both move you forward. The key here is to not just to survive but to survivre — broken down in French to “on to live.” Dive deep into your why. Whether its family, connection, impact or snuggles with your dog — and take action onward. You can find joy during hard times — by creating them.
Breast cancer is a beast, and it does not discriminate. Be kind. Be your own advocate. And check your boobs.
You can follow my journey at www.loreleicolbert.com.