Breast cancer doesn’t fully end with the last chemo treatment or surgery. For many, it’s a diagnosis that dramatically reshapes your life. Here, four survivors share their journeys.

By As told to Stephanie Booth
September 25, 2019
Peter Yang for Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s “Research Is the Reason” storytelling campaign

“I promised myself I’d see the world.”

My life was busy when my husband found a lump in my breast in 2014. I was working for the California State Legislature and planning my own run for office. When my doctor asked me to come into her office to discuss the results of my biopsy, my thought was, “I don’t have time!” But my schedule didn’t matter. I was BRCA1 positive and diagnosed with stage 1 triple negative breast cancer.

When I started treatment, I radically underestimated chemotherapy. My fingertips went numb, and my nails turned black. Everything tasted awful—except, strangely, cantaloupe. My hot flashes were intense, and losing my hair was devastating. I didn’t recognize myself.

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It was frustrating to find myself unable to remember names, conversations, and even how to do things. As a highly functional woman used to multitasking, I felt like my world was collapsing around me and that I was powerless.

Thankfully, friends and family rallied around me. I also relied on yoga, prayer, mindfulness, meditation, and support groups as I went through six rounds of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and follow-up surgeries. Last December, because my genes, family history, and type of breast cancer also put me at high risk for ovarian cancer, I had my ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus removed. It was a difficult decision, but one that I am glad I made.

After four years, I don’t feel out of the woods from cancer. As a speaker for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, I’ve connected with many survivors who’ve gone years without any recurrences—but I’ve also lost three friends. I’ve done everything possible to reduce my risks, yet every ache, pain, test, and scan reminds me that another diagnosis could be just around the corner. Because of this, I refuse to wait to do the things I want in life—if I want to do something, I go out and do it.

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While going through treatment, I sat on the beach one day, contemplating life and watching planes take off from Los Angeles International Airport. I didn’t have a passport, I’d never been out of the country, and I hadn’t seen all 50 states. That day, I promised myself that if I made it through, I would see the world. After completing treatment, I made that dream come true by becoming a flight attendant. Now, traveling the world and seeing all of the things I’ve always wanted is part of my job.

As I now tell people: “Put your mask on first before assisting others.” The same principle applies here. Self-love and self-care is not selfish. It’s self-preservation.

— Marenda Taylor, 44

ELYSE BUTLER - Hair and makeup by Jennifer Land for Reveal Hair & Makeup

“Taking care of myself is my first priority.”

“Young women don’t get breast cancer.” That’s what my doctor assured me in 2015, when I felt a lump in my breast. Everyone was so reassuring that I was shocked to learn I had triple-negative early-stage breast cancer. Right away, I had big decisions to make: surgery first or chemotherapy? Lumpectomy or mastectomy? I chose chemo first and a lumpectomy that preserved my breast and only removed the cancerous area.

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During treatment, my husband, Michael, encouraged me to go on walks to relieve the nausea. I walked slowly, but it helped. After treatment, I went from walking to jogging. I’d never been interested in exercise before, but I knew it would reduce the chance of my cancer returning. I started with 5Ks, then 10Ks and 15Ks. In 2017, a year after finishing my cancer treatment, Michael and I completed the Honolulu Marathon.

I was lucky that my cancer went away. Still, taking care of myself remains my first priority. I eat a plant-based diet. I sleep at least seven hours each night. Because it’s also important to give back, I even started my own nonprofit, Breast Cancer Hawaii.

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When I run, I reflect back on what I’ve gone through. During races, I’ve gotten choked up. It’s not in a sad way, though. I’m just happy I’m at a place where I can even be running.

— Joanne Hayashi, 37

JILLIAN GUYETTE - Hair and makeup by Abby Berni

“Helping others helped me.”

My mom passed away from laryngeal cancer in November 2008. Three months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I got the call from the radiologist, I was at work. My boss looked at my face and asked, “Are you OK?” My response: “No. I have f---ing cancer.”

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Everything moved quickly from there, although it felt like it took an eternity. Because of the type of cancer (early-stage, triple-positive) I had, which is more aggressive, I needed surgery right away, followed by chemotherapy. Along with me, my sister and father had been my mother’s primary caregivers. Now they were mine. My sister came to every one of my doctor’s appointments, taking copious amounts of notes in her lavender binder. My father, who was 85 at the time, sat with me through each session of chemo.

In conjunction with my traditional treatment, I tried acupuncture and took nutrition classes. As part of a clinical trial, I also began mindfulness meditation and art therapy. The meditation got me through my worst days. It gave me a sense of acceptance I don’t think I would have had otherwise.

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Although I was fortunate to have other people supporting me through treatment, I still felt overwhelmed and alone. I started volunteering for the Living Beyond Breast Cancer helpline, which led to a full-time job as their manager of community engagement. I couldn’t imagine going back to the stressful pace of my previous job as a medical meeting planner. It’s a gift to do work on a daily basis that positively impacts others.

Today, my health is great. Once a year, I see my oncologists, and every six months, I get a mammogram and MRI to make sure I’m still all clear. I also continue to be a lot more aware of what to do to be healthy: how I’m moving, what I’m putting into my body, even the thoughts in my mind.

My life is so different now from 10 years ago. I look at pictures and go, “Who was that person?” I’m fortunate to get to do so.

— Lynn Folkman Auspitz, 57

Roohi Photography

“I didn’t let cancer take everything away.”

I was 27 and in the midst of planning for my wedding when I felt a pea-shaped lump in my breast. Since I’d had my annual exam a few weeks before and my doctor hadn’t found anything, I wasn’t worried. Still, I called her office, and just to be cautious, she ordered an ultrasound.

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When the technician went in and out of the room multiple times, I began feeling uneasy. And when she sent me immediately afterward for a mammogram, my heart sank. I was out shopping for my honeymoon when my doctor called with the official results. As soon as I heard words like invasive, aggressive, and cancer, my mind went blank.

I did not have an easy path through treatment for my HER2-positive, estrogen-receptor-positive invasive ductal carcinoma. I felt beat up by chemotherapy. When doctors found a cancerous spot on my healthy breast, I ended up having a bilateral mastectomy. The emotional roller coaster I went on was wild. Here I was about to get married, yet I felt like damaged goods. “You don’t have to sign up for this,” I kept telling my fiancé. But he stuck with me.

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I’ve been a fashion designer my whole life, and always wanted my own line of clothing. Cosmically, cancer led me down that path. Because of my treatment, I had to postpone my wedding. By the time I was well enough to start going through the sexy intimates from my bridal shower, nothing fit my new body. I felt like I wouldn’t have a honeymoon. “Here’s another thing cancer took away from me,” I thought. But then I realized: I had a sewing machine. Why couldn’t I make my own sexy bras?

I was surprised no one had thought of it before, but when I looked online, I came up empty-handed. I found the guts to start my own business. It took three years, but in 2014, I launched AnaOno, a lingerie company for women who’ve had breast surgery, often related to a cancer diagnosis, including mastectomy, lumpectomies, and reconstruction.

When I put on my first design, I felt empowered. Today, I get letters and calls from customers who feel the same way. It’s not just about the bra, though. It’s about finding a way to keep your dignity and femininity intact as you cope with breast cancer.

— Dana Donofree, 37

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