Submitted by: Amber Black, Director of Human Resources/Workforce Management
Goodness, where do I begin? Well for starters, I could explain the utter shock of my diagnosis at age 32 considering there was NO prior history of breast cancer in my family. I was diagnosed on 6/19/2015 with Triple Negative (TNBC) Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) of my left breast, Stage 1 and Grade 3. Now, once you become well versed in the topic of cancer, you begin to learn that the Stage determines how far along the cancer is when you’re diagnosed and is based on how large the tumor is, whether it’s contained locally, spread to your nearby lymph nodes, other organs, etc. The grade however, is determined by the structure of the cancer cells under a microscope and whether they tend to appear close to normal cells, abnormal cells, etc.
Due to the particularly aggressive nature of this subset of breast cancer, it was recommended that we act immediately. I would begin chemotherapy right away, neo-adjuvant (chemo before surgery), the next step was to surgically remove the tumor, which the type of surgical procedure to remove the cancer was up to me. Due to the fact that my type of cancer was triple negative and the doctors don’t really know what triggers the cancer cells to grow, along with how young I was at the time of diagnosis, I chose the surgical option that lowered my risk of potential recurrence the most- a double mastectomy. My thought process was, if I don’t have any breast tissue remaining for the cancer to grow back in, then my recurrence rate would be the lowest possible for my type, stage, and grade of cancer (which is a 78.6% 5-year survival rate after diagnosis).
The flurry of meeting my team of doctors was unlike any experience I’ve ever been through, as it all happened so fast. One day I was living the life of a typical 32-year-old, tubing and boating on the weekends and the next day, I was being referred to one doctor after another. My schedule was now filled with doctors’ appointments, genetic testing, weekly lab tests and chemotherapy, all mixed in with some more doctors’ appointments. Talk about a life-changing experience!
Luckily, I had someone to turn to who had been through the process. From day one of my diagnosis, Christine (Chris) was a monumental person in my life as she too had been diagnosed at an earlier age than most with breast cancer, and she powered her way through it all with strength and grace. Chris was my neighbor in Ohio from the time I was 12 years old until I moved south (at the age of 25) and her two girls were only a few years behind me in school. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and underwent surgery, chemo, and radiation that concluded in February 2014. She went on about her life until September 2015, when she found out that the cancer had returned although, by the time it was discovered, it had already spread and she was told that her cancer was terminal.
I will never forget the flood of emotions I felt the day I found out. I think it hit me so much harder when I found out that Chris’ cancer had come back (or never really left) because by then, I had experienced the nightmare of being told “you have cancer” and everything that comes with it. I could relate to the feeling of panic and knew what she was getting ready to go through for a second time. I was so upset and extremely saddened by the news. She always had this infectious personality and was someone you genuinely wanted to spend more time around. Oh, and her laugh, I can hear it now as I think of her. It’s one of many things that I miss about Chris. Like many others, she did not win her second battle with breast cancer, so we’ll never get to hear her prominent laugh again, except in our hearts.
So while I’m battling my cancer, my confidant lost hers. I know this isn’t the type of stuff people like to hear about or talk about when it comes to “Breast Cancer Awareness” but this, my friends, is the grim reality. It truly isn’t all about the pink ribbons and tutus, it’s about the great women and men who bravely fight the battle, but are lost in the end.
Throughout my journey, there have been so many people who helped make my disease bearable and that really touched me. I could never repay them for their kind gestures, whether it was meals brought over to the house, a shower stool to use while bathing, numerous text messages and phone calls wishing me well, friends and family traveling to come and see me, random trinkets/cards in the mail, or the constant daily support that my husband and family offered. All of these various acts of kindness were priceless, considering the hardship that we were all experiencing as a family. The slogan #AmberStrong was my hairdresser’s idea early on and everyone started using it on social media, some even printed t-shirts to wear in support of my fight, etc. Their love is what made me #AmberStrong and I am so thankful to each of them.
When the Komen Race for the Cure came up last April, I was still undergoing chemo, but I wanted to take part in the race since it held such a different meaning for me now. I did ride the trolley/shuttle after a short walk (due to the blisters on the bottoms of my feet, the fatigue, as well as the achiness all over my body), but I made sure I was dropped off near the finish line so I could “finish” the race and walk across the finish line myself. The cheers from the crowd and the community support and understanding was truly remarkable.
How many of you know that breast cancer is the most common kind of cancer amongst women and that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer within their lifetime? How many of you know that men can also get breast cancer and that 1% of all diagnosed cases occur in a man? Do you know that amongst women, every 2 minutes a case of breast cancer is diagnosed worldwide and that once every 13 minutes in the U.S. a woman dies of breast cancer? So, while the 5-year survival rate and our total number of survivors (2.9 million) continue to increase, here we are in 2017 still waiting and living without a cure for cancer.
I’m now seven months post-chemo, but I still struggle in a few areas i.e. cognitive and physical strength due to the 9 months of being on chemotherapy. I am currently attending Physical Therapy three times a week in order to strengthen my muscles to where they were pre-chemo. The anxiety and constant fear of future doctors’ appointments (imaging/scans, lab/tumor markers) and the possibility of the results showing that the cancer has returned, remains in the back of my mind as a very real possibility. Unfortunately, I did not receive the “cancer free” and/or “cured” news after completing treatment (no evidence of disease, NED). Even though the doctors surgically removed my tumor after undergoing 4 months of chemo (for stage 1), the pathologist was still able to detect active cancer cells within the center of my tumor, which told us that the cancer did not completely respond to all of the chemo we threw at it.
Guess what though? Today is a new day! I’ve come to terms with my situation and I’m at peace with it. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually I accepted the fact the cancer could come back one day. I’ve made the conscious decision to live life each day as if I’m cured, and I believe with all of my heart that not one single cell was left behind floating in my body! I continue to be thankful for each and every day I get to wake up and spend one more day with my husband, family, and friends; and I no longer question “why me”. This entire experience has taught me a lot about life and what’s important, such as my family, friends, and living life to the fullest!
If you’re interested in joining Amber’s Komen Race for the Cure team- Young & Fearless- you can sign up by clicking this link: http://coastalgeorgia.info-komen.org/site/TR?fr_id=6763&pg=team&team_id=380538