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I developed early to say the least, so when I was diagnosed at age 38 with breast cancer I could look forward to nothing but the rest of my life without a bra. I have tried to find the golden ticket no matter the quality of candy bar you are handed. When I was seven my mother had a stroke and was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a second cousin told me our family had a history of breast cancer although no one is going to talk about it. I was made very aware that there was no escaping a fate that had you in its sights.

In 2012, I took the diagnosis very well. I saw the hair loss as a chance to have all those cool hair colors that naturally black hair doesn't like transforming into. Being a big fan of drag queens I imagined myself dressing for a performance every day. I picked out my outfit, added lashes, painted my face & added the coordinating wig. I felt great the first four rounds of chemotherapy. My doctors were trying to shrink the 9mm tumor in my right breast before surgery. But the tumor was not playing nice, and stronger drugs were started. I bloated up 20 pounds, adding to my already large frame. Laundry was lucky if it got done, let alone dinner. These drugs made me feel like sharp needles were being poked randomly about my body. After round 5 I went into shock, for 8 minutes I left my body, I felt like I was drowning and couldn't manage to reach the surface. Turns out I went stiff as a board, eyes wide open, unresponsive an ambulance was called. Lucky for me, I'd just gotten out of the shower before it happened, so all of the emergency workers got a show, of which I profusely apologized for. I begged to not have more chemo after that but my doctor's said I needed to finish. So I did.

Thirteen days before the Christmas of 2012 , a radical double mastectomy was scheduled for me. Filled with shame over the body that came out of surgery that day. Incapable of caring for myself, at the mercy of my husband, whom I felt the most shame towards. It was he whom I was afraid to show my body afterwards, for fear of rejection. Would he flee like the majority of spouses, tell me I looked disgusting naked, or stay with me but deprive me of intimacy? He encouraged me to embrace my body, although I wasn't ready.

Young Survival Coalition was looking for state leaders and I signed on as Riverside County State Leader, without ever even having attended anything. It might of not been long since my last surgery, but I knew I wanted to support ladies facing a future with breast cancer, the way my friends & family had supported me. When spending time with other "survivors" I felt they weren't ok living in their bodies post cancer. It occurred to me I already had the golden ticket. When I thought about how these ladies saw themselves, I cried. These women were living in forced abstinence. Either self imposed or by a spouse that was either repulsed or afraid to touch them after such radical surgeries. Hysterectomies and hormone therapy only add to the difficulties of sexuality post cancer. The idea of not feeling sensual touch again is almost worse than being told that you have a disease that killed 522,000 people last year.

My husband had encouraged me to pursue modeling the winter of 2014. I didn't know if it was going to work out for me. I was 5'10", over 200lbs, over 40 & scarred from the mastectomy / lymph node removal. But people really started to take notice. Something in me did die with cancer, my body dimorphic disorder. I decided to try to do the same for fellow survivors by creating a Pinup Calendar of sexy survivors and what better with a beautiful woman, than a hot rod? First, I asked people that I knew from YSC, people I knew would do it. Before long I was getting messages from ladies all across the United States wanting to participate. We had three ladies fly in just for the photo shoots. One in particular, Emily, was the only mentor I had during my treatment. She was someone who was referred by a friend and became my sister in crisis. Emily's reconstruction had failed and her family was encouraging her to pose without her prosthetics. I told her " you keep bragging about how great your ass is, prove it". She walked out in that dress without breasts & was proud of her body, perhaps for the first time in years. After the shoot she exclaimed "those men wanted to take pictures with me & didn't even care I didn't have breasts!" . I am proud to say each one of these ladies has a story like this. Where they started out scared, even trying to back out, but were present & faced the fact that they are indeed beautiful after breast cancer. The first set of pictures I showed a gentleman & he said "wow, is she a professional model?" , "No, would you of ever guessed she was anything but? This woman is a breast cancer survivor" I said. He replied "I would of never guessed". That was exactly what I was trying to achieve, a seamlessness between beauty and tragedy. A beautiful warrior.
Date of Posting: 14 July 2016
Posted By: Pin-up Survior
In November 2014, my doctor found two lumps in my breast, so I had a breast ultrasound done to see what was going on in there. The technician told me that they were simply cysts and that I should get checked again in 6 months. I graduated from TCU in December and moved back home to Austin while I searched for a job at an ad agency here in town. In January, I could feel that the lumps had grown so I went in for another ultrasound. They had in fact grown, but were still considered harmless, however she referred me to a surgeon if I wanted to get them out just for precaution. They hurt a little, so I told my mom that I just wanted to get it over with and get them taken out.

I went in for surgery on Monday, March 30 and came out feeling good. Two days later, the surgeon called me that he had gotten the pathology report back and that he was completely shocked. It was April Fool’s Day, so I thought he was kidding when he told me that the tumors were cancerous. When I knew he wasn’t joking, my heart dropped and I immediately went into shock. I was so upset and so terrified.

My breast cancer is Stage IIIC invasive ductal carcinoma, HER2+ and ER/PR-. The tumor was about 2 inches large and it had spread to a lymph node in my armpit area. I was set to have 6 rounds of chemo every three weeks, and I will be getting Herceptin every three weeks for a year. I also got genetic testing done, and it came back that I have two mutations. One is called the ATM gene mutation and the other is P53 or Li-Fraumeni syndrome. It’s really scary because with that mutation, there is nothing telling tumors to stop growing. There was a 90% chance that I would get cancer some point in my life and there is a higher chance that I could get a secondary cancer. It’s also really not good to be exposed to radiation with this mutation, so my oncologist has ruled that out unless it is absolutely necessary. I also can’t get any more PET scans, CT scans or x-rays, so I’ll have to get full body MRI’s in the future. It also is going to be imperative that I get routinely checked and scanned at least once a year if not more often. It really scares me that I have this because there’s always going to be a threat of getting another cancer, but the positive side is that I will be staying on top of it and hopefully stopping anything before it gets control.

I started chemo on April 27 and have my last one on August 10!!! I can’t wait to be done with it and to start recovering and returning to a normal life. After chemo ends, I will have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. I still haven’t completely decided on implants or Diep flap but I am leaning towards implants. Because I’m so young, I really don’t want the huge scar across my belly that comes with the Diep flap. I’ve met with 4 surgeons so far and now I just have to make my decisions with who to go with and what type to get.

I live at home with my mom, dad, and brother (who is 27 and in between leases…It’s been fun having him at the house!) and they have been the greatest caretakers ever. My mom pretty much dropped everything to take of me and it has been the biggest blessing. My dad takes off work whenever he needs to and he’s been to most of my doctors appointments with us. I also have a sister who lives in League City, Texas with her husband and they are expecting a baby girl in November!! I can’t wait. I also have a boyfriend who has been so great through this whole thing. We started dating in October of last year. It has to be so hard for him but he has been there through thick and thin, and is always there to comfort me when I need it. He even shaved his head when I shaved mine (which is another story all in its own–I was SO sad to lose my hair..but now have been rocking the bald!!)

Having cancer has completely changed my life. I was in the prime of my life really having just graduated college and wanting to be independent and have a job like all my other friends. I’m only 23!! How do I have breast cancer!? I’ve had so many nights of the “why me” mourning, but have gotten better with dealing with it with time. I’ve tried to live my life as normal as possible, but it’s hard. It’s hard when all of my friends want to go out and drink and I don’t even have the energy to get off the couch. I usually feel pretty bad a couple days after chemo and then start to feel better around the second and third week (which I literally count down the days until). During those weeks, I feel like my old self and can do things and run errands and go to dinners with my friends and things like that. I’ve also started eating a lot healthier and my family has as well which is a huge plus. My mom and I make smoothies almost every morning with kale and fruit and power foods and then we’ve been trying to be more vegetarian (but is a little hard with my dad, brother and boyfriend! They love meat…!) I love to cook so we are always trying out new recipes. Having cancer has also led me to meet so many people. I have such a great support system with my friends and family, but also the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls and Breast Cancer Resource Center in Austin. They have been so helpful in answering questions I have or just being there to talk to me because they know what I’ve gone through and what I’m going through. Also so many complete strangers have come up to me and given me compliments on my bald head, which always makes me feel good since I was so self conscious of it in the beginning. I’ve met people who have seen my head or seen my Port and tell me they are survivors too and we have a moment of connection and understanding and it is a really great feeling, knowing I’m not alone. This journey is hard, unexpected and unpredictable, but I’m gonna fight, and I’m gonna win!!!

So that’s my story and where I’m at now! Let me know if you need anything else or have any questions about anything!
Date of Posting: 14 July 2016
Posted By: Kathleen Brennan

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