'This can not be happening': 35-year-old mom shares breast cancer journey

<i>Courtesy Ali Cummins Photography</i>
Courtesy Ali Cummins Photography

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, one blogger mom is warning that breast cancer doesn’t discriminate. Health-centred mommy blogger Rachel Garlinghouse is reminding women that the disease doesn’t care about your race, age or eating habits.

And oh so carefully, I hugged my baby tonight. I've missed her so much!

A post shared by Rachel Garlinghouse (@whitebrownsugar) on Sep 28, 2017 at 6:10pm PDT

“Until a few months ago, I believed that breast cancer was something that happened to other women. Older women. Women who smoke. Women who have a family history. Women who perhaps use too many ‘dirty’ beauty products,” she wrote in an article for Scary Mommy. “I was wrong.”

With a history of finding lumps in her breasts, Garlinghouse admitted she had previously undergone surgery to remove two benign masses. In April, the 35-year-old writer booked an appointment with her gynecologist after finding another lump — one that, like the others, she assumed was benign.

After an ultrasound and mammogram, she received news from her doctor that her breasts seemed completely normal, but something still seemed off.

ALSO SEE: Women bare their mastectomy scars for breast cancer awareness

“A week later, I called my doctor back and told her that something wasn’t right. The lump seemed to be getting bigger and more painful,” she wrote.

Undergoing another ultrasound and a follow-up biopsy, the mom of four was confident that cancer wouldn’t happen to her, and her breasts were simply “acting up.” Two weeks after her biopsy, Garlinghouse returned to the doctor’s office and her diagnosis.

“When I was told I had breast cancer, all I could think was, ‘I have four children who need me. This cannot be happening’,” she told Yahoo Canada.

After her diagnosis, Garlinghouse admitted to letting her anxiety get the best of her: not eating, parenting on autopilot and feeling like an outsider to her own life. Watching her husband and children swim in their pool one Sunday afternoon, she decided she needed to change her attitude.

“I think attitude is important, but all the positivity in the world doesn’t change the diagnosis and in fact, pushing a cancer patient to ‘stay positive’ puts a lot of pressure on the patient. However, an attitude of ‘I can’ certainly makes a difference in how a person embarks on their journey and handles decision-making,” she said. “I made a decision. I was going to put on my proverbial big girl panties and kick cancer’s ass.”

Discussing options with her doctor, she acknowledged that most women her age opt for a lumpectomy to preserve their natural breasts even despite the high recurrence rate. While a mastectomy is least popular due to the removal of breasts, it has a one per cent recurrence rate. Those promising stats helped Garlinghouse confirm her decision: she would get both breasts removed.

“At first I thought there was no way I’d choose to have my breasts removed. After all, I’m only thirty-five! However, when I found out the risks of choosing to preserve my breasts via a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation. Based on the type of cancer I had, the choice to have the mastectomy was hands-down the best decision,” she said.

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Eight weeks post-diagnosis, Garlinghouse had a bilateral mastectomy, direct-to-implant. Nipple-sparing, her breast tissue was completely removed and replaced with implants. Today, she is still recovering.

I have never been in the hospital to birth a baby. I've never been rushed through double doors with labored breathing while gripping a rounded middle. I've never experienced contractions and pushing and shouts of "it's a girl!" Or "it's a boy!" My hospital experiences havebeen quite different. One month ago today, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy. The night after my surgery, I was writhing in bed in excruciating pain and discomfort. I remember watching the clock, waiting for 6 am when my doctor would visit and I then begged her for stronger medications. I wanted to be tough. I wanted to put mind over matter. But it just wasn't possible then. I was broken and vulnerable and weak. Looking back, not only on this diagnosis, but also the one I faced eleven years ago, I realized that there was beauty in the ashes. I learned the importance of listening to my body. Of asking for what I need. Of embracing tumultuous journeys for what they are. Of fully relying on God and others whom God has placed in my path to be helpers. I've said it often, that my first diagnosis (type 1 diabetes) gave me the gift of motherhood. I was curled up in a hospital bed, coming back from a near-death experience, when I knew we'd adopt. It came into my mind with surprising clarity. In a very uncertain season, there was certainty. And because of my diagnosis experience with diabetes, when I felt a lump in my breast in April, and even when the results of my mammogram and ultrasound were declared "normal," I listened to the God and experience promptings to persist. I demanded a biopsy. And that's when I learned I had breast cancer. Listening. The importance of such cannot be overstated. Listening to "adoption" and "something's wrong" and "be still and know" has made ALL the difference. There are some things I do not have: my own breasts, my own working internal insulin system, and the experiences of having biological children. But what I do have, as a result of a series of unexpected events, the opportunities to embrace greater things: TWO second chances to live and four beautiful children who came to us by adoption. Praise God!

A post shared by Rachel Garlinghouse (@whitebrownsugar) on Sep 30, 2017 at 6:07am PDT

“Four weeks out of surgery, I’m confident I made a great choice. I’m growing more accepting of my new breasts.”

The mother and writer hopes her story will inspire others to complete at-home examinations and trust their instincts, regardless of their age. In 2013, four per cent of of women with breast cancer were under the age of 40. Despite the small percentage, Garlinghouse wants to remind women that it still happens.

“If you feel something is not right, pursue having it examined by qualified individuals. Too many women claim they are ‘too busy’ to take care of themselves, and not just their physical health, but their mental and spiritual health as well. Cancer, or any other issue, doesn’t care how busy you are,” she warns.

“I believe that women are gifted with an intuition like none other, and listening to that can not only be life-changing, but lifesaving.”

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