Double Major Grad (Ovarian and Breast Cancer)- Rachel
Name: Rachel Bradbury
Age at Enrollment: Had just turned 41 at diagnosis
Major: dx in March of 2016 with both breast and ovarian cancer
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? No symptoms prior to diagnosis.
Courses completed: I had six cycles of chemo for ovarian, a salpingo-oophorectomy for ovarian, six more cycles of chemo for ovarian, four cycles of chemo for breast, a mastectomy with tissue expander, 30 radiation treatments for breast, a prophylactic mastectomy with tissue expander on the other side, and soon I'll have breast reconstruction. In other words, a whole lot of front line treatment and still working hard at finishing up and preventing a recurrence.
What symptoms led you to go to the doctor? I have always been super organized and on top of doctor appointments for my family and me. I went for my second ever mammogram in February and that led to my breast cancer diagnosis (Stage 2B Triple Negative.) The same week that I had done my breast biopsy but was waiting for results I was so stressed and nervous I started having diarrhea and my stomach became extremely bloated. The day I was in the clinic for the breast diagnosis, and because of these symptoms, I was sent to an OBGYN oncologist and ultimately diagnosed with ovarian cancer and the BRCA1 gene. (High grade serous ovarian cancer, stage 3C.)
What was your hardest moment (or moments), and how did you get through it/them? The hardest moments for me are twofold. First, being diagnosed with a late stage grave disease with an extremely low survival rate is scary and shocking on a level that nothing else could be. Second, it was so hard to know that I did everything right and still ended up with two devastating cancer diagnoses. No one should ever have to deal with cancer but to be in good shape, young, having just had our third child, and on top of check ups made it especially hard. One of the things I do that helps remind me to take a pause and breathe is that every time I glance at the clock and the time has the same numbers (like 2:22pm) I take a pause, breathe, and repeat, “Miracles in and cancer out.” It may not be scientifically proven but it helps center me.
How did your family and friends respond? Right off the bat we were open and honest about my diagnosis and our plan with children, family, friends, and acquaintances. We also had the kids' (11, 9, and 2 at diagnosis) attend a program called CLIMB through MD Anderson where parents with cancer and their children can understand more about the disease and how to cope with it (but in a very low key way which allows them to open up or not with others but absolutely affords them the opportunity to work through their feelings and emotions.)
Did you learn anything about yourself or life? If so, what is it? The biggest lesson I learned is that people want to help. Because my husband and I are fairly private and have always lived away from "home" (our family and many friends are back in Boston and DC) our main way of mass communication was through Facebook and my CaringBridge website. When I was first diagnosed I deleted anyone on my social media that I didn't know well because I didn't want to share intimate details with strangers. However, what I quickly learned is that even people we didn't know well were lined up to offer rides for the kids, meals for the family, flowers, cool night pajamas for hot flashes, cards in the mail, uniquely supportive gifts, etc. The support was overwhelming and made us each feel like we were part of a tight knit and close community here in Houston.
I want people to know that while the medical community says, "If you have a family history you should be screened for the BRCA genes" but in my case, and in the cases of so many women I've met, the gene was passed through the men and not the women which makes finding it tandem to finding a needle in a hay stack. That means there are a lot of women out there who will be diagnosed with the gene and/or with cancer without ever knowing they had a family history. In addition, I was getting screened for mammograms at an institution where the radiologists read all kinds of film, not just breast film. What I know now is that where you have your mammogram matters
How did/do you find joy throughout this experience? Cancer has changed us immensely but it's not all doom and gloom. We've created new relationships, created deeper and more meaningful existing relationships, done things we put off for later and enjoyed the present like we never have before. I get up each day and work hard just like I'd do if I never had a cancer diagnosis. There are certainly dark times but I'm so busy living life I try not to dwell on them. Plus I have some really funny friends who bring me back down to Earth when I need them to.
I have learned love and support like no other during this experience. We were surprised how well our children have dealt with my diagnoses and are glad they now have the knowledge and power to help them continue to lead healthy lives and prevent being in my shoes.
How are you healing from this experience? Because of my experience I applied to be part of the MD Anderson Patient and Family Advisor Program and was accepted. I hope to give back by helping to improve the patient experience at the world's #1 cancer hospital. In addition, I hope to link ovarian cancer into the breast cancer narrative. There is such a huge gap between the two conversations and yet scientifically they could not be more linked.
Anything that you'd like people to know about your type of cancer? I recently found out that Harry Connick, Jr.'s mother passed away from ovarian cancer when I watched his show where he told the world his wife Jill had been diagnosed with breast cancer. There are so many people who are unaware of the link between the two and the young age in which these two cancers can strike. Awareness and funding are key. I'd love to get Harry down to Houston and have him play the piano in the lobby at MD Anderson. All the ladies in the OBGYN clinic would go crazy!
I will continue to communicate my blurb to every single news organization which continues to report solely on breast cancer. "If breast cancer is the ying then ovarian cancer is the yang. To report solely on breast cancer in the age of Angelina Jolie and the discovery of the BRCA genes is not only irresponsible, it’s infuriating. Next time please don’t follow everyone else’s lead, set the example.”