Meet Breast Cancer Grad, Aleah Hockridge!
Name: Aleah Hockridge
Age at Enrollment: 31 (I am currently 33)
Major: Breast Cancer (Invasive Ductal Carcinoma) Stage 3A
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? I can’t say I had many symptoms leading up to my diagnosis, although in the few months prior I did experience a few bouts of dizziness…once at the grocery store where I had to park my cart over in a non-crowded area and lean on it for a minute before it subsided. I thought maybe I was having vertigo, but it only happened twice over a long time period, so I didn’t worry too much about it.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? Ironically (and hilariously), a sports bra saved my life. One day I was “adjusting” (ahem) myself in a sports bra and felt something weird toward the top of my right breast. I wouldn’t even call it a lump, it felt more like a “firm spot” to me (semantics, I know). It honestly felt like a firm, slightly squishy grape. I didn’t immediately think cancer, but I did acknowledge how weird it was (and spent the next day or so obsessively comparing it to my other breast to make sure it really felt different. I probably looked like a pervert touching my chest all day). Although I wasn’t overly concerned, I knew I didn’t want to mess with any changes to my breasts. My mom had recently gone through ovarian cancer, and after watching her go through some misdiagnoses, I knew it was important to get anything bizarre checked out. I think I went a day or two before making a doctor’s appointment for the following week. Even in making the appointment, I refused to call the suspicious spot a “lump”. When the nurse took me back to the exam room she said, “So I see you’re here to get a breast lump checked out?” and I corrected her with, “Oh it’s not a lump, it’s a firm spot”. I realize now how silly it seems to try to make that distinction, but I think it goes to show that a cancerous lump may not feel the way you expect it to feel.
My doctor agreed that there was definitely something in my breast, but wasn’t too concerned about it being cancerous. She told me that breast changes are common in women of my age, and to wait through my next menstrual cycle to see if went away on its own. I followed up the next month and sure enough, the spot was still there, so my doc sent me in for a mammogram a week or so later. What followed the mammogram was an immediate ultrasound and biopsy (much to my surprise!), but I still wasn’t too concerned; I was just happy that they were being thorough.
I know it seems like the writing was on the wall, but I was still stunned to get the call that I had cancer a few days later. I immediately called my mom, and I just remember repeating over and over, “But I’m only 31!”. Although other cancers have plagued my family, nobody had gone through breast cancer. It just seemed so out of place. And yet there I was.
Courses completed: Diagnosis and getting the treatment ball rolling was such a whirlwind. My tumor was large (8cm! Yikes!) so I had a unilateral mastectomy. Between mastectomy and chemo, I did a round of fertility preservation and was able to freeze two embryos. Then I trudged along through 16 rounds of chemo, with a full year of Herceptin and Perjeta due to my Her2 positive status. I also did 6 weeks of radiation. I now take hormonal treatment in the form of daily Arimidex pills since my tumor was Estrogen positive, and once I month I take a Lupron shot to shut down my ovaries. I’ll do this regimen for 5-10 years. It makes me achy and stiff from time to time, but it’s a fair trade to keep the cancer from coming back!
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you get through it/them? Honestly, the time surrounding diagnosis was the worst. You require so many tests, and get information piece by piece, so there’s so much fear of the unknown. I am lucky I had a strong support system; a great boyfriend, amazing parents, and loving friends whom I could lean on. Once treatment started, I was able to get my head around things and start looking forward. But in the beginning I was paralyzed by fear; it felt like being stuck in a pit of quicksand. I am so thankful that eventually I pulled myself out of that and started moving forward mentally.
Any helpful (tangible) tips or tricks you discovered for dealing with your symptoms and/or cancer? Start researching resources for your particular situation. There are many organizations out there that are willing to help; I was able to qualify for a free wig from Lolly’s Locks, an amazing organization that donates high quality, real-hair wigs to women going through chemo who wouldn’t normally be able to afford them. This really lifted my mood. There are so many other resources out there that you can connect to if you just search them out.
Also, as a big water drinker, it was pretty devastating when chemo made regular water taste awful to me. Hydration is so important to cancer patients going through chemo, so I was thrilled to find that sparkling water tasted good to me (something about the bubbles helped I think!). Might be something to try if you find yourself gagging over the thought of drinking regular water!
How did you find joy during this experience? When I was first diagnosed, I felt like I would never be happy or laugh again. I just couldn’t imagine myself feeling any joy after getting such devastating news. I’m happy to report that it took a while, but I did laugh again. Through surgery, chemo, radiation, I laughed. Not every day of course, but I did laugh a lot. It’s possible to go through something harrowing but still feel joy. When I talk to someone who was recently diagnosed, my favorite thing to tell them is “Don’t worry, I promise you’ll laugh again”. It’s the little tidbit I wish someone had told me in the beginning.
Did you learn anything about yourself? If so, what was it? I learned to let go of the small stuff more. Like losing my hair…I found shaving my head and being bald kind of a fun experience! I mean, I never would have shaved my head if I didn’t have cancer, and have no plans to do it again if I don’t have to, but it was actually kind of an interesting experience (I have a pretty nicely shaped, round head). Hair didn’t matter as much to me as I thought it did. I liked wearing wigs, they were low maintenance and easy. Again, I appreciate having my own real hair now that it’s growing back, and losing it was tough, but not as devastating as I thought. I feel like I’m more adventurous now, I try to say yes to more opportunities, and I really just don’t sweat the small stuff as much. Which is saying a lot because I’ve always been a Nervous Nellie!
What is life like after cancer? I’m still figuring this one out. People like to say, “You’re a cancer survivor!” like the surviving part is behind me, but I still feel like I’m surviving. I honestly think I will always feel like I’m actively surviving. I’m hyper aware that this cancer can still come back anytime. I do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen, but there’s always going to be that possibility looming around the corner, so I’ve tried to make my peace with it. Just like when I was going through treatment, some days are better than others! I think there needs to be more dialogue around the post-cancer process; everyone focuses on the diagnosis and treatment, but the after-effects of cancer are just as important. I have lingering side effects and have had to readjust to my new body since I currently have no plans to reconstruct on my mastectomy side (never say never, but I don’t have any interest in it at the moment). I feel really good overall, though…my new motto is “I’m just happy to be here” because that’s honestly how I feel about life now.