October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We are dedicating our Fridays for the month of October to profiling fellow Breast Cancer Grads and Students.
Meet Breast Cancer Grad, Kelly Cotter!
Name: Kelly Cotter
Age at Enrollment: 39
Major: Stage 1 grade II invasive and in situ ductal carcinoma. It was in my left breast. I was lucky, and caught it early.
Primary symptoms you had experienced prior to diagnosis: That was the frustrating part. I had no symptoms that I was experiencing. I was feeling great, exercising regularly, and actually began to watch what I was eating. There was absolutely no way of knowing that I had breast cancer.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor?: I was sitting on the couch relaxing from a crazy day when I went to go for an itch on my left breast. I then felt something inches away from my nipple. It was a lump. It did not hurt to the touch. There was no pain on the breast either. It was a hard lump. I called my gynecologist the next day. My gynecologist took one feel to my breast and immediately referred me to the Comprehensive Breast Center at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
Courses Completed: My one lump ended up being three lumps, together. Another two lumps were found after an MRI was done. I had a needle core biopsy and a ton of mammograms. From the time I found my lumps to being diagnosed, it was five days. My surgical oncologist recommended a mastectomy. I asked if I had the option of a double one and she said yes. I did not want to go through this crazy ordeal again, so I opted to have the double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. The skin from my stomach was used to make my new breasts. I was thinking, "YEAH – I will have bigger boobs and a flat belly. Go me!". The surgery lasted over 10 hours. Luckily, there was no evidence that the cancer spread to my nodes. I was in the hospital for 5 days. I had four drains attached to me but luckily, I recovered pretty quickly. I was able to get rid of the drains within a week and I was able to start my chemo regiment earlier than expected. I was originally supposed to have chemo every three weeks for 12 weeks. I would be infused with Benadryl, steroids, Taxol, and Herceptin (because of the her2+). Instead, I had treatment every Friday for 12 weeks in a row. It seems crazy, but to me, it would be over faster. Then I continued with Herceptin until the following year. I was on chemo for a full year. I was told that I could lose my hair while on the chemo. My medical oncologist was not sure if I was going to lose it all, though. Each medicine is different, and the effects can be different too-that is the frustrating part about chemo. I did not need any radiation as my nodes were not compromised.
Any helpful tips or tricks for other women (or men) navigating a diagnosis? In my opinion, breast cancer is not a death sentence. There is so much research going on and so many medicines being developed that I truly believe that the disease is going to be cured one day. When I was diagnosed, I was lucky to have an oncologist who assured me that I was going to be 100% fine. Just believe that. Don’t let the diagnosis change who you are and don’t let it bring you down. You are stronger than the disease. Keep a positive attitude! I know it is easier said than done, but try it. You won’t regret it. Also, I went back to my normal routines as quickly as possible. I went to my children’s sports events and family gatherings as much as I could. I walked and exercised regularly. I did not change my diet and I did keep drinking my wine.
If you can, keep a journal. Keep track of your emotions, side effects, medications, or just write whatever.
I lost my hair from the chemo, but that was my last concern. As surprising as that sounds, it really was. I knew it would come back. There are really cute head scarves and caps. But if you want to wear your bald head proud, then go for it. However, if you don’t want to lose your hair during chemo, I have been told about cold caps. They are caps that you put on your head during chemo. They need to be kept in a cooler of ice and they need to be changed intermittently during the chemo treatment. I am not sure if the FDA has approved them yet. I have heard they work, though.
Anything you wished you knew prior to diagnosis? I wish I knew a little more about genetic testing. It is available, but not all insurance pays for the testing. I did not have a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation, which was surprising if you knew my family history of cancer, but I had a mutation in the ATM gene. Who knew we had the ATM gene? That mutation was my moderate risk for breast cancer. I would recommend genetic screening for any woman or man that had a relative who had breast cancer.
Did you learn anything about yourself? For me and my experience, I learned that cancer is just a word. It is not a way of living. Yes I had breast cancer. But the cancer did not have me. I did everything I could to not let the cancer or chemo "win". I am pretty sure I did that. I found out that I was stronger than I thought. I also found out that I am surrounded by so much love and support. It was easy for me to find the strength with all the support I had. I also found out that I want to help people with breast cancer, or any kind of cancer. I do have plans to become a personal trainer and work with those dealing with breast cancer. I guess I want to pay it forward in some way!