I grew up in San Francisco, California. We moved there when I was six years old. My mom and dad’s very first friends in SF were Travis and Tara Kelly, bonding over their love for good music and the San Francisco Giants. I grew up knowing them as my aunt and uncle because of how close our families were. When my family relocated to Tucson, Arizona to plant a church, Travis and Tara moved with us. Through the years, our families have gone through separate trials, but I’ve always known I have a home and family in them, if need be. When we moved to Phoenix, we missed them every day. I’ve welcomed Tara to The Garcia Diaries today to share her story and journey with breast cancer, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
You have breast cancer. Four words I never imagined hearing. But two years ago, as I sat in the back yard with my then 4 year old son playing trucks, my doctor called. Never in a million years was I prepared for what she had to tell me. “You have breast cancer.” I immediately couldn’t breath. I looked down at my son, eyes filling with tears. “I don’t know how severe,” she said. “Sending you to a specialist,” she said. As she was talking to me I felt like I was in a Charlie Brown episode where they answer the phone but all you hear are words that don’t make any sense. I hung up the phone and sat there in silence. Trying to fight back the tears. Trying to be brave for my son. “Don’t be sad mama. Don’t stop playing mama.”
The questions that ran through my head all at once were crazy. Me? Cancer? I’m not old enough to have cancer? How can this be possible? What about my family? And as petty as it sounds… OH MY GOD! MY HAIR! The list goes on. I have to call my husband, I thought. Have to move, I thought. But I just sat there, truck in hand in automatic pilot play mode.
Finally the phone rang with my husband on the other line (the man has a radar or something… he always calls when I’m getting ready to call him). The moment I heard his voice tears started rushing down. I tried so hard to get the words out. I couldn’t form a single word. It was like I had forgotten how to talk. Pull your shit together, I thought to myself. Tell him. Tell him now, I thought. I told my son I’d be right back… Got up and just blurted out … “Babe. I have breast cancer. I don’t want to be bald. I don’t want to die. I’m terrified. Come home. Come home now!” The more I talked the more I cried. I knew I had to pull it together. I couldn’t sit there crying with my son a few feet away. Thankfully my husband calmed me down enough to resume mommy mode. It seemed like an eternity waiting for him to come home, though it was probably 20 minutes. During that time my doctor called me back to tell me she’d scheduled an appointment with a specialist for the following Tuesday. But it’s Friday afternoon, I thought. “You mean to tell me I’ll know nothing more until Tuesday? Tuesday? Really???”
Waiting till that Tuesday appointment was torture. I tried so hard not to think about it. Tried so hard not to go online. Never go online to “research” when you know nothing. Trust me. You’ll freak yourself out! We told a few people before my appointment with my specialist. But not many. I didn’t have answers to any questions I knew were going to come at me.
Tuesday arrived and as my husband and I sat waiting in the doctor’s office he grabbed my hand and said, “we’ll get through this. You’ll be fine.” I remember the doctor coming in, introducing herself, shaking our hands and then telling me… “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but I’m here to tell you you’re going to be fine. But you have a road ahead of you.” The fear I had after my call on Friday was gone. This doctor sat right next to us and walked me through what was going to happen next. “I don’t do stages,” she said. “But for some reason people need a number. You can tell them you’re 1.5. But you really will be fine.” It was just in one breast. She said I’d need chemo, a mastectomy, radiation and breast reconstruction. I had the option to remove just the breast with cancer or have them both removed. She said there was a small percentage that it could return in my other breast though. Immediately I thought, “Take em both! Take em now!” She could have said there was a .01 % chance the cancer returning… I immediately knew I would opt for a double mastectomy. She told us the amount of women under 39 like me being diagnosed continues to increase. We left the appointment with a handful of appointments for tests, surgeries, and more doctors. I remember driving home in silence and then my husband turned to me and said “I know she said it’s in just the one breast but are you…” before he could even finish his sentence. I was like “heck no! I do not want to go through this again.” He was relieved. I was relieved I was at such peace about it. Now we need to tell people…
My husband was amazing. He held my hand with each call. Some were harder than others. Lots of tears. LOTS. But our family and friends were amazing. Some took on the task of calling others for me, which really was a huge relief. Telling our son was tough. How do you tell a 4 year old something like this? Kids are resilient. But cancer is a scary word. We chose to tell him mommy is sick but I had some awesome doctors that were going to make me all better. We told him there might be days where I feel yucky. “I’ll cuddle with you more on those days mamma” was his response. We told him I was going to have to cut my hair off and that eventually it was going to be gone. He chuckled when we told him I might be bald. I cried. We told him my hair would come back. We called it “do over hair”. He said “that’s ok mama. I’ll still love you. Even with a balded head.”
I immediately had surgery to put a port in so that I didn’t have to have an IV every time I had chemo. End result. I looked like I had this crazy growth on my chest. My son thought it looked cool. It only took one person staring at it in the grocery store for me to figure out the many ways to hide it.
My mom flew in so she could be here for my first chemo treatment and came back when I had my mastectomy a few months later. It was nice to have her there. My father in law picked my son up at preschool on my treatment days. (It became such a habit that they still do it every week. “Papa Papa Day,” my son calls it.) It also helped keep my son busy. One thing my husband and I insisted on to everyone was that we wanted to keep things as normal as possible for our son. And we didn’t want anyone discussing what was going on with him but us. We just didn’t want to scare him. Having MeMe visit made a scary moment not so scary.
Before my first treatment I asked my Oncologist… “Am I really going to lose all my hair?” He looked at me, grabbed my hand and said, “If you don’t lose your hair the medicine isn’t doing its job.” I remember thinking Ok, see ya later hair! I still couldn’t imagine being bald. But I knew it was just part of the journey to being well. I’ll just have to invest in hats, I guess!
I’m not going to lie. The first treatment made me sick. I’m sure partly because I was freaking myself out (I actually broke out in hives the night before) but it was actually the medicine they sent me home with to prevent me from being nauseous that made me sick. Once we figured that out all was well, I remember feeling pretty tired after but okay the next day. I even worked the next day! The day after every treatment I had to go back for what felt like a very large shot. My husband’s eyes looked like they were going to pop out of his head when they stuck it in my arm! Therefore I think the needle had to be the size of California or maybe Alaska! After the first treatment we really just embraced it all. We pretty much had a countdown going. I was to have 8 treatments in all. 4 on one medication and 4 on another. One of my best friends came for my second treatment. My hair started to fall out after the second treatment. She helped me keep it together. She took care of my family. She made me laugh at the small animal on the bathroom sink that was my hair. I know she was scared for me. Just like my mom was. But having them there meant the world to not just me, but my son and husband as well. After that my mother in-law arrived. She stayed with us through the rest of my treatment and mastectomy surgery. And we’re so glad she did. Without, my mom, my friend, and my mother in-law taking time out of their lives to help keep our ship afloat, we would have sunk! And having my father in law have special time with our son each week was amazing. It gave my husband the ability to not miss work too much and kept the house business as usual.
It was very humbling but we learned how amazingly generous people are. Someone at my work organized a meal train. There wasn’t a day that didn’t end with a meal delivery. My son thought it was so cool. And most of the time, they had a special treat just for him in the bag. My mom set up a “Go fund me” page. We were amazed at the amount of people who reached out to help. Even people we didn’t know helped. Like I said, it was very humbling. We aren’t ones to ask for help. We just suck it up and do what we have to. But this help… It was, well, helpful. It gave us peace of mind. People are amazing. My cousin found a company that comes and cleans your house for free. Who doesn’t love a free house cleaning or two? My aunt made me some cute hats. Some friends even bought me a wig. We even had friends who were going through some pretty yucky stuff themselves at the time yet, they still came to our house for breakfast every weekend they could throughout my treatment. But through it all, I along with my husband and son were surrounded in prayer, encouragement and love and support. This is what got us through. It’s what got me through.
There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I would beat this. That I would be a survivor. I have too much to live for! And you want to know something totally amazing. When I went in for my double mastectomy, the doctor came out to tell my husband the cancer was gone when she opened me up. Of course she still continued with the mastectomy as a precaution and the plastic surgeon was there to put expanders in for the breast reconstruction. But it was gone! Totally gone!
Recovery from surgery was a little rough. I was so limited on what I could do. I had a healing issue and my plastic surgeon had to go back in a week later to fix it. After that, I went in for a weekly expansion for 6 weeks. We joked that I was under construction. By then my hair had slowly started to grow back, too. SLOWLY. After my “expansion” project and a little healing time I started 6 weeks of radiation. It really wasn’t that bad. I had heard horror stories but honestly that was a breeze.
As a precaution I had a hysterectomy a few months later and last December I had my last surgery… My “expansion project” was done. I had my new and improved boobies. I was no longer a construction zone! It was such an awesome feeling scheduling that surgery. This day seemed so far away when I started my first chemo. Now chemo is just a memory.
Losing my hair was hard. I knew it would come back but it still made me sad. Most of it fell out after my second treatment. I was left with a crazy clump on the top of my head resembling a Cabbage Patch Kid. One day I was sitting on the couch talking to my mother in law… I commented my “sprout” was sore. I touched it and the entire clump just fell out. POOF! Completely bald. I remember looking at her and was like “what the heck?!” We both just started laughing. Being bald was never something I was able to get used to. I was very thankful for my wig, hats and scarves. My son was constantly rubbing my head telling me how soft it was. My hair grew back. Thank goodness! For a while I looked like a chia pet. My son said my hair looked like Kiss, especially Gene Simmons in the morning. Yes, my son (who is now 6) knows who Gene Simmons is. Before I lost my hair it was wavy and now it’s crazy curly. But I don’t mind at all. I actually I just scheduled my first haircut in 2 years and I’m so excited.
Having breast cancer was quite a shock but it was quite a journey. Not one I’d like to relive but it showed me a lot. It taught me a lot. It made me stronger. It made me realize that asking for help is okay. It made me appreciate the little things more. It also made me realize whom we could really depend on.
I am so grateful that I was blessed with amazing doctors. I am so grateful that so many came to my aid. It was unbelievable how much help we were blessed with. Meals, financial help, prayers, love and support. I couldn’t have gotten through this journey without my incredible husband- my rock and amazing son as well as our fabulous network of support.
I may have scars… a reminder of my journey. But they will not define me. A wise person wrote “A scar does not form on the dying. A scar means I survived.” And I did. I’m a survivor.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. YOU can help by donating to breast cancer research or volunteering. I also want to encourage all women, young and old, to get their boobies checked! Early detection saves lives. And here are resources for doing self exams!
Check your boobs once a month!
Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month. Johns Hopkins Medical center states,
“Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”
While mammograms can help you to detect cancer before you can feel a lump, breast self-exams help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can alert your healthcare professional if there are any changes.