By Nikki Houser
It started with a lump
I found a lump in my right armpit. It didn't hurt. I made an appointment for a physical examination and was told it was a cyst. It was recommended that I get a mammogram. It's been a whirlwind since then.
The mammogram came back "inconclusive." This was followed by imaging with abnormal results, an ultrasound and a biopsy. I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma of Intermediate Grade and my cancer cells were multiplying rapidly. We needed to move quickly. An MRI showed that I did not have cancer in my left breast or lymph nodes.
I decided to have genetic testing and the results showed that I inherited an ATM genetic mutation putting me at greater risk for early onset breast and pancreatic cancer. My mutation was passed down from my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. I asked my brother to get tested, since this mutation contributes to prostate cancer. When my children are old enough, they will decide if they want to be tested.
Communicate and be proactive
I reached out to my maternal side of the family to inform them of my mutation and to encourage them to talk to their doctors. I talked through my feelings with my cousin, who also inherited our family’s ATM mutation. I participated in a genetic cancer study to be part of the fight to find a cure. I believe this happened to me for a reason and I hope to make a difference to others.
Surgery during the Coronavirus pandemic
After much research, I decided on a bilateral mastectomy. Surgery went well. Results showed that my margins were clean, my lymph nodes were negative and the cancer was gone! Having major surgery during the Coronavirus pandemic was so frightening. The silver lining is that I had no choice but to self-isolate and rest. I am glad I was able to work from home during my recovery. I feel so blessed to have had my surgery the day before the operating room went dark and no visitors were allowed. I couldn't imagine having had to postpone my surgery amongst the fear and worry about COVID-19.
I found support through FORCE
I am also grateful to have been introduced to FORCE through my genetic counselor. Seeing others with similar stories has helped me come to terms with why all the women on my mother's side of the family died so young. It feels as if my sacrifice has helped "crack the family code.” I am optimistic that if my daughter does inherit my ATM mutation, that science will have found a way to eradicate it completely by the time she is a grown woman.
My FORCE peer navigator has been a champion for me throughout this journey. Our stories are similar in many ways, yet so different in others. She has been cancer-free for five years and there have been several developments with genetic testing since her diagnosis. I have been inspired by her story and she has learned a few things from my story, as well. It's so nice to have a FORCE friend who understands. I hope that one day we can actually meet in person.
The cancer is gone and life goes on
Looking in the mirror the first time after my surgery was difficult, but knowing that all the cancer was removed made it less shocking. So, that's it! Remission. I grapple with the phrase cancer free, because there are no guarantees. Since my mom passed away at a young age, I have always lived in fear that her fate would be my fate. Now I know her story is very different from mine. I am working with a therapist to help me come to terms with survivorship and its own set of challenges.
One day during the pandemic, we took a long walk in the sunshine and wrote words of encouragement on our sidewalks for passers-by. You are stronger than you know.