How did you cope?
I saw Deborah Hamolsky, a nurse at UCSF who provides emotional support for breast cancer patients like me. I walked in with slumped shoulders and a downer attitude. I came out with the tools for coping. And she taught me to arm myself with as much knowledge as I can.
I also joined a support group through UCSF's Patient and Family Cancer Support Center. I got tremendous support from talking with other women who had been through cancer. It's different from talking to your sister or your best friend who haven't heard those words, "You have cancer." Talking to people who have been there gave me new hope and a beacon of light.
How was your breast cancer treated?
I only had cancer in one breast, but because my mom's cancer spread so quickly to the other breast – and I had so much fear about that – I wanted a double mastectomy, which is the most aggressive treatment.
So you did it?
Yep. I went ahead with it and have never regretted it. I didn't have to have chemotherapy, but I did take two drugs that interfere with estrogen levels. Five years of popping tamoxifen followed by another five of letrozole, also a pill, seemed a small price to pay to hear "You're just fine."
And you're now a volunteer in UCSF's Peer Support Program, and you talk to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.
Yes. I'm there to talk to anyone who needs it. Some women want to know what it's like to have a mastectomy and I have no problem showing off my 13-year-old-boy chest. One woman said, "I am shocked you did that, but I'm so glad you did."
You seem pretty happy about your decision to have the double mastectomy.
Oh, yes! And it does have its benefits. If I buy a jacket and it doesn't fit around the middle, I don't wear a bra. If I want to look like Dolly Parton, I put on my Dolly Parton bra!
You weren't interested in breast reconstructive surgery?
No. I've been married to the same guy for a billion years. He just wanted me alive. He encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, and I didn't see any reason for it.
And I look good! There isn't any scarring. I'd like to be the poster girl for a good mastectomy. Really!
How did you feel on the day of your surgery?
I don't live far from UCSF's Mount Zion campus, so I walked to my mastectomy holding hands with my husband and three kids. It was 5:30 in the morning and dark. I never felt alone that day.