CONTACT JOAN CONTACT JOAN

Julie Helgerson

It was Christmas Eve 2009. I had traveled with my 3 children home to Iowa (from South Carolina)to spend the holidays with my family. I felt great! A week prior I had had a mammogram and as I was showering that morning, I was recalling the conversation I had had with the technician who did the mammogram. "Any family history of breast cancer?" As looked over my shoulder- I replied, "Nope, no cancer of any kind." I recall seeing an image on the screen with a spot very clearly. I remember thinking "well, that obviously can't be mine- these guys are good! (referring to my breasts) I finished the appointment and left. Now a week later, showering, I replayed the conversation in my head and did a self check. There it was. A sizable lump in my left breast. I checked again, 'Yep, it was still there, I had not imagined it.' Hmmm... What do I do? It is Christmas Eve, I have no idea what it is, I am 1200 miles from home and there is no way I am going to ruin everyone's Christmas when I don't know what I am dealing with. So, I went on as if nothing was wrong. Throughout the next few days, I kept checking to see if it was still there. Unfortunately, it seemed like it was and it was bigger than it was the day before!

On our way home, I called my OB/GYN and told him what I had found. He had actually gotten the results of my mammogram in the meantime and said they had found something suspicious but not to worry, it could be a variety of things.

Over the next 2 weeks, I went for the initial in office needle biopsy, to another core needle biopsy at the hospital, ultrasound and many, many doctor appointments. January 16th, I remember sitting at my desk at school- getting the call that the biopsy was malignant and I needed to have surgery immediately to get it out.

January 25, 2010, I underwent surgery to remove the tumor and have my lymph nodes checked and then removed. It was a 3.5 cm tumor and in 3 of my lymph nodes. It was triple positive, meaning it was hormone based and had a growth factor feeding it. I truly believe if I hadn't gotten it out when I did, it would have kept growing and moving at a wild fire pace. I opted for a lumpectomy and the doctor said he removed a 12cm x 5cm x 5 cm section- about the size of a tangerine.

After 2 days, I went back to work as a teacher in a public high school. I needed to feel 'normal'. I needed the support of my students and co workers. I learned really quick that cancer is as much mental as physical. I could not sit around and feel sorry for myself. I needed to be strong and put on a brave face for my kids.

Throughout the following months I went through 6 rounds of chemotherapy every 3 weeks- vowing to keep my hair. The doctor told me that only 10% of the people who take the drugs I was keep their hair. I volunteered to be one of that 10%. Unfortunately, 2 and a half weeks after the first treatment, it started coming out in handfuls. Having been a hairdresser for 20 years, I felt like it was a bad joke God was playing on me. I couldn't bring myself to shave it. I even tried wearing a wig one day. I felt like I was wearing a 'Daniel Boone' coonskin hat. I cried all day. I put on a baseball cap and wore one the next six months. I pulled my last few pieces of long hair through the hole in the back convincing myself that no one would notice.

Chemo wasn't horrendous, but I also don't think I dwelled on it. I got up each day and 'just kept swimming.' I met many people along the way whose body didn't tolerate it as well as mine did. One more reason to count my blessings. I remember at one point my white blood cell count was down to less than 1% and the doctor extremely concerned. I told her we should just be grateful I still had that 1% working overtime as I wasn't sick and never got sick.

After chemo, came 35 rounds of radiation and 18 Herceptin treatments. My body tolerated the radiation well and the Herceptin is a targeted therapy that had minimal side effects. 16 months of treatment- every 3 weeks. It seemed like forever, yet 6 short months later, I can almost forget that was my life last year.

Throughout my journey, I met amazing people and was blessed again and again by their random acts of kindness. Endless rides to doctor appointments, food/ meals every 3 weeks, financial donations to help with the expenses, little notes and cards to cheer, and support from my employers and coworkers. The students were amazing! I didn't plan on teaching compassion that semester, but it was a lesson the students ended up learning.

Today, it has been five years since I heard the dreadful words. Some days I try to forget that breast cancer is my story but then I realize that I can educate my friends, family and students- hopefully removing some of the fear that is often associated with cancer. I am cancer free and plan on staying that way :-)

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