Vancouver, British Columbia
How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?
I found a lump in that breast when I was twenty-seven and pregnant — six weeks away from my due date. The biopsy showed abnormal cells consistent with impending lactation. I wasn’t worried. At the time the surgeon gave me the option of having the “benign growth” removed, but I was dead set against unnecessary surgery. A year later the tumour had grown to six centimeters, and was not so benign anymore.
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
In December 2002, when I was 28, the lump had grown to the size of an egg. I tried to ignore it because I had been reassured, but the lump made it uncomfortable to lie on my stomach. When I had it rechecked an ultrasound-guided core biopsy found ductal carcinoma in situ. A mastectomy was recommended. After fighting to obtain “permission” to continue nursing my 16 month old daughter one sided, I had surgery on January 27, 2003.
At what level of education were you at diagnosis?
After studying Fine Arts at UBC I worked as a flight attendant until my daughter, Ava, was born. When my maternity leave ended, I wanted to return to flying part time. Two months later I received my diagnosis.
What was your diagnosis?
It was Ductal Carcinoma in Situ; Cancer growing in the milk ducts of my breasts. For some amazing reason, despite its large size, the tumour was still contained within the ducts. After going to a review panel, seventeen slides later, I was assured that no further treatment was necessary.
What are your career goals?
Vanessa is an artist, a mother and a wife — with the modest mission of changing the world!
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
“This is going to be the ride of my life.” I was afraid because I knew very little about cancer treatment. It was the first week of December when I received the diagnosis from my family doctor. I still remember the softened voice of the receptionist on my answering machine, “Could you come in tomorrow morning with your husband please?” I was not able to get an appointment to see a surgeon or oncologist until after Christmas. Those three weeks were the most difficult of my life. I didn’t know anything about cancer and didn’t know where to look for information. When people asked me how my holidays were going I just said “fine” but I felt like screaming.
How did your family react?
My husband was afraid for me. My mother was frightened, but put on a brave face; my dad’s eyes were filled with fear and sadness. My 16 month old daughter knew something was amiss, but we didn’t know what to explain to a toddler.
How did your friends react?
Some friends assured me that it wasn’t a serious cancer. “You’re lucky they’re just breasts!” I was told that my life would surely return to normal after the surgery. Some friends cheered me up by putting on a “Bye-bye Boobie Party” for me the weekend before my mastectomy. I loved the black humour of it.
What did your treatment consist of?
Medical Side: I chose to have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy and radiation because I had a pretty big lump in a modestly sized breast. I knew that the nipple would have to be removed, so the decision to remove “the rest” was a little easier to bear. I wanted to have immediate reconstructive surgery because I was afraid to wake up without a breast. I didn’t have any “extra” tissue on my body, so I chose to have a latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction using the muscle in my back to support a small implant on my chest. Four months later, I was having the implant out due to capsular contracture. I tried a different implant, but unfortunately my body was still very reactive to all these surgeries and this was rejected as well. When I had the second implant removed a year ago, nothing was put into its place. I felt mutilated and was devastated. At the same time I experienced an enormous amount of guilt for being so upset about this loss of a breast when others were losing their lives. I felt like I wasn’t even a real Cancer-patient because of not having undergone chemotherapy. Indeed, seventeen slides were taken to a specialist’s conference to be sure about this recommendation, but instead of making me feel better, this made me feel worse — was it too close to call? How could I be sure they made the right decision if it was so close?
In which hospital(s) were you treated?
I have received my first three surgeries at UBC hospital. My next one will be at St. Paul’s Hospital.
What is your current medical status?
I am still in reconstructive limbo. The guilt from my relatively “easy” treatment was profound. I called it “chemo guilt”. For months I denied myself the support of women who had lost their hair during treatment, thinking that I couldn’t be a real cancer patient without having the same experience. When I did go to the support group at the BC Cancer Agency, six months after my first surgery, I finally began to feel heard and understood. The Young Women’s Support Group at the BC Cancer Agency was created in September 2001. It is comprised of a varying group of women ranging in age from their early twenties to their mid-forties. The faces may change, but the feeling of strength and consolation we find in these meetings is consistent. In May 2003, a core group of these women felt that there was a pronounced need for an event to address the issues of young women experiencing breast cancer. These eight women then began to plan the first ever national networking event for young women with breast cancer. The Y&B conference took place a year later with one hundred women from all across the country attending.
How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?
These past two years have triggered in me a paradigm shift, caused in part by the transformation of this “predicament” of Cancer into an achievement. I feel empowered by my mortality because I am now aware that there is no time to waste, no time like the present. Nobody is going to jump up and make things happen in my life but me. In a way I am humbled into realizing what a small little carbon-based unit I am. But I also realize that everyone else in this small world is just as fragile. or just as powerful. The friends that I have known who have passed away of this disease make it all too clear that all you can leave behind is the difference you make in the lives of others. And the time you have to do it in is always too short.
What is/was the toughest part of your challenge?
The little things: Sometimes when I vacuum, my prosthesis falls out of my bra onto the floor and my three year old daughter picks it up, and says, “Your Boobie fall down mommy!” I want to be able to throw on a tank top without wondering if it’s noticeable that I’m missing a breast. But time makes this easier to handle. I am now starting to undress in the ladies change room at the swimming pool without trying to hide myself. This is what I look like now, and it’s ok. If I had to do it over, I’d easily trade in that “pound of flesh” for the courage and inspiration I feel now. The big things: Wondering if it will come back is always somewhere in the back of my mind. When a friend recently passed away from a breast cancer recurrence, she left behind her life partner and newborn baby. I found this quote read by her best friend at her memorial helpful. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” –Rainer Maria Rilke
What is/was the best part of your challenge?
Being part of this “Cancer Club” that no one wants to join is actually surprisingly fulfilling. I feel an instant kinship with women I meet through my association with the Young and the Breastless. We have experienced similar journeys, and understand that we are now profoundly altered.
What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?
When my husband was competing in Triathlons to deal with the stress of my diagnosis, I promised myself I would get strong again and “tri” it too! Almost there.
What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?
As an artist, I found myself generating dozens of images in an attempt to express some of the horror I felt about losing a breast before the age of thirty and the feeling of frustration after two failed reconstructive surgeries. Mapping out the contents of my numerous notebooks evolved into a year-long mixed media art exploration. My pieces follow the path from early haunting emotions of dread to a full gamut of mental conundrums in reaction to a radically changed life’s trajectory. During this time, I discovered that the process of creation was helping me to heal. The world premier of Cancer Xancer was a solo exhibit at The Young and the Breastless Conference at the University of British Columbia, May 14 & 15, 2004 When you say the title of the project, Cancer Xancer, out loud, it sounds like “Cancer’s Answer.” The X represents an unknown variable, the mystery of a diagnosis, a statistic, an outcome. An X marks a spot on a breast where a strange alchemy takes place; one’s own cells become the enemy. An X is an unknown variable in the equation of mortality — “what will become of me?” When such grave thoughts are described over and over again in hands on, three-dimensional way, they lose their power over us. So tell your story – tell it loudly and proudly to any and all who will listen.
What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?
Quite simply, I am different. I have a more rounded personality. I have more empathy for those who struggle passionately, but less for those who don’t try at anything. “.when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?
Geoff heard about our conference last year and introduced himself by email after finding out that I had also attended the NCLF cancer advocacy workshop.