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Holly's Cancer Story

by Holly C. Berman, EAMP, MSOM

I was  recently asked to share my cancer story with my new office space community Orion Center for Integrative Health. I thought I would share it here as well:

I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in April of 2015. I was 44 years old and it was a shock. Turns out I have a rare gene mutation that increased my risk. It also increases the risk of colon cancer. But not all that much is known about this gene mutation yet. So I had my first colonoscopy at 45 and I have to have them every three years. Oh joy. I had big beautiful triple D breasts that matched my curvy figure.

My cancer was several small tumors in about half of my right breast. I had five biopsies, including two via MRI. Fun! I found a surgeon willing to try an oncoplastic reduction, but she told me that she thought it was likely I would need a full mastectomy. So we did a bilateral reduction because there was no way you could reconstruct my cancer breast to be anywhere near the size of my healthy natural breast. We did not get clean margins so I had to have a full mastectomy on the cancer side. I attempted reconstruction so an expander was put in and pumped up at the time of mastectomy. Everyone told me it would be "uncomfortable." It was incredibly painful, I wanted to rip the thing out of my chest and knew it would not work within days after the surgery. But my plastic surgeon and my naturopathic oncologist insisted I keep it in for three months before deciding to abandon it.

At exactly three months post op, I scheduled an appointment with the plastic surgeon to schedule having the thing out. My lovely mother took wonderful care of me through my first two surgeries. She stayed with me in my 500 sq ft studio apt; that place had never been so clean as when she was there.:) A couple of months after my second surgery, she had a massive stroke in Florida where she lived with my father. I flew down to Florida the next day and spent a month there helping both of my parents, with the expander still in my chest, further delaying its removal. In the meantime it was recommended that if I wanted to avoid taking tamoxifen, which I very much did, I should have what remained of the healthy breast removed. So surgery number three was to remove the expander on the cancer reconstruction side and remove the remainder of the tissue on the healthy side.

If you can call any of us cancer survivors lucky, I was able to avoid chemotherapy, radiation and drugs. We did have a scare of metastasis when a mammogram revealed something suspicious on the healthy side after the initial reduction. The week between this mammogram and the follow up ultrasound was a nightmare. It turned out to be just scar tissue from the initial reduction. So like many anxious breast cancer survivors, I wound up having all of my breast tissue removed on both sides . I was only 45 at the time and had a gene mutation increasing my risk, so the likelihood of it returning was pretty high. My fourth and final chest surgery was a cosmetic cleanup, so recovery was not nearly as long. Only one week compared to the month I had to take off work for each of the previous three surgeries. I had to have arthroscopic knee surgery in the middle of all this, so five surgeries in 1.5 years.

I started a relationship soon after my second surgery and we got engaged. Eventually he left me for a lot of reasons and I haven't gotten into another relationship since. Losing my beautiful breasts was a huge hit to my confidence. Another acupuncturist friend who was very kind and helpful throughout the surgeries said she thought I was more beautiful because she could see my heart more easily.

Four surgeries on my chest has left me with chronic tension in the area and vulnerability to other local health issues like a hiatal hernia that pops up on a fairly regular basis. I have had many scar treatments with acupuncture and laser treatment from a wonderful colleague. I have to regularly stretch my chest and put castor oil on the scars, still 7 years later. Like most cancer survivors, every new symptom that crops up leads to fear of cancer recurrence. Between my breast cancer and my mother's stroke, I feel like a completely different person than the one I was before I was diagnosed. I am a much more mature, compassionate and patient person. But I am also sad when I remember the light hearted, carefree, playful woman I once was.

I have been practicing acupuncture now for almost 25 years. I had treated a number of cancer patients before I was diagnosed with cancer myself. I was helpful to them and they certainly seemed appreciative. Since my cancer diagnosis, however, I can relate on a personal level to the hell they are going through. I am thankful that I did not have to go through chemo or radiation or take any sort of drugs. I have seen many patients who have had to experience one to or all of these treatments. It's pretty awful. Recently I have helped a couple patients with foot neuropathy from chemo therapy be able to walk much more comfortably and longer distances again. I have helped patients going through chemo with fatigue, pain and neuropathy, nausea and other digestive issues; through radiation with fatigue and burns; and post operative complications like pain. I have seen acupuncture help many patients cope with anxiety, depression and insomnia after initial diagnosis, during treatment to help with side effects and stress and after treatment for the long term effects of their cancer treatments.