At the age of 28, as a newlywed and a mother of three, the last thing Julia Martin expected to hear at a scheduled checkup was that she had Stage II Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
Pre-cancer Julia was always a planner both personally and professionally, as she works as a recreation therapist and activities coordinator; therefore, she never really lived in the moment. The stars always had to be perfectly aligned and while she liked to have fun, at the end of the day, she was a worrier. School loans, bills, property owner responsibilities, and finances were always on the brain. She went to work and strived to be the best mother and wife, but spent more time trying to figure out what would happen next.
That got her nowhere because as we all know, your future can change within a single minute. As soon as she heard the words “you have cancer,” her plans become uncertain. Having another child, for instance, seems unlikely, but she is trying not to sweat the small stuff. As a result, she has made a promise to love harder and live her life to the fullest. In our interview with Julia, she lets us into her world and opens up in a way that inspires. Read her story below.
Diagnosis: Cancer type and stage – triple negative, invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2A grade 3 (high nuclear grade and very aggressive)
Treatment Plan: Neo-adjunct chemotherapy treatments, which includes AC+T (AC = Taxol and T = Taxotere, chemotherapy medications used together to treat aggressive forms of cancer prior to any other corrective treatment), and then a double mastectomy. I chose to do chemo first; I will be done in four weeks. I am set to have my bi-lat mastectomy on December 20, 2013. In hindsight, this was the better choice for me versus doing the surgery first. Mentally, it helps me to know that my tumor is shrinking, which has made the chemo worthwhile. I had a port placed in my chest, which makes chemo easier because the medication can be administered through the port instead of damaging blood vessels and causing significant bruising and swelling. Eventually, I will need surgery, in which I will receive immediate expander placements. Expander placements are used to stretch skin; this will be important once I receive my implants, which are used to fill in the cavity where the skin has been stretched. Then, I wait 2 to 4 months to ensure that the cancer treatments were effective and to begin the process of a mastectomy. Then, this will all be behind me.
Prognosis: Unknown until surgery
Interview: Questions and Answers (see below)
How was your cancer discovered? After breast-feeding my daughter for 16 months, I discovered a lump during a self-breast exam. Therefore, I scheduled an annual exam with my OBGYN. She conducted a breast exam, agreed that there was a lump, and told me to get an ultrasound the next day. An ultrasound turned into me getting my very first mammogram, which someone my age doesn’t normally need. Then, the radiologist told me I would be getting a breast biopsy that day as well. It was a relatively easy and somewhat painless procedure done in the doctor’s office. I came in the next day for the biopsy results. Now, this is where it gets fuzzy (chemo brain) for me…so many appointments in so few days. I was informed that I was a high stage 2a and that it was triple negative breast cancer. Stage 2 did not sound TOO bad to me, but triple negative meant nothing to me at this point. The doctors told me that it is estrogen, progesterone, and HER2-negative, which means that the cancer is a more aggressive form and more difficult to treat.
With most breast cancers, you can go on medication after treatment to help prevent further reoccurrence. With triple negative, there is no preventative treatment. The only thing that stops it is chemotherapy. My doctor also told me that the tumor is very aggressive. Thus, my doctor decided to do neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, meaning chemo BEFORE surgery. Based on the size and type of tumor, I also need a mastectomy of the right breast. My doctor wants to treat the cancer as aggressively as possible, therefore, they want to hit the tumor hard with chemo first and then see where we are in terms of surgery after the chemo. We might be able to do just a lumpectomy, if it reacts well. However, I got an MRI that same week, which showed a questionable area in the same breast. After another biopsy, I learned that this other lump was also cancerous. Then, my doctor told me that I had to have my breast removed. I have since decided to remove both breasts so I do not have to worry about this thing returning. My lymph nodes were not involved, so radiation will not be necessary, but we will know for sure after surgery.
Is there a history of breast cancer in your family? NO history; genetic testing was negative for BRCA genes, which you have probably heard about in the news pertaining to Angelina Jolie.
How is your family handling things? Kids? Sisters? Mom? Husband? My children are resilient; they have done well. My husband goes to all my treatments and has been very supportive. As for how it has affected my family, I have been receiving treatments on a bi-weekly basis, and every time I return from treatment, my kids ask if the cancer is gone. Thankfully, from the beginning my hubby has been my rock. Symptoms were worse in the beginning of my chemo treatments, but now they are more manageable because I know what to expect. However, I am anxious about missing workdays for my surgery, but I have no choice. Fortunately, at least once a week, my friends and coworkers make dinner for my family and me and later this month, they will host an Italian spaghetti dinner for my family and me. Sometimes I feel unaffected or just numb; therefore, sometimes I choose not to address my feelings or think about how I am being treated. Some have not handled my diagnosis well, thereby creating some distance; however, I am grateful for the support I do have!
Do your children understand that you have cancer and do they understand what that means? I suppose they do since they are very smart. I have tried to stay positive and maintain an optimistic outlook, but I have also explained to my children that mommy might have difficult days ahead that include some pain and tiredness.
How do you balance family, life, treatment, and work? I don’t know how I do it; it’s the God in me (not kidding), I am stronger than I knew. I have not missed work except for treatment day.
What is the hardest thing about having breast cancer? The chemotherapy. I know it is supposed to save my life, but it sucks. I still have the full range of emotions every day when I
think about how it makes me feel. The symptoms include hot flashes, low-grade nausea, tiredness, joint pain, back pain, neuropathy, and itchiness. I feel differently day-to-day; sometimes hopeful, sometimes optimistic, sometimes sad, and sometimes even angry.
Is your insurance helping? It does help; however, I have a 30% co-insurance, which equates to $55,000 out-of-pocket. I hate paying a $50 co-pay each time I visit the doctor, but it could be worse, I suppose. My breast cancer treatment is very expensive; I had no idea how expensive chemo and associated medications would be. You do not really pay attention to details until you are going through something like this yourself.
How has having breast cancer changed you or effected your life? I worry less and realize now that life is too short! I have learned so much. I have learned the value of family, friendship, laughter, and tears, too. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I learned it’s okay to be afraid and to cry (well, I think I always knew that). I’ve learned that laughter throughout this process is not only okay when you can muster it, but it actually fortifies one’s physical strength in letting this beast know you’re laughing in its face. Old friendships have been revived and new ones made. My faith has been strengthened, renewed, and enriched. Because of that unshakable faith, I know that, no matter how this turns out, in the end, I’ll be okay. I will be just fine.
Do you think about not beating the cancer at all? I do, which would mean that my daughter and stepson’s will not get to know their mom and that is not happening! Yes, I get scared when I think of the future. However, while I cannot predict whether my cancer will return, I can have hope and live life. Going through this whole cancer ordeal has given me an overwhelming desire to spend the rest of my days doing good and seeking peace.
Do you feel like people treat you differently? It might surprise you, but some of my family and friends did not respond the way I wanted them to. Some have said and done the wrong thing, not because they are unkind, but simply because they do not know how to respond. It may be because they are looking for reasons why I got breast cancer, such as diet, exercise, or other lifestyle factors. I’ve had people offer up clichés, such as “Be strong,” “Stay positive,” or “If anyone can handle this, it’s you.” Some people want to tell me stories about other people they know who have had breast cancer. Some have even started avoiding me entirely because they don’t know what to say or do. I am trying not to take any of this personally. Instead, I am focusing on family and friends who can give me the kind of support I need. I definitely know now the importance of relationships and connecting with others, and I am appreciative of that. Time spent with family and friends is definitely sweeter now, as well as more treasured. In the time I have had this cancer, people who I have just met have been better friends to me than friends I have had for years and it’s enlightening.
What three things are helping you through this battle? My husband has been with me every step of the way. He goes with me to all my appointments and holds me when I cry. He has loved me through it all. My close friends have been there for me, including my father and mother-in-law. We have had friends and coworkers make meals for us; we have also received encouraging phone calls, visits, and cards.
My support group, Beyond Boobs, has been vital in my journey. I have met many women who share their stories and encourage me. The idea that I’ll be alive to share my story and be here to raise my children helps me get through this ordeal as well.
What three things do you fear the most? Hair loss? Loss of breast? I’ve lost those things already. I was anxious about my hair. Now I’m just like, I want both breasts removed and I want to take a vacation.
Have your life goals or aspirations changed since getting breast cancer? Not really, but I do need to let my hair down and see the world! Cancer has caused me to slow down and love a little deeper. Listen a little more attentively. Look for more ways to be a blessing and an encouragement to others. It has caused me to pray for others a little more faithfully. It has enlarged my heart with a love for just about everything and squeezed out any room for negative thoughts or complaints. It has caused me to be even more expressive with my words and emotion. It has enabled me to connect with others even more deeply. It has motivated me to take better care of myself—physically, emotionally, and socially—and it has caused me to grow even stronger in my walk with God. It has given me more patience, more gratitude, more acceptance, and more mercy for others, as well as myself. It has caused me to smile more at strangers and laugh more when I am around friends.
Yes, I would have to agree that when cancer strikes, it does indeed change some things. The first thing I noticed was that it changed me. But, I have noticed a change in others around me as well. My diagnosis has caused others to be more attentive and more encouraging towards me, as well as kinder. Not a day goes by that I don’t receive a card, e-mail, or letter written to me from someone who expresses their gratitude for me and for the ways they believe I have impacted their lives.
What advice would you give newly diagnosed women? Bring a loved one to your appointments. Have them write everything down, voice record appointments, and most importantly, ask questions, questions, and more questions. When initially diagnosed, there is lots of information spouted out to you, so be prepared!
What would you tell young women 20-35 about breast cancer? It can happen to you! Regardless of your age or family history, have an annual clinical breast exam and do a monthly self-exam.
I have so many mixed emotions. There is also some peer pressure to use this experience to enrich my life, and yet, all I want to do is bury it deep and move on. I don’t want to be judged, positively or negatively, because of cancer. I don’t want my life defined by cancer, although maybe that’s an impossibility.
My plan for the future in regards to my beating cancer is changing just one component of my diet at a time, focusing first on what seems easiest to me, which is drinking more water. Maybe the super smoothies my husband makes will make their way into my diet (I’m sure he’s laughing). I plan to add some moderate exercise. I am confident that every little change is potentially helpful, and any change is better than no change. Although, I think my responses to these questions would be different a year from now, as things are not fully in perspective because my journey is not over.
In addition, did you know that younger women tend to have denser breast tissue, which makes it harder for mammograms to detect tumors? With that said, these women usually do not get annual mammograms (the American Cancer Society recommends yearly screenings beginning at the age of 40), so cases are not often caught until the woman herself notices a lump, like myself. By this time, the cancer is often more advanced, simply because you might think the lump is a blocked milk duct. Even then, you are likely to be blown off by your physician. It is common for a 28-year-old woman to show her doctor a lump, only to have him or her say, “you’re too young to have breast cancer.” Fortunately, my doctors did not write me off and reacted quickly! Thank God!
On a last note, if you want to know anything, I want to answer all your questions, so ask away!
How You Can Help
Julia’s battle is not over and she has many challenges to face along the way. We hope that she continues to remain strong and rise above this terrible disease. As her treatment will be costly, you can help by donating to her fund. The money donated will help pay her medical and daily living expenses while she is out of work due to her surgery and healing. You can donate by clicking on the following link:
Additionally, if you have any questions or comments for Julia, or you just want to show your support, feel free to leave a comment on this post and she will reply.