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My mother had breast cancer and a single mastectomy in the early 1970s. So it came as no surprise to me that I was, a decade ago, diagnosed with cancer in my left breast and had a lumpectomy. It seemed to me no big deal. In a way, I was expecting it. And I have been rigorous about seeing my breast surgeon every year since then, having a mammogram.
I survived for ten years without being challenged again. After a decade, it leaves the forefront of your mind, and of course, your life goes on. I’m not sure I had expectations of it occurring again. It did. I felt a lump on my right breast at that point. It was definitely cancer. So that was another lumpectomy on my right breast. At that point, I also discovered a few little possible cancers in my left breast. So doing the lumpectomy on the right, they also did needle biopsies on my left. When the tests came back, I would say approximately ten days after surgery, it was discovered that on my left breast as well, those were cancerous. In September of 2002, I had to make the decision of where I went from there.
It really wasn’t a decision to have a double mastectomy. They told me, if I chose this, what would happen; if I chose that, what would happen. They were very clear. It seemed that there could be only one response to what they presented me, and that would be to have a double mastectomy. I wasn’t very informed. So it’s important to be very, very well informed before you go into a panic mode, which in a way, you do. Your mind turns off, and you see the Big C in your face, and you’re now having a double mastectomy. And I realized that the Big C wasn’t my cup size anymore. It was cancer, and it echoes and clouds your ability to be rational and think.
When I had the surgery, I had this image of waking up and having beautiful new breasts. I thought the technology had come along that far and the next morning, you have these perfect breasts. You name it, and you get it. The breast surgeon checked me, and looked at my butt, upper back, and stomach and said, “Well, you don’t have enough fat on your body to create two breasts, nevertheless one, so you can’t have that new revolutionary method. You have to have expanders.” I didn’t know anything about expanders, which was very remiss on my part not to have researched what the expanders were. I actually did think that they had gone past implants. I never thought that I was so fit or that I couldn’t have this process. I was very baffled that I could be too fit or too thin.
I remember what my mother looked like after a mastectomy without replacement implants, and how terrible the scars looked. She looked like she had a terrible chop job; not any sensitivity to the scars or how she looked. I didn’t recognize that breast plastic surgery had come forward enough from the early 70s for your scars on your chest to look much, much better and much easier to deal with personally. When you wake up every morning and brush your teeth in front of the mirror, it wasn’t going to be this scary monster. But I wasn’t thinking clearly to even ask. So whatever it was, I wanted it. I said, “Let’s put the expanders in.” However, I’ve since discovered by asking my husband, who was even in the room, that it was never mentioned that once you decide to have expanders put in, that if you’re on chemo, you cannot have the implants until three months after the end of chemo.
However, not even knowing at that point that I would be on chemo for eighteen months, that meant virtually twenty-one months from that day, the implant of the expanders, that I would even get an implant and surgery to take them out. I think that’s a very important fact to have known. I don’t know if in my irrational mode, I would have thought of that as terrible or not. It was pretty tortuous to have expanders. It was every week or every two weeks that I had to expand the tissue and the muscles in the cavity area. So that eventually, I could accept the implant.
When I had expanders, I always wanted to know whether it was normal to feel like I’m in this cage. It was so tight that I felt like I could hardly take a deep breath in. It was so restricting and uncomfortable. I could hardly sleep at night; it was so painful. It just became more and more excruciating to the point where I asked the doctor, “What are you doing? I only want to be an A or a B cup now, and I’m looking like Dolly Parton. This is crazy.” And he said, “We have to really expand your tissue, so it’s comfortable for you when you get your insert.” I said, “Can I see this insert again?” He took up this thing and it was so big I said, “That’s huge! I want to be between an A or B.” And he said, “This is all we have. We don’t have anything smaller.” So if you want small boobs, forget the implants. I realized, of course, I probably did have enough fat in my body if he had truly imagined that I really did want small boobs. I ended up having my expanders removed because of infection.
I am proud of my scars. I’m proud to be walking around at all. So these things mean nothing really to me. What am I hiding from? And if I hide, I can’t present myself as who I found I am. I am not only proud to be a survivor and meet this challenge, but I am proud to be here. Every day, I’m proud to be here and happy. Happier every day.
Within five or six months of having the double mastectomy, I started having these seizures. I was told I had brain cancer. When the neurologist looks at you in the eye and says, “You have brain cancer,” a whole other world opens up, and it’s much more fearful to me than breast cancer, because my mother had it and she survived and life went on. But brain cancer was like, “Whoa.” She said, “You have the most aggressive brain cancer there is, and it’s a glioblastoma.”
So the cure, really, is what I call East meets West. First of all, the doctors at my treatment center entering from the West are the most amazing doctors to have in my opinion. I think every woman or man who confronts cancer has to have tremendous belief in the doctors that are there to help them. I feel it’s extremely important to put that faith and hope in your doctors who are there to save your life. You must make sure that you have that feeling about them.
The West side was covered, so I needed men in from the East because I have a bent for Eastern philosophy. It was very important for me to go back to that. I approached from the East with yoga. I knew that yoga was going to be an extraordinary way for me to really empower myself, and find my strength and core. And to connect my mind, body and soul. I also practice meditation daily, because yoga and meditation go hand in hand. So those two things immediately were within the aspect of coming in from the East. In this awareness, came acupuncture, which I had practiced regularly from the 70s when I was so strongly into the Eastern philosophies. I had somehow let this slip. I went back to acupuncture in a very regular way. A new thing for me was cranial-sacral work, which I’m not sure I ever really trusted, but I did discover that it does a movement of energy through my body that I recognized and utilized. I would say those were primary in my health and ability to live a longer and happier life.
The other component was really believing in myself, and my personal contribution to meeting these challenges. That’s where Lance has come in so strongly, as someone who has created challenges. For now, being here, I’ve met a new challenge for me and enjoyed every moment.
I do feel transformed and awakened by cancer. I have never truly felt so wonderful. I feel that I needed to be bopped over the head and breast cancer didn’t really do it for me, so I needed to have brain cancer. I feel like I chose it, and I needed it. I’ve certainly chosen a different journey than I would have if cancer hadn’t come to meet me. Now I have cancer by my side, and it’s made me aware of my mortality and not afraid of it. I breathe every day in with a different, totally transformed and different level of appreciation of life. It is wildly great.
My name is Lynn Kohlman, and I am a breast and brain cancer survivor.