My name is Amanda Hicks, I'm 36 and a breast cancer survivor. I never realized how much my life would change. I woke up Sunday morning on July 24, 2016 with blood on my shirt. I immediately did a self exam and found a lump. I had just started a new job a few weeks prior and was in the process of finding new doctors. The next morning I found an obgyn and explained what I found. The doctor immediately scheduled me for my first mammogram and ultrasound of my breasts. Two days later I had to do two biopsies. Waiting on the results felt like forever especially since I had to wait until Monday to get the results. I remember going to get my results and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had breast cancer stage 2 and it was very aggressive. I was devastated at first but I was determined to beat this because I have a son who's depending on me. I had 3 lymph nodes removed and they were negative. I started chemotherapy and it made me so sick. I decided to stop and have surgery. October 5, 2016 I had a double mastectomy and still had to finish my chemotherapy. I finally finished chemotherapy on January 12, 2017. I had reconstructive surgery March 1, 2017. A friend of mine introduced me to Chantelle, the founder of the Pink Angels. I was so grateful to meet her because I felt alone although my family and friends were supporting me. I needed someone who truly understood how I was feeling and could give me advice on the next steps in my journey. The Pink Angels Foundation is the best thing that happened to me. As my journey continues I will continue to fight. I want to encourage others that if I can do they can too!
Breast cancer were the last words I expected to hear. I knew something was wrong, but CANCER…I was shocked and scared; very, very scared.
My story begins in late winter 2010. I started having some drainage from the nipple of my left breast. It was, clear and sticky, and I first noticed it because my bra was damp and sticking to me. My first thought was to calculate my last menstrual cycle…with each of my four pregnancies, I would experience early lactation, it was a sign that I remembered. After checking my calendar and realizing that couldn’t be it, I initially shrugged it off for a couple of weeks until my nipple would start itching. It was weird because they would only itch when I would wash them in a shower or bath. I went to see my doctor who diagnosed me with a yeast infection, I questioned her: “How can it be a yeast infection”? I asked. She explained that my symptoms were a sign to her that there was some type of infection, she prescribed a topical cream and scheduled me to follow up in 7 days.
On my return visit, I told her the cream helped, and that my nipple was fine until I bathed or showered. My nipple, once wet, would start to drain again. I didn’t have any other symptoms, so she prescribed a pill form of an antibiotic and wanted me to return in about a week. The pill didn’t clear up the drainage so she scheduled me to see a doctor at St. Mary’s. The doctor I saw was a general surgeon, and couldn’t help me, he was puzzled about why I was sent to him, but he did send me to have a mammogram ‘since I was there’...I was 34, and there was no medical history that caused major concern, but his thought was that he would be able to see if there was something causing the drainage. As he expected the mammogram didn’t show anything concerning, he just said that my breast tissue was dense which was common in women of my age. There was one area a little denser than the rest of my breast tissue, but from the looks of it there wasn’t anything concerning to him. He sent me back to my primary care physician with a referral to repeat the mammogram in six months.
Fast forward to late spring 2011, my oldest daughter was graduating 8th grade and preparing for high school. I was still having the drainage but now I also had an occasional sharp pain that would start in my nipple and spread throughout my left breast. I was frustrated that my Dr. couldn’t help or give me any guidance. It was at this point that I talked to my older sister for the first time about what was going on. My sister is a nurse, and I asked her what I should do. She told me to contact the breast health center at Siteman Cancer Center. The next day I called and I spoke with a very pleasant lady that listened to me and my concerns. She scheduled me to come in the following week and told me what I would need to bring and what I would need to do in preparation for my appointment. I went to my first appointment which was supposed to last an hour, and three hours later I had an appointment to come back in three days for a biopsy.
“I don’t want you to worry, but there are a couple of areas that we need to look at more closely”, is what the breast specialist and surgeon said. This was after having a mammogram and ultrasound. I began to feel uneasy, after the ultrasound technician left and came back with a resident doctor, and then the resident left and came back with a fellow. “We need to remove some of your breast tissue [biopsy] to have a better look at what is going on”, again from the breast specialist and surgeon. She continued to explain the reason a biopsy was necessary and she asked me a few more questions about my drainage. Before I left, she did a test of my drainage on a piece of paper that she likened to chromatography paper, in that if blood was detected in my drainage the paper would change color to indicate that there may be cancer present.
The drainage from my breast was not continuous but it was consistent. Meaning, I would have some drainage every day, but the amount of drainage would vary but never more than ½ teaspoon a day. She swabbed my breast and put what drainage she was able to collect on the paper. The color of the paper did not change, so she said that was promising and that the biopsy would confirm what was going on and what my next steps to clear up the drainage would be. The nurse gave me information to take home and read to prepare for the procedure.
The biopsy itself wasn’t painful, I felt more of a pinch due to them numbing my breast prior to the procedure, but my breast was sore for a couple of days afterwards. I remember reexamining my breast in the shower that night as I had every month when it was time for my self breast exam. This time however, I could actually feel a very small knot in the tissue. It was so small that if it had not been for the biopsy and knowing from it the areas of concern, I would not have noticed it. This was the first day of many that I cried. I was scared…that night I couldn’t sleep I tossed and turned and was anxious about what the results would mean for me. I was telling myself it wasn’t cancer, I was young and didn’t have any risk factors…it had to be a cyst.
Two days later, the call came. My cell phone had been in the bottom of my purse and when I pulled it out I noticed I had two missed calls from the doctor’s office. Just as I got ready to check my messages, she called again. It was my doctor’s secretary and she said the doctor needed to talk to me; she put me on a brief hold and then my doctor was on the line. We exchanged pleasantries and I remember her asking me if I was alone. I told her “no my husband is here”…at this point my heart was beating so hard that I could hardly hear anything she was saying. ‘We have the results of the biopsy, and it has been confirmed that you have breast cancer…’ I couldn’t digest anything else, I called for my husband, and she finished the conversation with him. I knew I would have to call her back, Demond said she wanted me to come see her in the next day or two to discuss my options.
My immediate thoughts went to my husband, children, and the rest of my family. We had just buried my grandmother and my mom was still grieving her loss. It was so hard for me to have to tell her my news. But from the start, like every moment in my life, good and bad, I had the love and support of all my family and closest friends. Initially, it was too much for me to process, after telling my mom, sisters and brother, and children, I needed a few days to process before I talked to anyone else.
We went to my doctor’s appointment, my surgeon told me to bring as many people as I feel I needed to have there, so it was me, my husband, my mom and two sisters. She was very patient, and explained what the course of action would be for my situation. Leaving her office, I knew that I would have to have my left breast removed. I had cancer in two areas of my breast, and in each area the cancer was different. I had invasive ductal carcinoma and ductal carcinoma in situ. The invasive cancer was toward the side of my breast and there was some concern of lymph node involvement because it was beginning to spread outside of the duct.
Over the next month and a half I felt as if I lived at one doctor’s office or another. I met which my reconstructive surgeon, potential radiologist (pending the outcome of surgery pathology) and my medical oncologist. During this time I had a lot of heart to heart conversations with God and my family. This was new to all of us and even though I feel like I had the most amazing team of doctors and nurses I still felt so uncertain about what to do and what the future would hold. I prayed constantly but I was still worried and scared; and let me tell you what, that is absolutely ok and totally normal! It is human nature to be worried and scared when you are facing a life altering event. I will say now, it is so important to allow yourself to feel every emotion, cry when you want, scream when you want. Find someone to talk to that is so important! I began to work on accepting things as they were and teaching myself to be okay with just taking it one day at a time which was very hard for me. I am a planner and I like to feel like I am in control of things. This was outside of my control, I could do things to manage my emotional health, but physically, I had to accept that things would get worse before they got better. This is not giving up, but changing my outlook and behaviors in dealing with this new, unplanned part of my life.
In August of 2011, I had a bilateral mastectomy with a tram flap reconstruction. The right breast mastectomy was considered prophylactic (safety measure) because preliminary testing did not find any disease in the right breast. My surgery took about 5 hours and I was in the hospital for a week. When I went home, I had 4 drains, a hospital bed, and was using a walker to get around. This was necessary because I had to walk hunched over for a couple of weeks to allow for my incisions to heal from the inside out.
My first testimony is that I made it out of surgery and the doctor said they were able to remove all the cancer! My second is I am glad I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy. I got the call from my surgeon that the full pathology was back and there were signs of very early stage cancer in my right breast!
I started chemotherapy in September of 2011. Chemo was rough, really rough! But I must say I was pretty prepared on what to expect. Also, I am so thankful that I had a port placed. My veins are very small and hard to find by nature. Without the port, I don’t think I would have made it through the treatments. My oncologist was and is amazing! He was on point with everything, his timelines for me to begin experiencing the effects of the chemo drugs were dead on. The only side effect that I didn’t experience was nausea and vomiting. I had severe diarrhea that started about 48 hours after chemo and lasted for about 5 days. No matter what I ate, I would have diarrhea. Everything tasted like metal for two weeks after chemo. I would start to regain my sense of taste just in time to go back for the next round of chemo. and by early October I started losing my hair. A little over half way into my treatments I lost my fingernails and toenails. The scars from my surgery were healing well, and I remember being shocked and very sad the first time I looked at my ‘new’ breast. I didn’t have nipples anymore, and I didn’t have any feeling or sensation in my breast. All this was explained to me very well, but it just didn’t register or feel real until I saw them for the first time…it’s a feeling I still can’t explain, and it still makes me very sad even now, six years later.
I started radiation in late January 2012 and was also continuing to have herceptin treatments every three weeks. Again, my radiologist explained all the potential effects of radiation on my body. My biggest issue with radiation was fatigue, which started about a week into the daily treatments. As for my skin, I did well and made it over half way through the treatments before I started to have issues with burning, peeling and tightness. I started moisturizing my skin before radiation started as suggested by my oncologist and mother in law who was a nurse in interventional radiology. I used aquaphor and aloe. The aloe was very helpful in soothing my irritated skin.
I am proud to share my story with you all. I am a 5 year survivor; every year on July 7th I recognize the day my life changed forever. Every year on August 18, I celebrate the day that cancer was taken from my body and the day I knew I would share my story with whoever would listen, in hopes that I would be an educator for women in the fight against this deadly disease.
If there was one thing I want those that read my story to remember it is to always take charge of your health! No one knows your body like you do. If something doesn't feel right, and you aren’t getting the answers you want from one doctor, move on until you find someone that will listen. This is your life!