The Fashionista Fights Again
by Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak
In April 2007, I was a 38-year-old working mom who had just received a shocking diagnosis of stage II breast cancer. After enduring a lumpectomy and 14 months of chemo, radiation, and adjuvant therapy, my interrupted life was finally getting back on track. I was enjoying my job at a fashion company, and the book I had written about being young and fighting breast cancer was doing well. As I reached my five-year survival mark, my doctors were starting to use the other C word: cured. But life is full of surprises, extreme highs, and extreme lows, and sometimes they all occur within the same week.
My routine breast MRI was coming up, and honestly, I wasn’t even worried. For the past five years, my team of doctors had diligently checked me every six months.
A few days after the MRI, I awoke to the news that my regional newspaper had published an article about my book. That was one of the “highs.” Just one day later, however, the “low” would rear its very ugly head.
My breast surgeon called the next evening. She said the MRI showed a suspicious growth in my right breast, the same breast that had cancer five years prior. She wanted to biopsy the growth immediately.
Cancer? Again? This doesn’t happen five years later, does it? My head was spinning. I had done everything I was supposed to do. I had fought through my cancer treatments. I had adopted a healthier lifestyle; I was more conscientious of what I ate, and I exercised regularly. I was supposed to be done with cancer.
Nothing bad can happen in a shoe closet, right?
I was at work when I received the phone call with the biopsy results, the call I had been dreading. I scurried into our shoe sample closet to take the call. I needed a private place to talk. For a woman, is there a better place to be than a shoe closet? Nothing bad can happen in a shoe closet, right?
Nestled between some seriously adorable peep-toes and killer stilettos, I placed my coffee mug beside my open notepad. As soon as our hellos were out of the way, my doctor said she was sorry. She knew this was going to be very difficult for me to hear, but yes, I did have breast cancer. Again.
“Are you freaking kidding me!?” I gasped into the phone, shaking with disbelief. Eloquent, I know.
I shut the door to the shoe closet, turned the lights off, and sat on the floor for an hour. I needed time to process the information. When I eventually emerged, I decided to finish out the day at work. I had to keep busy.
Later that evening, my surgeon, Dr. Negin Griffith, and I put together a plan of action, which allowed me to feel a little more in control of this out-of-control situation. We decided my best option was an immediate double mastectomy followed by a DIEP flap reconstruction.
When I met with my oncologist, I could tell he was stunned by the news. He reviewed the reports and quickly surmised that this was not my old cancer resurfacing but a brand new cancerous growth with different properties. He agreed with my breast surgeon’s strategy of surgery first. Then, once I healed, I would start chemo. Again.
I was ready for the surgery in every way possible: physically, mentally, and emotionally. And once the 14-hour surgery was over, I awoke with a profound sense of relief. I felt like I had finally slayed the beast. I spent six weeks recovering, slowly regaining my strength and acclimating myself to my newly reconstructed breasts, flat tummy, and fresh scars, and then began my second tour of duty in Chemoland.
As my second bout with cancer comes to an end, I’m feeling good. The hardcore chemo is finished, but I will remain in treatment for the next several months. I will also undergo surgery to create my new nipples. Technically, I don’t need them, but I like to think of them as jewelry, the accessory that completes the look – and I’m all about accessorizing.
Just as I had the first time around, I continue to count my blessings. I remind myself that I got through this before and I’ll get through it again. I am now twice as fearless. I am twice as tough. I am a two-time survivor.
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Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak is a two-time breast cancer survivor and author of Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald? How a Fashionista Fought Breast Cancer with Style. Learn more about Jennifer and her book at TheFashionistaFights.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.