Annual OB Appointment
“The year of 2021 was definitely my most challenging yet. My husband and I had finally decided we were going to seriously try to have a baby – my annual OB exam is usually in the beginning of the year, so away to that I went. My OB is lovely. When doing breast exams, she has almost always said something noting my ‘dense breast tissue.’ I swear if I hear those words ever, I cringe. Dense breasts. Great. Go me!
From my annual appointment, my OB ordered a mammogram, which I fully intended on just meh’ing and putting to the side. The doctor didn’t seem insanely worried, because after the pelvic and breast exam, she started talking to me about a schedule to work out with my husband so we could conceive. I truly walked out of that office that day, and I will note I did not think about having cancer at all. I didn’t have cancer, c’mon. I’ll get that mammogram in a few months when it’s more convenient.
Skip ahead 2 weeks. My mother calls me with distressing news. Her doctors have found Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer that has already spread to her bones. You see, there’s a back story. My mom had already beaten cancer. She had liver cancer in 2019, and due to that and some unfortunate circumstances, my own mother could not attend my wedding. Instead she was in a hospital with an infection from leaving the hospital too early from her surgery. The doctors wanted her to stay, she wanted to go. So yay, the happy memory of my wedding day will always be shadowed by the fact my mom couldn’t be there for me on the one day when I needed her.
Ok, back to 2021. Sorry.
Getting The Mammogram
Since my mom’s second cancer diagnosis, and from urging from my husband to go get my mammogram, I went. I hugged the stupid, ugly, huge, uncomfortable machine that squashed my boob. Two angles. Okay, then I go back and sit in the waiting room in my awful gown. Waiting… waiting. A nurse comes out to get me saying they need additional images. Uh oh. This time they squished even more and did an angle from the top to the bottom. Okay, what now?
Along with the mammogram, they also ordered a sonogram. I am always intrigued by the machines, so I watched everything the technician did while she was scanning my breasts. The intrigue distracted me from the anxiety.
There’s a lump. They found it. It’s there, in my left breast. I just remember asking the nurse to go get my husband (who thankfully came with me because I was scared). I legit had no idea how the nurse was going to find my husband amongst the sea of masked people in the waiting room, but whatever, she found him. He came back and comforted me as I cried and thought of the absolute worst possible thing that could happen.
So for me, as of then, it was ‘just a lump.’ They needed to do a biopsy. That was maybe one of the worst parts of the diagnostics. Lying on my belly in an uncomfortable machine, my boobs just put where they need to be positioned, and then what felt and sounded like DRILLING into my breast tissue. All I could see was the table I was lying on… and there it was. I had a silent panic attack – I started to cry, but then was able to compose myself. MRI machines are not my fave, but then again, I’m not sure anyone is waking up in the morning and saying, ‘Ya know, I would really enjoy being stuffed into a tube and listening to terrible ping ponggggs for 45 mins.’ Even through earplugs, all I could do was think the worst – my brain is my worst enemy.
I just remember singing to myself (this was a tip a work friend gave me). ‘Go in with a song, and sing it to yourself.’ And I did exactly that – ‘Never Ending Circles’ by CHVRCHES.
‘Here’s to taking what you came for
And here’s to running off the pain.’
Mom’s Cancer Treatment
On April 14, 2021, I went along with my mother to her oncologist appointment to go over the course of treatment. So, to explain the timeline, I was going over my mother’s course of cancer treatment, all while I have in my own head the anxieties of my ‘lump.’ I had the biopsies and I was just waiting for results to see if cancer was confirmed. So I’m listening to all of these cancer conversations about HER cancer, and I’m terrified I might just have the same conversation with my own doctor soon. Still, the focus was on her; I took notes and recorded the conversation.
My mother’s disease had already spread to her bones, so the only course of action was to treat the symptoms and maybe medications to slow the cancer growth. [Update: As of last month, Mom’s cancer is at bay, and she’s doing well on medication.] Fast forward a few days. I was just sitting at work (at the time, I was an Accessories Design Director for a company in Midtown). I get a call from a number out east – a Suffolk number, so I knew it was probably the biopsy place with results – and in a matter of 10-15 seconds, my life changed.
Nothing prepares you for it. ‘I’m sorry, Ms. Salerno, your results came back as cancer.’ Enter panic attack. It was around mid-afternoon, so luckily I did not have to be tortured at the office for much longer. I’ll never forget that day, or what I wore. I felt broken.
Keep in mind, I only found this cancer because we wanted a baby, and my OB was being thorough with me. I would have never even gone to the appointment or the mammogram if my mother did not get the diagnosis A WEEK BEFORE MINE. I had such bad survivor’s guilt. My mom’s cancer had metastasized, so she wasn’t a candidate for chemotherapy. I am able to fight my cancer, while my mom isn’t. It didn’t seem right or fair. Which goes to show you EARLY DETECTION IS KEY.
Needless to say, having babies naturally was no longer an option. We postponed any type of treatment for my cancer until we were able to freeze some successful embryos. But sadly, it didn’t work out for us. I went in for 2 rounds of IVF, the drugs suck, they didn’t lie about that. All of the poking and prodding, and vaginal sonograms and bruises and appointments, and then both rounds of IVF totally fail. None of our embryos lived past 3 days. And I just remember calling my husband after getting the news and feeling like someone had punched me in the gut. It really felt like I had lost a baby that had never even been. To me, I lost 6 babies that month. I just felt like a failure at the time, like my body was betraying me. But I persevered.
We all felt what Covid did to us; some of us complained, some of us picked up hobbies. I started a small jewelry business. The beading kept my mind busy. I didn’t think, I only saw color, saw design. Beading was a big part of me being able to get through this in the beginning. I found an amazing community on IG – so much love and support out there I didn’t even ask for. I am so grateful to the jewelry community on Instagram.
I had my first chemo treatment on July 7, 2021. It was an evening appointment, the chemo infusion suite was generally pretty nice, clean, and comfortable – heated blankets, yay! I went in feeling scared, but brave. My nurse, Jackie, was such a sweetheart. She took care of me so well. First they hooked my hand up to the IV (Ugh, please get a port. I wish I had just done it, it would have saved me SOOOOO MUCH GRIEF TO JUST HAVE A PORT, being poked 3-4 times for a vein. It just sucks and it’s mentally draining.) Then they started administering fluids as well as Benadryl, which was nice! It gave me a ‘buzz.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this feels great! Let’s do this!’
Jackie hooks up another baggie of liquid poison – Taxol. Okay. I got this. No prob.
Five minutes into the infusion, Jackie asks me, ‘How are you feeling, Amanda?’ I kid you not, 3 seconds later, I felt an awful, sinking, burning sensation in my chest. The pain shot up my chest, throat, and face. I had thrush, sweated profusely, and my heated blankets were soaked in my sweat. My heart rate was everywhere except where it was supposed to be.
I just remember Jackie telling me not to be scared because she was about to sound an alarm. Within 5 seconds, nurses at MSK Nassau – like all of them – appeared in my treatment suite. Two of them were lifting up my legs, one was holding a barf bag, water, ice, etc. This is too much information, and I apologize, but I was so allergic to Taxol that I had literally every reaction and then some. I had to pee, throw up, and had to do a number 2. I think I traumatized Jackie that night. Amazingly, after visiting the bathroom and REFUSING they bring a commode to the room, I felt better.
Obviously Taxol was not an option for me, during my close call; the nurse told me we would have to switch the drug. But all I can remember is asking her if she thought my insurance would cover it. I’m sweating, crying, vomiting, having a heart attack… yet my first worry is health coverage.
I received 2 other drugs that night and went home; they insisted they wheel me out in a chair. I am so glad I opted to go to chemo alone; I am glad my husband did not see me like that. For me, chemo has been a solo act – I don’t wanna worry about someone else being entertained while I’m getting poison injected into me.
On October 22, 2021, I opted to have BOTH of my breasts amputated. I use the word amputate because I feel like saying the medical term ‘mastectomy’ doesn’t hit hard enough. Though my cancer was only in my left breast, my other breast had calcifications, and honestly, I just wanted them gone. I wanted to avoid future cancers if I could. But two pieces of my body were removed that day. I never understood how much I identified my breasts as a part of who I was – if that sounds correct.
Losing my breasts and my nipples was tremendously hard. And this was definitely something I did not think about before I went into surgery. I was THAT girl – ‘I’ll get a free boob job out of it. My saggy boobs will be gone!’ Trust me. I would take my saggy old boobs to live a cancer free life every day. This is your reminder you only get one body; you should be thankful and grateful for it, while treating it as well as you can.
During my surgery, the doctor put in tissue expanders in preparation for reconstruction. Every two weeks, I would go to have them filled with saline with Emily – ‘the titty whisperer,’ as I coined her. I saw her for weeks – tits out, saline in, go home, rinse, repeat. I had expanders in my chest from October to January, and it was HARD. I grew to hate the expanders and wished my surgeon could have taken them out earlier.
I am still trying to decide which part of this surgery was worse: the expanders and how they felt in my chest, or the terrible drains. I couldn’t change them at first; bless my husband Nick for changing them for me in the beginning. I went to change them myself once, saw the blood, and passed out in our kitchen.
In January of 2022, my expanders were exchanged for silicone breast implants. Back then, all I saw in the mirror was ‘mangled Barbie boobs’ – no nipples, rippling. I am seeking a revision to amend these problems with some fat grafting.
Now, I look in the mirror, and while my boobs are gone and I have these new things in their place, I am easier on myself. I am proud of my body. I am grateful I had the strength and support system to battle on. [Game-changer on the reconstruction was nipple tattoos!!]
There were many bad days, bad nights. Dark journal entries. But in the end, I’m getting through it – and I’m here. I’m alive. And I am DEFINITELY that loud lady running around the cancer center just trying get through it with a smile on my face, and if I end up putting a smile on yours too, then win/win.
I’ve undergone 3 rounds of treatment, one of which is called the ‘red devil…’ Ya, that sounds friendly, sign me up. I should be done with chemo later this year. I am now over a year into my battle. Four more infusions left, and hopefully I will be home free. I just gotta get there! I’m working on it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amanda Salerno of New York. You can follow her journey on her Instagram or her Jewelry Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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