‘It’s rare and aggressive.’ I wanted to be aggressive right back. I wanted to survive.’: Breast cancer advocate celebrates 10 years cancer-free, ‘I’m right where I’m meant to be’

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“As a toddler, I was infatuated with drums. My best friend’s brother had a drum set in his room and my cousin did too. I looked at the sets in total and complete awe. When I was 5-years-old, I was at a music store with my mom for my brother’s guitar lesson. While waiting for him, I picked up a pair of drum sticks and begged my mom to buy them. She obliged. I hit everything in the house with the drumsticks and started pleading for an actual kit.

At around 8-years-old, I received a Sears toy drum set for Christmas and actually taught myself parts of a song or two. Finally, at age 11, my folks started me in drum lessons and bought me a real drum set. My brother and I had garage bands for several years and when I was 19, I joined my first official band and started gigging. All of this has led to a 30+ year career in drumming.

Courtesy of April Samuels

While playing in 5 bands at once, at age 34, I found a lump in my breast. I scheduled an appointment with my primary care physician, who suggested I see my gynecologist, who would later send me to a breast surgeon. They aspirated the lump and found it to be fibrocystic. It was at that time I learned I had fibrocystic breasts, something that can make it far more difficult to find breast cancer while also increasing your chances of getting it. My breast surgeon requested I begin having ultrasounds every 6 months to keep a close watch on things.

For 7 years, I had ultrasounds followed by countless aspirations and one biopsy – until July of 2010. I was at a facility for one of my standard screenings when the tech said, ‘That looks different.’ I had grown accustomed to what to expect at these biannual ultrasounds as the screen was always in view. Normally, they would find fibroid cysts that were oblong, dark in the middle, with a whitish-blue outline. This one was in fact different.

The tech called in a doctor and he took a look. He said, ‘Let’s keep an eye on this. Come back for a follow-up ultrasound in three months.’ In all honesty, I still wasn’t concerned. I had been following various lumps and bumps in my breasts for 7 years and never had an issue. In fact, my family was far more alarmed than I was at this point, asking me to have it biopsied immediately. 3 months later, I came back to have it checked again, just as the doctor had requested, only to find the tumor had grown twice in its size. They wanted me to have a biopsy right away. There was also another area they wanted to aspirate at the same time.

I was able to contact my breast surgeon and schedule a core needle biopsy within a few days. A core needle biopsy involves a needle going into your breast and chipping off a part of the tumor, which would then be tested. I remember they put the chipped off piece into a vial filled with some liquid. I asked to see it.  It was this small worm-shaped flake of flesh and I thought to myself, ‘I might be staring right at cancer.’

Seemingly a frequent theme during my journey, the results for any testing I had were destined to be delayed by the weekend. The biopsy and aspiration were conducted on a Thursday. Over the weekend, on that Sunday while lying in bed, I had a prophetic moment I heard loud and clear: ‘If you have breast cancer, you are going to be the biggest advocate in the fight against breast cancer you can be.’

Monday rolled around and the doctor’s office called. ‘We got your results and it’s all clear!’

‘Great! So, the aspiration and biopsy are clear?’ I asked. They said, ‘Oh, no this is just about the aspiration, we don’t have the biopsy result yet.’ Talk about taking the wind out of your sails.  I begrudgingly went back to waiting for the final test results.

Courtesy of Jordan Steele

The next day, Tuesday morning, October 26, 2010, at 9:00 a.m., I got the call. ‘I really can’t believe it because you are so young, but you have breast cancer. It’s triple-negative breast cancer and it’s high grade.’ I was stunned hearing the doctor’s words and quickly realized I was alone, with no one home, except for my sweet little dog. He continued, ‘Get online and learn more about triple-negative breast cancer. Just be sure you are on reputable websites. Then let’s meet on Thursday to discuss the full results from pathology.’ He continued to say much more on the call, but beyond those words, his voice faded into scrambled, unintelligible noise as my emotions took over and my mind could no longer comprehend anything else. I looked at my dog who was 12 or 13-years-old at the time and actually thought to myself, ‘She could outlive me.’

In the days leading up to my appointment with my breast surgeon, my research found triple-negative breast cancer to be very rare, aggressive, and more likely to recur. As I prepared, I made the decision to begin recording every conversation with any doctor while I fought breast cancer. I brought my best friend and my pastor to the appointment to hear the details. At one point, I asked, ‘So, I have triple-negative and that’s not something that you want? And it’s high-grade? And I have both, is that right?’ He replied: ‘That’s correct. Yes. This is what it is.’

When I asked, ‘What’s next?’ I was blessed that my surgeon gave me an array of options. I told him right then and there, just 2 days after my diagnosis: ‘I want to be aggressive right back. I want a double mastectomy with no reconstruction.’ I thought if I didn’t have breasts, it would be easier in the future to find any possible recurrence on my chest wall and harder to have breast cancer. I also didn’t want to tempt fate… I wanted to survive breast cancer. I didn’t want to have to survive multiple reconstruction surgeries that weren’t necessary for my survival.  For anyone faced with this choice, it is a very personal decision and this one was mine.

From that point, my world was turned upside down. I put my career of beating drums on indefinite hold, to focus instead on beating breast cancer. Multiple tests followed to try to determine if the cancer had spread – each test followed with an agonizing wait over the weekend before I could get results. The waiting was probably the hardest part. Thankfully, the results showed the cancer hadn’t spread any further.

By November 10, just 15 days after being diagnosed, I was on the operating table having a double mastectomy without reconstruction. Having a part of your body amputated is indescribable. Phantom pain is a real thing. I certainly learned you have a lot of muscles across your chest that are used in ways you don’t even realize. Most notably, they help in getting up from a lying position.  I spent my recovery at my parents’ home with the luxury of their adjustable bed, which proved to be a real lifesaver.

Courtesy of April Samuels

I was unable to shower for some time post-surgery, so my dad came up with a creative way to wash my hair. My parents’ home had a large island in the kitchen with a big sink. He cleared off all of the counter-space and grabbed two soft seat cushions from the back patio. He laid them on the counter in a kind of runway position to the sink. Then he helped lift me up and lay me on the counter with my head hanging in the sink so my sweet dad could wash my hair for me. It was a gesture I will always cherish.

Once I was pretty well on my way in my recovery from the mastectomy, the next step was having my chemo port put in on December 15. Port surgery is supposed to be simple. Easy peasy compared to a mastectomy, right? Not so fast. Of course, the hoopla of visitors and support was much lower for my port surgery when compared to my mastectomy, however, that would change. That night after outpatient surgery for the port, I was having some breathing problems. When I moved in certain ways, it was as if I had the wind knocked out of me. I called my surgeon to fill him in and he said, ‘I don’t want to guess at a diagnosis over the phone. The best thing to do is to go to the ER and have it checked out.’ We jumped into the car and left for the nearest hospital.

Courtesy of April Samuels

When we arrived, they did a chest x-ray. The young female doctor returned with the results. She said, ‘I’m sure when you had your port put in, they told you of the risks.’ I replied with, ‘Well, I signed a paper with a lot of small print, some of which I’m sure included various minor risks, all the way to death.’

She continued, ‘It appears during the port installation because you are small-framed, they accidentally punctured your lung and now your lung has collapsed.’ ‘I’m sorry, what?’ I said. She went on. ‘We are going to have to put a chest tube in, in order to release the air from between your chest wall and your lung, so your lung can re-expand. Then you will be admitted into the hospital while the chest tube does its job.’

My head was spinning. ‘Could this really be happening? I was just diagnosed with breast cancer, not even fully recovered from my mastectomy, and now this?’ This bump in the road would turn into 5 grueling days in the hospital with a chest tube, oxygen, IV, leg compressions, and numerous heart monitors. The pain from the chest tube was so great an IV of a substance, ten times the strength of morphine, couldn’t touch it. I had to be so drugged up each day I was in and out of pain and consciousness, complete with what felt like hangovers. Finally, my lung expanded and my 15-pound lighter-frame could go home, 5 days before Christmas.

Courtesy of April Samuels

7 days later, on December 27, I started chemotherapy – one round every 2 weeks for 4 months. After my second infusion, when I got home, I had my hair in a ponytail and pulled out the hair tie. More hair than normal came out. I then ran my fingers through my hair and even more hair came out. I did it again, and more came out. I quickly realized this was going to be a mess.

I called my friend and moved up my appointment with her to have my head shaved. I didn’t want to wait for things to get messy or for that awkward ‘do’ to form. Instead, I decided to have fun with it. I mean, how often in life do you have the chance to shave your head? My first thought, ‘MOHAWK!’ For years prior to having breast cancer, I had been dying my hair hot pink, so having a hot pink mohawk for a couple of weeks before shaving it off was super cool.

Debra Gloria Photography
Debra Gloria Photography

My last chemo infusion was on April 8, 2011.  Looking back on my chemotherapy, there were only days that were bad, not weeks. There were plenty of inconveniences and oddities – such as, neuropathy on my feet where it felt like I was walking on hot coals, heartburn, the skin on my feet peeling off, and my fingernails turning brown.  However, going through all of this was a small price to pay to LIVE.

Emotionally, losing my hair wasn’t hard, nor was losing my breasts. My goal was LIVING. Everything I did was to live, so I focused on LIVING.

Courtesy of April Samuels

I celebrated completing my chemo by going to a Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in LA and jammin’ with my childhood idols – people like Sammy Hagar, Kip Winger, and members of Dokken and Cinderella. I started gigging again and happily, fell right back into my drumming career, playing as many as 120 shows per year.

Courtesy of April Samuels

I mentioned a few days before being diagnosed I had almost a premonition about being the biggest advocate in the fight against breast cancer. Well, a few short weeks after my diagnosis, I felt the uncontrollable urge to do something. Combining my passion for drumming with my passion for fighting breast cancer, I came up with the slogan ‘Breast Cancer Can Stick It!’ Based on a vision I had, a friend came up with a cool logo and I started selling one-off shirts through an online shop to raise funds for the Dallas area’s breast cancer nonprofits. Eventually, the shirts got so popular, I started having them printed in bulk and selling them out of my car.

Courtesy of April Samuels

Then I started holding music-based events where we sold the shirts and held auctions and raffles. I was raising so much for the nonprofits I was regularly on their annual top fundraiser lists. My life-long friend and accountant took notice. Finally, in 2013, she said to me, ‘April, you are raising so much for these other nonprofits, you should really consider forming your own nonprofit. It would make much more sense.’

Courtesy of April Samuels

Initially, the thought scared me to death. I thought, ‘Start a nonprofit?  That sounds like an intense amount of work.’ I took a leap of faith and began the first of many steps to creating a nonprofit until I finally submitted the form to the IRS. 9 months later, we were approved. I was elated! We continued holding events and partnering with my bands and musician friends. In late 2013, we held our first event that featured celebrity drummers. It was a huge hit.

Debra Gloria Photography

I’ll never forget the first donation we made, directly to breast cancer research and trials in 2014, for $10,000. I couldn’t believe we raised that much money through several small music events. I had no idea that this was just the beginning.

 

Debra Gloria Photography

In early 2015, a drummer friend brought an idea to me. Back in the 1980s, he participated in an event called ‘Drummathon.’ Five to ten drummers would go door to door and ask people to sponsor them for the main event, where at a park they would pound out a drum solo for as long as they could. They did this to raise money for various nonprofits. My friend thought we might be able to learn something from their event. I thought about it and decided, instead of having a few drummers go door to door to raise funds to play a long solo, we would have a lot of drummers raise funds online to win slots to play a short solo. With more drummers and shorter solos, we could raise far more in funds.

In addition, I thought it would be incredible to invite celebrity drummers to the event and provide a time for attendees to ‘pay-to-play’ on a second drum kit alongside them. I also envisioned that day would be a family-friendly, festival-style event, complete with food trucks, live music, auctions, raffles, as well as autograph and photo booths. In our first event, with drummers from Ozzy, Dio, and Mr. Big, we were able to raise $13,000!  The idea caught on and began to grow with more drummers participating and more celebrity drummers each year.

Brandi McComb Photography

In 2016 we raised $26,000. In 2017 we increased to $35,000, and from 2018 on, we’ve raised over $55,000 each year! In 2020, we reimagined Drummathon as an online event with celebrity drum solos, top fundraiser solos, band performances, eBay auctions, online merchandise sales, as well as interviews with breast cancer survivors and celebrity drummers – including drummers from some of the biggest acts in music such as Ariana Grande, Styx, Poison, Korn, and many others. Even as an online event during this pandemic, we were able to raise over $55,000. Drummathon is no doubt our largest annual event, however, we continue to raise funds year-round through various events and merchandise sales.

Brandi McComb Photography
Debra Gloria Photography

This year, we expanded our outreach and started a breast cancer survivor group on Facebook, a ‘Survivors Rock! – Breast Cancer Can Stick It!’ community. Here, survivors can share their experiences in a safe place and provide hope, love, and support to one another.

Debra Gloria Photography

Since our first donation of $10,000 in 2014, we have exploded by raising a total of $160,000 for research and trials, and our impact doesn’t stop there! We also started an initiative to fund mammograms for uninsured/underinsured individuals and have raised $60,000 so far!

And in 2017, we started a very special fund honoring a friend of mine, Dahlia Garcia, who lost her battle with triple-negative breast cancer. ‘Dahlia’s Breast Cancer Can Stick It!’ provides financial assistance for breast cancer treatment, and we’ve raised over $65,000 for her fund. In all, we have raised nearly $300,000 in the fight against breast cancer and we are just getting started.

Debra Gloria Photography

Our organization has been celebrated by numerous celebrities and corporate partners. It has even been featured on Lay’s potato chip bags and in Ford Motor Company radio commercials. We have an 11-member board, and five committees dedicated to various events and projects. We are a 100% volunteer-based organization and everyone contributes out of love and passion for our common goal – to fight breast cancer.

Debra Gloria Photography

On November 10, 2020, I celebrated 10 years breast cancer-free. I look back on this journey and think about how breast cancer led me to my life’s purpose. Although my journey through breast cancer was difficult, I was constantly drawn to find light in the darkness, through faith and hope. I have met so many amazing people along the way and I am proud to play a small part in making a difference in this fight against breast cancer. I’m right where I was meant to be.”

Debra Gloria Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by April Samuels from Dallas, Texas. You can follow her journey on her Website, TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube  for our best videos.

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