A creative reflects on how battling cancer changed her perspective on life.
From a young age, I was taught the importance of taking care of myself. When I was a teenager, my father gave me monetary incentives to not smoke. While it was nice to have that extra cash in my pocket, I’ve never had an interest in picking up unhealthy habits that would harm my body. Beyond that, I am a very active individual. Throughout my childhood, high school, and college career, I have been an athlete. I was a sprint-and-hurdle-focused track star, gymnast, and springboard diver. I continue to dive today, and I enjoy running and going to acrobatic classes to keep up my tumbling skills.
Professionally, I’m the Founder and Creative Director of Mokuyobi, a “Made in the USA” backpack and accessories brand with a focus on high-quality, practical silhouettes with exciting and fun colored block-and-print designs. I started the company in 2006 when I was 19. Eleven years later, I’m proud to have grown my business every year, hired four employees, and recently moved into a larger headquarter. I was able to turn my love of creating products into a profession I’m proud to work hard at every day.
One day, in April of 2016, I noticed a weird marble-like mass in my left breast. It was clearly visible and wasn’t something I remembered ever being there. I went to my doctor and asked her if this was something I should be concerned about. She sent me immediately to get an ultrasound, which quickly turned into a biopsy on the questionable area.
I received a call a few days later from the breast center saying that the test was malignant. I could not believe what I was hearing. How could someone who doesn’t drink or smoke, and is focused on being active get breast cancer at the age of 28? I have no family history of breast cancer. To be absolutely certain, I had my blood drawn for a BRCA gene test. My test results showed that I had no mutation in these genes, rendering the cause of cancer to be even more mysterious.
The next several months were filled with constant appointments with a plethora of doctors: breast surgeons, plastic surgeons, and oncologists. The type of cancer I had, DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ), is a non-invasive cancer where the affected cells are found only in the lining of the breast’s milk ducts, where they’re contained. The doctors explained the various treatment options, ranging from breast conservation via a lumpectomy combined with radiation therapy to a more radical bilateral mastectomy. After weighing all the options and the associated benefits and risks of each, I decided on having a single mastectomy with reconstruction on the affected left breast.
I had my surgery in July and felt extremely calm going in. I was preparing an Instagram post just moments before the anesthesiologist brought me into the operating room. The procedure would remove all of my left breast tissue—plus two lymph nodes in my left armpit to ensure the cancer hadn’t spread. We also had to insert a temporary expander underneath my chest muscle to hold it in place, which would slowly be filled up over the next months to match my other side. Once everything looked good, I would have another surgery to swap the expander for a permanent breast implant.
I am and always have been very self-motivated. After my first surgery, I was eager to get back to work immediately and was convinced I would be able to at least get computer work done. I was wrong. The pain medicine prescribed to me made me extremely drowsy and gave me intense headaches. I decided to stop taking them and stick to over-the-counter remedies, but controlling the pain was more difficult this way.
I was in no condition to do any work. Two painful and annoying post-surgical drainage tubes that coiled around the expander and came out of the side of my body made things complicated. Each had a little palm size bulb at the end that collected excess fluid and needed to be emptied multiple times a day.
After a week, it was a relief to have one of the tubes removed. I was so excited! I felt pretty good and spent a few hours working on my computer. Later that evening, the nerves where the tube had been started to wake up and send some alarming messages to my brain. I was in so much pain that I ended up going to the Emergency Room, where surgeons were eventually able to bring the pain back down to a manageable level. After that, I tried to take it easy so as to not upset my body, and the next week, I was thrilled when my second drainage tube was finally removed.
Slowly, I was able to start some very light stretching to get my shoulder flexibility back, doing extremely simple movements that I could have done in my sleep before all of this. Eventually, I was able to begin physical therapy and resumed a modified work schedule.
Meanwhile, I was going to the doctor every two weeks to get my expander inflated. Once it was filled to my natural size, my second surgery was scheduled for October to remove the expander and replace it with an implant. This surgery was more of a mental step back than a physical step back since I had to start all over with the recovery process (though fortunately without drainage tubes this time) and wait a month before I could resume physical therapy. Having the implant felt a thousand times more natural and comfortable than the expander, which had hard plastic around the edges to keep it in place.
The surgery went great, and I was able to hop back on the road to recovery pretty quickly after avoiding small limitations in the beginning. I have since resumed physical therapy and made a new goal for myself to be stronger and more flexible than I was before. My entire left breast and the surrounding area is still completely numb. It’s possible that some more feeling could return in 6 to 12 months, but it’s not guaranteed.
Being out of commission for over seven months definitely took a toll on my business. Before my first surgery, I rushed to design and sew samples for Mokuyobi’s entire spring line of 16 bags and six hats within a month. With the lost time, I have a lot of catching up to do. Losing that time has also made me realize how much I love what I do and that I didn’t enjoy being forced to take a break from it. Now that I am able to focus my energy on working again, I plan to make my business great!
This whole experience has taught me to never forget what I knew as a child—that self-care is paramount. Now, I’m able to see the bigger picture. Life is not only about being passionate and working hard for what you want, but it’s also about being good to yourself and including mandatory “me-time” on the to-do list. Sit on your couch, watch TV, hang out with your cat, doodle in a sketchbook with no agenda, exercise, and never go a day without eating a vegetable. Don’t take for granted the amazing tool that is your body and what it is capable of. Life is a balance. Push yourself hard, but take the time to listen even harder to the needs of your body and yourself. You can work yourself to the bone day in and day out, but why not give yourself the option to enjoy everything and stick around a bit longer?
Originally story from UNDO Magazine 6
Title: Recognition In Recovery
Written by Julie Pinzur
Photos by Brandon Haynes