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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: A Letter From P4 Founder and CEO Shelley Winslow

I really wanted to do this for a few reasons. One, I don’t want women to wait for answers; it’s important to try to find them yourself. Two, breast cancer awareness is personal to me. And three, if I had a voice strong enough to reach every woman who is battling breast cancer, I would say, I am so very sorry. You’re beautiful, your courage amazes me, and your strength empowers me and gives me hope. I may not know you personally, and our cancer battles may not be the same, but my love, thoughts, prayers and positive energy go out to all of us who are fighting this awful battle.

My Diagnosis

I’m 42 years old, and in the best shape of my life – just very seriously committed to training for the past five years. I eat healthy, and I live a healthy lifestyle. I’ve had mammograms for seven years and never had an issue. In fact, in April 2015 I had a routine mammogram that was fine.

In June I found a small lump in the top of my breast that was (maybe) the size of an eraser head. I was due for my annual gynecological exam, so I brought it up. My doctor’s really good about believing that women are in touch with their bodies; he said he wasn’t overly concerned about it but wrote me a prescription for a diagnostic mammogram.

In July, I stood there undressed from the waist-up while the tech marked the spot I’d found with a metal marker. She took four to five images, but couldn’t detect anything with the mammogram. I sat in the facility and watched all the other 20 women in their gowns leave one by one before they called me back. We need to do an ultrasound,they said. They just couldn’t find the lump on the mammogram. After reviewing the ultrasound images, they called me into a private room in the back with a couple specialty nurses to tell me they needed a core needle biopsy. The lesion was solid (not fluid-filled).

At the end of July, they performed my biopsy. Without anesthesia, I laid down while they took a long hollow needle and used a trigger mechanism to shoot into the lesion, and pop out a sample. The radiologist wasn’t concerned either because it was soft and movable.

But the first week in August around 2pm, my results were in. I answered the call. “Well kiddo, we got a little more work to do”, my doctor said. I was thinking they needed another biopsy. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s breast cancer.”

I remember my heart was pounding so hard, I couldn’t hear him. I turned around and saw my kids playing, and I started to shake. I sat down against the wall and wrote down the diagnosis: Invasive ductile carcinoma estrogen positive. Like 30% of cases, my cancer was invisible to a mammogram. I hung up the phone and took twenty minutes. Twenty minutes to cry, look at my kids, take a deep breath and get on the phone to schedule my appointment with the surgeon. Life had to go on.

In the meantime an old schoolmate of mine saw a nondescript post about my diagnosis on my Facebook page. And – one of the best things ever – she offered to come over and talk with me because she had just been through this. For six hours, we sat and talked about every step of her journey and every scary term you don’t want to hear. I want to tell anyone in this position that there’s a strange comfort in familiarizing yourself with words like stage and lymph nodes. Because once you become comfortable with them, you can actually hear and take charge of your own battle, learn and ask questions. She went through her story from start to finish, and though no two women’s stories are the same, not one word scared me when I met with my doctor. I went in extremely prepared to learn this new path I was on.

Surgery 

I gathered opinions from two doctors at two separate facilities who both recommended the same thing: a lumpectomy with an automatic 35 rounds of radiation and drug therapy. I’m a single mom, so I chose the doctor and facility closest to home. But I knew all along, from the moment I was diagnosed that I wanted a double mastectomy. I never asked my sister, my parents. Not anyone. And my doctor didn’t fight me on it.

Surgery was scheduled on my children’s first day of school. My twin sister flew in to help, both of my breasts were successfully removed and I was able to go home the next day.

Recovery

During recovery, I was told my lymph nodes were clean, but they had actually recovered two tumors. The one I had discovered was the smallest at 4mm; the one deeper in my breast, undetectable by myself or a mammogram, was 1.2 centimeters. Had I moved forward with the lumpectomy, I imagine my future would have been much different than what I prepare myself for now. I would’ve received 35 rounds of radiation and that second tumor would’ve gone undetected.

The physical reconstruction process is amazing – how they can rebuild your body – but it’s excruciating. This is by far the most painful thing I’ve ever been through. In the past 40 days there’s not a day the pain has not woken me up in tears. Getting up for the first time every morning, it takes my breath away. You just sit on the edge of your bed and grip the sheets.

Within the mental and emotional process, there have been more blessings than none. I’m trying to find normalcy in my life. I’m stronger in my faith, which was lacking. I was a worrier and an anxious person by nature before, and now I believe in the power of positive thinking, the power of prayer and handing everything over to God. I’m going to do my part and the rest I have to put in His hands and my doctor’s hands. I believe the world would be a better place if people really focused on the positive energy of things.

My Perspective on Awareness

I know for some, breast cancer awareness month raises frustrations around profitability. But I view awareness differently. I see a reminder and opportunity to share that powerful story or blog or tweet that will encourage women to stop waiting for answers and push to find answers themselves. To trust their instincts and know they are not alone. Or that will make someone have empathy for the hundreds of thousands of women who are battling breast cancer.

You see professional baseball and football organizations celebrating with pink-outs,and although it may seem commercialized to a lot of people, to me it gives me chills that a large number of pro athletes are taking a minute to stop and generate awareness about women who are fighting this battle. Those who go through it – they’re women, they’re moms, they’re business owners – and they have the strength to get up every day and fight it. It may not be that every player on that team has been directly affected, but it’s a salute to those of us who are.

Finally, I really want to recognize the men and women who commend and rebuild the confidence of victims by deferring focus from the physical changes in our bodies and instead focus on the beautiful way we all fight. Your words of encouragement are invaluable and empowering, and thank you.

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