The Healthy Girl's Guide to Breast Cancer

The Healthy Girl's Guide to Breast Cancer

by Christine Egan

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Cancer stories usually start with some kind of struggle or fight. This story starts with a song.
"You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?" These words rang true for Christine Egan.
Many questions and stories circulate about cancer. Are you telling yourself you are a victim of cancer? Are you worried the


Cancer stories usually start with some kind of struggle or fight. This story starts with a song.
"You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?" These words rang true for Christine Egan.
Many questions and stories circulate about cancer. Are you telling yourself you are a victim of cancer? Are you worried the cancer will come back? Are you stuck in the role of being sick? Egan made a conscious choice to tell a different story. The Healthy Girl's Guide to Breast Cancer is part memoir and part guide revealing the all-too-true story of cancer in this country with a healthy twist. Rest assured-this is not a cancer story; it's a story about health and wellness.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Egan here hopes "to shed some light on how I handled a difficult situation with a healthy twist. I want to let you know how I stayed positive, strong, and somewhat sane during the cancer circus." She focuses on healthful activity (e.g., yoga), self-care, meditation, and diet. Each section features lists in the form of a toolbox, takeaways, and tips; the book concludes with a selection of recipes. For readers wanting to consider more options.

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Balboa Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.35(d)

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The Healthy Girl's

Guide to Breast Cancer

By Christine Egan

Balboa Press

Copyright © 2013 Christine Egan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4525-7459-2


My Journey from Grilled Cheese to Grilled Veggies

Well, I wasn't always the healthy woman I am today. I grew up on Long Island eating food from packages (sorry, Mom!). Although my mother tried to encourage me to eat vegetables, I never would. My cousins still, to this day, love reminding me of the time my aunt made me eat canned string beans with dinner and I proceeded to throw them up hours later on the floor of the dining room.

Growing up, my favorite foods included anything sweet. I will confess that many a breakfast consisted of a wrapped chocolate cake: think Hostess, Drake, or Entenmann's. There wasn't a Yodel or Yankee Doodles cupcake that I would refuse. Our family dinners consisted of some kind of meat and a potato, and I was always the last to finish. I would come up with creative ways to hide my uneaten food: underneath the rim of my plate, in my napkin, or—my favorite—in the bottom of my milk cup. Later, when I was off at college, I wasn't much better. I think I ate grilled cheese for lunch and dinner for most of my college years. My friends back then called me the Dairy Queen. My love of sweets and ice cream didn't change as I got older.

After college, I landed a job with the same advertising agency that I had interned with in New York. The position I was offered was in Detroit, Michigan. I was happy to get a job after graduation, and the idea of moving to another big city really appealed to me. My life became filled with work. I loved my job, I loved the people I was surrounded with, I loved being in another big city, and I was happy with my life. I positioned myself as a very hard worker, putting in six days a week and making myself available at all hours. I had great movie role models of working women back then. Remember Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Holly Hunter in Broadcast News? These two women made it okay to be powerful and hardworking. I so wanted to be them! I had visions of climbing the corporate ladder and making a lifelong career for myself in advertising.

Back then, my diet still wasn't great. Breakfast, if any, was usually coffee and a pastry. Lunch was a take-out sandwich from a deli. Dinner probably consisted of the free hors d'oeuvres from the local bar while out with coworkers. It took me several months of living on my own to understand that food could affect the way I felt. My health food epiphany came when I shared a house with a girl from Italy who never ate anything from a box. Daniela made cake from scratch. I thought cake from scratch meant opening a box of Duncan Hines. I'm not kidding! I never had a "homemade" cake that wasn't from a box. Daniela opened my eyes to real foods: fruits and vegetables. I tasted fresh vegetables, not from a can or the freezer. I remember having fresh string beans with shallots and olive oil and loving them (not throwing them up)! I recall details of eating my first roasted beet—that sweet, earthy flavor was something I never would have enjoyed years earlier. Daniela even started a little garden in the backyard where she grew her own tomatoes. I can still see her making her homemade tomato sauce at the kitchen stove. I slowly started cooking my own meals, which included fresh vegetables.

Once I opened my eyes to eating better, I started going to the local health food store with guidance from a coworker, Linda. I can recall the strange smells that filled the store. It was like a supermarket, but I didn't recognize the items on the shelves. The people who filled the store were happy, and patrons lingered in the small café. I sampled some of their prepared foods'some I liked, but some had strange textures or smells that I couldn't get past. It was a whole new environment. I tried different cereals like oatmeal rather than a top-selling box type. I started eating more fruits and vegetables and gradually adding healthy foods to my life.

My health transformation didn't happen overnight; it was a process. Part of my job was to visit McDonald's restaurants and eat their food. It was my job to get people to buy McDonald's food. Back then, I didn't have a problem with that; nowadays, I would.

During the next ten years, I paid more attention to health. I did a lot of experimenting with different foods and ways of eating. I ate meat, and then I gave it up for a while; then I started eating it again. I bought a juicer. I learned where all the health food stores were in my neighborhood. As I made healthier food choices and felt better in my body, I noticed other parts of my life were not working so well. I was working for a company I didn't like. I was in a relationship I wasn't happy in. Something had to change.

I quit my job after seven years, left a long-term relationship, and moved back to Long Island. I left the advertising world, and went back to school and became a licensed massage therapist. I reconnected with my high school boyfriend. He didn't know it, but he had stayed on my mind all those years. Frank was just about to finish his ten years of schooling. He was in his last semester of his orthodontic residency. It seemed that both of us had finally made room in our lives for each other. We got married, bought a house and an orthodontic office, and settled down to have a baby, all within two years. Life was good, and I was happy. I seemed to be living the life I was meant to have.

Fast-forward to my first pregnancy. I remember reading and watching TV shows about childbirth, thinking I wanted to do it differently. Okay, let's be honest here. I have a real phobia about needles. I have always been fearful of IVs in my arm or hand as well as having to give blood. I was so afraid of getting the IV put into my arm for the birth of my child that I thought, if I can deliver this baby naturally, I won't need the IV. I found a doctor's office that also had a midwife on staff. I made all my appointments with the midwife. My thought process was this is a naturally occurring event, so why add interventions unless necessary? I researched natural childbirth, took classes, and prepared fully for the experience. I was ready!

I successfully gave birth to my son, Frank, without any medical interventions: no IV, no spinal medication, no vaginal cutting, no stitches, no nothing! Frank was born at midnight, and we left the next morning. It was great! I felt fantastic.

Although I had quit my career in advertising, I didn't see myself in the role of a mother, either. I loved being a mother, but I really grappled with being a stay-at-home mom. I started working in my husband's orthodontic office at the front desk as a way to get out of the house and help him at the same time.

Life back then was a blur, and two years later, I was pregnant again. Since the first birth had gone so well (and was so uneventful), we decided to have our next child at home. Yes, you read that right ... at home! Besides finding the right home-birthing midwife, Frank and I took classes and became certified childbirth educators. With the help of a homebirth midwife, we prepared to have this child right in our second-story bedroom.

The pregnancy went well. Again, I was ready to trust my body to do what it needed to do. I went into labor on Wednesday night before dinnertime. I hung out in the pool for a few hours while one-year-old Frank played near me in the shallow end. We put him to bed around eight, and I labored through the night. The midwife came over around six thirty in the morning, and Emily was born at 7:40 a.m., right on our bedroom floor. It was an incredible experience. Again, I was on top of the world, fully appreciating what my body was capable of doing. The highlight of the day was getting up to make a cake (from scratch) to celebrate Emily's true birthday. I felt invincible!

I intended to have another home birth for my third and final baby, but that didn't happen. Toward the end of my pregnancy, around thirty-eight weeks, I realized the baby wasn't moving as much as he had been. All the "natural" ideas went out the window, and medical intervention stepped in. Jack was born via C-section at the hospital and then put into the neonatal intensive care unit because he was so small at just under four pounds. It was a very stressful time for us as a family, wondering whether Jack was mentally and physically okay. He is fine now, but it was scary while it was all happening. Besides the stress of a newborn, I needed to let my body heal from the trauma of an emergency C-section.

I share those birthing stories with you so you can understand more about how we (my husband, Frank, and I) have dealt with various situations. We tend to view things a little differently from most people. We like to read and research different ways to treat things many people think are "normal." Yet we are not blind to when true medical intervention is needed. We didn't just do what society expected us to do; we did what was right for us. This approach would serve us well ten years later, as you will see.


How Did the Healthiest Girl in the Room Get Cancer?

I have always been one of those organized people, making my yearly ob-gyn visit right around my birthday in November. Well, I went to see my doctor; he did a breast exam, and it was all clear. He gave me a prescription for my mammogram, yet something inside me asked him for a script for an ultrasound as well. I had already had my baseline mammogram done less than five years before. I remember the technician saying I had dense breasts; I assumed most people did. I had to go back for a separate appointment for the ultrasound the first time around. I didn't understand that dense, heavy breasts needed an ultrasound because the mammogram does not show as much as the ultrasound.

I wanted to make things simpler this time around. My doctor gave me the prescriptions for both the mammogram and ultrasound so I could do both in the same appointment. I remember thinking I would make the appointment after the holidays.

About four weeks later, I was lying on the couch with my hand under my head, watching a movie, when my twenty-five-pound dog Zoe walked on top of me and started pawing at my left breast. I remember thinking it was strange. What the heck was Zoe doing? It was one of those moments that I had an intuitive feeling I was supposed to pay attention to. For some reason I trusted my gut and started to massage my left breast for a quick second.

That's when I felt the lump. It was on the upper left part of my breast. It felt like a BB bullet—a small, round, superficial mass. I had felt a mass like this before when I was breast-feeding and it had turned out to be a clogged milk duct. I remember thinking it was odd to be feeling a clogged milk duct at that point since it had been nearly ten years since I had last breast-fed. I reassured myself that it must be muscle I was feeling since I had recently increased my free weights at kickboxing.

I put the lump out of my mind, kind of. I didn't want to deal with it until after the holidays. But its presence stayed with me. I would feel it in the shower. It was still there. I would feel it before I went to bed. It was still there. I wasn't ready to make the time to go to the doctor with the holidays approaching, but there was a nagging deep down in my gut that I could not ignore.

I made the appointment with the breast center for my mammography and ultrasound at the beginning of January. The day of my appointment I drove alone and was a total wreck. I remember walking into the mammogram room and feeling really sick to my stomach and lightheaded. I never said a word to the technician about the lump. I figured if it was something, they would find it. I recall the squeezing of the mammography machine for both breasts and thinking, Thank God that's over. The films were then brought back to the radiologist down the hall to be read. I sat in the mammography room in a chair in the corner almost hyperventilating. I tried to use my deep abdominal yoga breath to calm down, as my heart was racing and my armpits were sweating. I was relieved I was in the hospital gown, because my armpits drenched it.

The technician walked back into the room and said I was all clear. Wow—it really was nothing. I was feeling a sense of relief. The medical technician escorted me down the hall to a different room for the ultrasound test. I was still nervous, but felt like the appointment was almost over and that my "mass" was nothing.

The ultrasound room was very different from the mammogram room. There was no big machine or bright lights, and it had an examining table to lie down on. The computer in the corner played acoustic-type music. The ultrasound technician and I made small talk about reality TV shows and our kids while she slathered my breast in K-Y jelly to help the ultrasound wand glide over my breast. Then it happened. She found it.

The tech turned to me and said, "There is a lump here. Are you aware of it?"

I confessed that I was aware of it. She finished with the ultrasound wand on my left breast. Then she moved on to the right breast. When she was finished, she said she needed to get the radiologist to look at the ultrasound report. I remember waiting on the exam table, trying to wipe K-Y jelly from my breasts, and again attempting to use that calming yoga breathing to ease my nerves.

The doctor came back within five minutes with a look of seriousness. He said he did not like the way the mass looked and that I needed to get a core needle biopsy.

"Okay, when can I do it?" I asked.

"ASAP," he replied in an urgent tone.

I had never met this doctor before, but I could tell he was saying this lump was serious. I knew deep down that ASAP wasn't good. I got dressed, and the ultrasound technician walked me to the front desk. She helped me make the appointment for Wednesday (it was Monday). I knew from the technician and the radiologist that this was serious.

I went home not making a big deal of it. I did not research breast lumps on the computer, because I knew that I could not handle even thinking about "what if." I told myself I was healthy, this was just a scare, and everything would be fine.

I went back to the breast center by myself two days later for the core needle biopsy, not knowing what I was getting myself into. If I had taken the time to dissect the word, I might have been more prepared. A needle was involved, and biopsy meant they were taking a sample of the mass. It never occurred to me what was about to happen.

A different technician took me back to the ultrasound room and explained that I needed to get undressed with the gown open in the front. She told me to lie down on the table and she would be back soon. Before the technician left, I explained to her how nervous I was and that I needed her to help me through this.

"No problem," she said. "I will be by your side while the doctor does the procedure."

The technician and doctor came in and redid the ultrasound first, locating the mass. Once that was done, a needle was inserted into my breast to numb it. I felt the pinching, but the pain was manageable. The next needle was the one that literally went into the mass and took out a small tissue sample to be tested for cancer. Now the tears were streaming down my face in fear, not in pain. Once the sample was removed, a metal piece—a.k.a. "marker"—was inserted into my breast, so that the mass could be found easily again. The pain was not intense, just uncomfortable. I couldn't wrap my head around this metal piece being left in me—somehow that didn't seem right. Once the doctor was finished with the biopsy portion, I needed another mammogram to indicate the location of the "marker" that was left behind. Then the waiting game began.

I don't even remember the time between the biopsy and the results. I think cancer was just the furthest thing from my mind. I didn't think "it" could happen to me.

A week later I received a call from my ob/gyn. Coincidentally, his wife had also had breast cancer a few years earlier.

"I hate to tell you this, but you have breast cancer," he said. "You are going to be fine—it's the early stage—but you need to make some calls."

I remember taking the call in the living room, but when he started talking to me, I walked into the basement so I could be alone. I let the tears come as I wrote down information, because I hadn't thought about the next steps. I had never let myself think of the "what-ifs." It was one of those times when my mind was a blank and my body was still. I listened to my doctor talk about the biopsy results, but didn't understand any of it. I just took notes. I asked him about referrals to doctors, and he rattled off the names of a couple of breast surgeons to call.

I hung up the phone and walked upstairs to my husband and kids. I turned at the top of the stairs. Frank looked at me and knew something was wrong, but couldn't in a million years figure out what. Then I blurted out, "I have cancer."

He hugged me and we cried together. I told the kids right then and there too. I think the only one who understood the magnitude of it all was my fourteen-year-old son, Frank.

Excerpted from The Healthy Girl's by Christine Egan. Copyright © 2013 Christine Egan. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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