My name is Sami Pickens, and I am a 28-year-old breast cancer survivor (BRCA1). I want to share the story of how my diagnosis occurred and a timeline of the steps as it happened. Even though I work in healthcare as a clinical pharmacist at a hospital, I had no idea what to expect in terms of timeline or next steps and I hope that this sheds some light on that for someone else embarking upon this journey.
Anyone that knows me knows I work out basically everyday – and I absolutely love it. Well in February after coming off a foot injury and stopping my half marathon training, I was so excited to get back into lifting. So, I started training bench press and pushups A LOT (both of these things make me feel badass.)
Long story short my pec muscles were super sore, so I was pressing on them to try to massage them out and I felt a marble sized HARD lump on my left breast. I felt my stomach flip flop. I reached out to my mom and some close friends, they all assured me it was most likely some type of cyst or fibroadenoma, but they agreed I should have someone look at it.
Go to the doctor. I was so lucky to be able to feel the lump and be able to catch it early. I was so aware of my body and something not being right. Listen to your body. Go to your appointments, workout regularly and know what normal feels like.
My first appointment was in middle March where I showed my OBGYN where I felt a lump, two weeks later I had a mammogram and ultrasound. The mammogram stated my breast tissue was too dense for diagnosis and the ultrasound told us that it most definitely not a cyst but that’s all they knew.
4/9/19 – stereo-static biopsy (14 of them) for further diagnosing
4/11/19 – Diagnosis day. I knew the name of the cancer and that’s it. Invasive ductal carcinoma. The days after this felt like months waiting as results came back and plans were made. I always thought when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they are given a lot more information on the cancer itself and what will happen next – you dont!
I really love cows. I love where I live because I get to drive past empty fields of cows on my way home every day. I was right in front of the beginning of those cows when my phone rang. I immediately felt like I was going to throw up and continued to sweat through my scrubs as I had been all day.
Surgeon verified it’s me yada yada
Sami, I have some bad news the biopsy did come back positive for invasive ductal breast cancer.
Me: silent. *ears ringing so loud I wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak loud enough for him to hear me or not anyways*
Surgeon: Sami, did you hear me?
*the tears started falling* (I don’t cry very often and usually there’s a big reason)
Me: “yes I heard you.” *voice trembling*
Surgeon: it’s going to be okay you are strong and young and healthy, and we are going to get through this. We will call you and get you back into the office Monday to figure out what the plan is.
Me: okay thank you bye.
Here’s where I am not sure what I was supposed to do. Obviously, I was in shock. How do you go from doctors’ visits for sports physicals and getting hurt working out to having cancer?!
I am annoyingly honest. I have been the friend that is invited to wedding dress shopping because I’ll say it doesn’t look great. I know this, I own it. It’s okay.
So, I picked up the phone and called my husband and said I got bad news it’s cancer I’ll be home in 5 minutes and basically hung up on him. In retrospect, I’m sorry Justin (I didn’t even tell him what kind or anything and I know that had to drive him nuts). Then I called my mom and said “are you with dad at work? Go get him and put it on speaker phone.”
This was the second I realized how bad this was going to suck. Not only because I felt like I had been punched in the stomach and by this point was basically have a panic attack but because I realized from here on out all those family members and friends – I was about to continue to ruin each and every one of their days.
I never felt so loved in my whole life as that Thursday evening and night. All the family and friends as they heard. But also, because of Justin. We cried a lot, we also laughed and said, “What the f***?!” (Sorry mom). We were in shock and scared and he started saying right then starting today we will only be a stronger couple because of this. That meant so much.
4/15/19 – surgery consult with same surgeon as biopsy week prior. At that appointment all that he knew was the name of the cancer, that it was around 1.5 cm, and estrogen and progestin 90% positive (good news because there are direct drugs that target that). He said we would also need to know HER2 status to know about the whole treatment plan, but it was up to me to go ahead and do a lumpectomy or wait for HER2. I chose to schedule the lumpectomy for 4/18/19. I wanted the cancer OUT.
4/16/19 – first oncologist appointment. This appointment was a lot more to handle than I thought it would be. I HATE needles (although I’m learning that I’m tougher than I thought with that stuff) and first thing that happened was drawing 6 vials of blood when I got back to the room. I then met the chemo oncologist as well as the nurse practitioner. They only knew what I had so far 4/15/19 but the oncologist prepped me for the mindset that my cancer would most likely be HER2 positive at my age so I would first need chemo prior to any surgery of removing the mass. He asked for permission to get another vial of blood to have my genetic tests run (included many many markers including BRCA1 BRCA2). We also called the general surgeon and cancelled my surgery for Thursday pending HER2 results.
4/23/19 I had already been told the HER2 results were negative but now get a call that some of my genetic markers are back and that I am BRCA1 positive so now I have a HIGH recurrence rate risk, and also have a high risk of ovarian cancer. Treating aggressively would be more necessary. This day is when we decided to do the double mastectomy with reconstruction. I read about BRCA 1 and everything else you could imagine the rest of that day. It was a rough one.
Since April I have loved more than I ever thought I could, I have worked harder at work, I have enjoyed every moment more than the last. I have had a double mastectomy, and now also am recovering from my tissue expander exchange for implants and have my foobs! (breast cancer loving term for fake boobs!) I choose each day when I wake up to not let worry be greater than my faith. I am praying that after my five-year course of tamoxifen (and 1 year of Zoladex injections) that my husband and I are able to have a baby. After that, I plan on having a prophylactic ovariectomy, because I do not want to worry about my higher chance of ovarian cancer, and it makes me feel like I have some control over it all.
2019 has not gone as I planned at 28 years old, but I am certain that through all of this I have become a better wife, sister, daughter, friend, pharmacist, and co-worker.
If you are reading this and have cancer (diagnosed yesterday or 30 years ago) you are stronger.