Rowing to Survive Breast Cancer

04/09/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

As I sit here packing my suitcase for another magical Disney vacation, I can't help but think and have flashbacks about where I was a year ago; and what happened in the 12 months to follow.

I am a young mother and wife, senior director at one of the world's largest software companies, and competitive rower and one would have thought I had everything going for me. From my first days receiving my all-women's education, I was groomed to be a leader. I moved to Boston right after college and knew nobody. I had a strong desire to become part of a community and build some new friendships.

Many would ask why I decided to learn to row, but it was that decision that helped me overcome one of life's greatest challenges -- a breast cancer diagnosis. I rowed in one of the world's largest regattas 12 weeks after a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery -- it was the strength as a rower and athlete that helped me fully recover. Prior to this experience just seeing the word "cancer" really freaked me out. Despite my professional and athletic strength, deep down inside situations like this really consume me.


I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in May 2014 following only my second mammogram and having had no family history of breast cancer. 3D Mammography and expert radiologists at one of the large Boston hospitals prompted immediate biopsy and diagnosis for me. Without the advances in mammography my cancer would have gone undetected as it was not palpable and not detectable on older mammography. If I had not listened to my body and pain in my armpit the year before that turned out to be nothing, I may have not been diagnosed until a mammogram at 40.

Following my diagnosis, an angel and breast cancer survivor came into my life and told me that "knowledge was power." Your first feeling with a diagnosis is to get the cancer out of your body, but surgical decisions are not reversible and you need to take the time to take a breath and get multiple opinions. I had to hear this over and over again before I did my research.

I turned into a project manager for my own health and scheduled appointments with four teams of doctors to learn as much as I could about my treatment options. My rowing aspirations, family situation, cosmetic options for reconstruction, and long term health all weighed into my decision. I chose to take the most aggressive approach -- a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. It was one surgery, six weeks of recovery, and then I could prepare for rowing in the fall with the support of a team of trainers and other professionals.

You might read this and say, this is just another story about a breast cancer survivor. I can see your point but hope you will read on.

There is no one size fits all for dealing with these situations, and I feel the way I approached my journey and recovery can empower other women. I didn't let cancer define me, but instead tried to look at the good that would come out of the situation to help other women. Given the rise in breast cancer in women under 40 and given my background in the life sciences software industry there has been much that I learned on this journey that I feel needs to be shared with other women. I have signed up to be in clinical trials and would recommend that any other survivor consider it as well. I learned some key messages on my journey:

  1. All people need to listen to their bodies and ensure they see their doctor when they feel something isn't right -- you are in control of your own health
  2. Setting a goal provides strength in a cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery
  3. Young women diagnosed with breast cancer have additional factors that weigh into their decision for breast cancer treatment and 3D mammography should be available more widely to women
  4. Cutting edge surgical options make treatment easier for women and help women feel at peace with themselves, preserve their body, and return to the life they love more quickly
  5. Taking a cancer diagnosis public will help others and promote valuable lessons

There are endless resources on breast cancer, but I remember it was tough to simplify it all. I relied on my angels to shine a light for me. Nobody told me to seek them out, but they were critical in my care. Despite how my body was feeling during the recovery, I wanted to help others and got involved with my crew team with Pull for a Cure to raise funds for the American Cancer Society's Making Strides for Breast Cancer Walk. I went public with my story during breast cancer awareness month on one of the local news stations in Boston. It felt weird to be out in public and to hear the works "survivor" as I had always associated that with other people -- it was now part of my new personal brand.

I told myself as soon as I crossed the finish line of the race that I was putting my whole journey behind me. I felt empowered rowing down the Charles River in all pink and was hoping that my story and message would help other women. What I didn't realize was that just a few weeks later I would learn that my own mother would be diagnosed with DCIS in both breasts - just six months after me. She asked for a 3D mammogram for her annual screening and it was my diagnosis that saved her life. I had my mom in Boston within 24 hours of her diagnosis and in my doctor's offices; it was surreal sitting in the chair in the exam room and not on the exam table.

I was still a patient with very fresh scars, but had to instantly become a caregiver for my mom. I quickly saw my journey flash before my eyes and worked with her to set a goal -- to pass on my strength to battle one of the greatest challenges of her life.