I'll never forget that January day when I was in the shower and noticed something very wrong with my left breast. If I turned in just the right light, there was a dime-sized dimple. However easily ignored it could have been, I gasped and I just knew. My heart sank. I had a 3-month-old baby and my father-in-law was losing his 17-year, brave battle with prostate cancer. This couldn't be happening now. Not with my wife, Jill, out of town, struggling with what would be the end of her father's life.
I called my doctors at Pink Lotus Breast Center right away. After all, it was just about time for my yearly check-up. I made the appointment for the beginning of the following week, upon my wife's return.
As soon as Jill came home, I told her about my appointment and showed her my concern, to which she replied, "I don't even really see what you're talking about." But I saw it. And it was never there before.
Since I do not have a history of breast cancer in my family, I started telling myself that it must be a cyst. But again, I had a terrible feeling.
My suspicions were confirmed the minute I saw the dark spot on the ultrasound and the look on the radiologist's face. No one was playing poker that day.
I gazed into Jill's eyes, and we both took a breath. I asked her to leave the room while they biopsied my breast. I didn't want her to witness my pain and how truly scared I was for us.
That night, I told my mom about my doctor's appointment and my deep fears and concerns. I heard her lose her footing on the other end of the phone, trying to be a rock for me. To be honest, I was more worried about my mother and Jill than myself. All I kept thinking was thank god everything would be taken care of for them and for our son, Adler, if something should happen to me. It gave me a huge sense of relief.
My biopsy results came back a few days later. The radiologist called my house while my mom and Jill were with me. "Nicole, you have invasive carcinoma."
All I heard was the INVASIVE part. I assumed that I had cancer everywhere in my body. Not educated enough yet, I thought I was dying.
We hung up the phone in shock, Jill holding Adler, my mother clutching me. We started to cry. I called two of my closest friends and asked them to come over right away. They were in my living room within fifteen minutes. I felt like I was talking about someone else, it hadn't yet registered that it was me who had cancer.
The one thing I decided and we all agreed upon was to only tell a handful of close friends and family members. I didn't want anyone in my business finding out. Work was the only space in which I felt normal, the only place where I could retreat and not think about my diagnosis. So I dove into my career with a vengeance, and reaped those rewards.
The next day I was in my doctor Kristi Funk's office with mom and Jill, trying to make sense of it all, trying to get into the solution.
I was sent for an MRI to confirm the left breast findings and that's when my right breast lit up suspiciously. We were stunned.
In the midst of our chaos, we received a phone call from Jill's mom. My father-in-law passed away. He lost his cancer battle. The universe was giving us more than we could handle. My wife was now struggling with the loss of her dad, my cancer diagnosis and trying to balance being the best mother she could be for our new baby.
We went back to Dr. Funk's office the following day for a needle biopsy on my right breast. The findings came back benign and we jumped up and down for joy, except Dr. Funk.
"I don't like the way it looks, Nikki. Since you're having a lumpectomy on the left side next week, I'm going in and taking out the concern on the right. Ok?"
"Absolutely," I said.
What I learned in that room with Dr. Funk was that pathology did reveal I had invasive carcinoma in the left breast, estrogen-related, and a small tumor. I caught it early.
February 5th was the date of my lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy surgery, which for me, turned into a long and ugly nightmare.
After the surgery, I immediately developed a horrible cellulitis infection with a rare bacteria. Everyone was perplexed. The infection was so bad and I was so sick that I couldn't travel to my father-in-law's memorial service. I was devastated.
Through all of this, it was business as usual at Nikki Weiss & Co, booking big productions for my directors and keeping my clients happy. Secretly, I was struggling with the fear of losing my own life and mourning my father-in-law's death. Work was a welcome distraction, and again, I jumped into it every morning for my semblance of sanity and normalcy.
While battling my infection, we learned that one lymph node on my left side was positive and my right breast pathology also revealed cancer. The initial biopsy was incorrect. Thank god for Dr. Kristi Funk. She just saved my life. Not only was that tumor cancer, but it came back as a very aggressive form, Her2 Positive.
So, here I sit, a 40-year-old women in great shape and good health, with bilateral breast cancer and two different tumor characteristics. In my mind, there was no other choice than to have a double mastectomy. I did not want to play Russian Roulette with my life. I wanted my breasts off my body now. I always hated my enormous D size on my small frame. Maybe there was a silver lining in all of this?
After a second surgery in March to clear margins on my right side, I got an email from Dr. Funk suggesting a very new and different pathology on the Her2 side. My lymph nodes were negative and the rest of that small tumor was estrogen-related, slow growing and only 20% of it was borderline Her2. I sent it out for a second pathology opinion at USC who specialize in these cancers, and they confirmed the findings. It was indeed less than 20% of the small tumor and just over the borderline number to be considered a Her2 cancer. I was given a huge blessing.
Over the next week, I was sent out for every body scan imaginable. Jill literally held my hand every step of the way, in every diagnostic test. When she wasn't allowed in one of the rooms, she told me she loved me over the loud speaker while I lied completely still in the PET scan, unable to talk. Her voice would come in and out of that room on the speaker the entire two hours. Now that's love and devotion.
I also had to have a bone scan, but since it was highly radioactive, I couldn't be around my son or my breastfeeding wife. My good friend who came over the initial night of my diagnosis schlepped me to that test and stayed in the room with me while I had a full-fledged panic attack.
My family and I held our breath until the tests results came in. Thankfully, all scans confirmed that my body was clean, no cancer was found anywhere else. We were finally on the road to an attack plan and I was so grateful.
We met with oncologist Dr. Philomena McAndrew and reconstruction surgeon Dr. Jay Orringer. We made a plan for my treatment which included being on Tamoxifen for five years, Herceptin infusions every three weeks for a year (a targeted therapy that wouldn't make me ill) and a double mastectomy. I was very lucky to be able to avoid chemotherapy with my oncotype results coming back low. Oncotype scores are a diagnostic test that quantify the likelihood of disease recurrence in women with early-stage hormone positive breast cancer and assess the likely benefit from certain types of chemotherapy. In my case, chemo was a 2% and 5% benefit on each breast. For me, that wasn't enough to risk the lifelong side effects with no guarantee.
Radiation was still on the table since I had one positive lymph node on my left side. We wouldn't know if I had to endure that until my lymph node dissection within the double mastectomy surgery.
I consulted with radiologist Dr. Rosalyn Morrell. She couldn't have been more wonderful. No one wanted to radiate me. She even brought my case to a monthly tumor board meeting that's held between oncologists and radiologists. The consensus was that the risks of radiation outweighed the benefits of my diagnosis. A final decision would be made after my lymph node dissection.
My plastic surgeon, Dr. Orringer, was very concerned about my prior infection that left me scarred. Upon our initial consultation, he spent over two hours with me and Jill explaining the surgery, reconstruction and how he would make me beautiful. He was adamant that we wait a few months for the double mastectomy with the approval of my oncologist Dr. McAndrew.
Dr. Orringer then sent me to another infectious disease doctor to consult about prophylactic antibiotics, taking every precaution possible. After all, he only had one chance to do this surgery correctly and successfully. Any additional infection could result in me having to wear a prosthetic the rest of my life.
My surgery date was set for June 24th. Jill and I had three months to wait and count down the days. It was the most emotional and scary time in our lives. Every day, I feared that cancer was still lurking in my body, even though I had two lumpectomy surgeries to remove the tumors. Cancer counts down to five-year and 10-year survival rates, and as I would hold my son Adler, I cried and prayed that I'd be here for his fifth birthday.
I started my Tamoxifen medication and Herceptin infusions in May. Sitting near very sick patients in chemo chairs while receiving my infusion, I thanked my angels and higher power and continue to do so every day. I know my road could have been different and I pray that theirs is...
From April to June, I worked like a crazy woman. I wanted to make sure all of my clients were content and busy, and they certainly were. My accountant had no idea how I was doing what I was doing, having an incredible year without missing a beat. I had no choice. Work was my livelihood, without it, emotionally and financially, I would be crushed.
In the weeks leading up to my surgery, I told my clients that I was unplugging and taking a vacation. They all couldn't have been happier for me, saying how much I deserved it. Little did they know, I was checking into Chez Cedars Sinai Hospital for an eight-hour procedure.
My girlfriends got together to throw me a "Ta Ta to my Ta-Ta's" party filled with love. The eve before my mastectomy, Jill and I had a nice dinner at home. I wrote my affirmations exactly how I saw my surgery, pathology and recovery. We read them out loud, lit a candle and let it burn until we went to bed. I was eerily calm. The day was finally here. We both wanted this surgery behind us.
We woke up the next morning prepared and ready for the journey ahead. Jill put my affirmations in her shirt pocket, right above her heart. We then grabbed my grandmother's picture to take with her, as I packed my People Magazine with Angelina Jolie on the cover. Coincidentally, Angelina and I had the very same team of surgeons, Dr. Funk and Dr. Orringer. Her brave choice was my inspiration. I kept that magazine by my bedside at home and in the hospital. I was determined to be as strong.
Checking into Cedars on Monday June 24th, I was prepared and ready for the eight-hour surgery. My OBGYN and good friend Dr. Jason Rothbart had cleared his calendar for the day and met us at the hospital at 5 a.m.. This was his playground as a surgeon, his home away from home, and I felt safe in his presence. Jason escorted me into the pre-op room, where I met with the nurse, my doctors, Kristi Funk and Jay Orringer, and the anesthesiologist, who was a woman with a fabulous British accent!
After all of the prep, mom and Jill came back for one last hug and kiss.
I was wheeled into OR 3, my lucky number and Grandmother's birthday. Another sense of calm came over me.
The bright lights felt like I was walking on to one of my client's sets, making a movie or a commercial. I even joked with everyone in the room that it felt like another day at the office.
I told Jason I loved him, I thanked my doctors for taking such good care of me and before I knew it, I was under...
I awoke in the recovery room and the first thing I requested was my iPhone. I had projects for my clients that I hoped would come in the week I was out of the office. My inbox was flooded. Five projects came in while I was in the operating room. Nikki Weiss & Co was full service even during surgery! I couldn't have been happier.
The next thing I realized was that my enormous breasts that were trying to kill me were gone! Dr. Orringer's reconstruction looked beautiful. All of my scarring from the infection was removed. My breasts were symmetrical and gorgeous. I couldn't believe this was my body. To say I was happy was an understatement.
I was hooked up to crazy pain medication in recovery. I think I pressed my button twice right after surgery. It just made me feel nauseous and dizzy. I never used it again. Tylenol was my drug of choice in the hospital and the nursing staff thought I was crazy.
I was adamant about getting out of Cedars as quickly as possible, even though mom and I were trying to make the best of our slumber party together. I prepped my body with vitamins and supplements pre- as well as post-surgery and lot of precautions were taken with heavy dose antibiotics because of my previous history with that nasty infection. Everything proved invaluable, as my healing process has been incredible.
I was up and walking down the hallway with mom and Jill, got dressed in my sweats and even put on makeup the next day. When the nurses came in, they didn't realize that I was the patient.
Dr. Orringer couldn't believe my quick progress. He checked me out of the hospital on Wednesday June 26th at 9 a.m.. I couldn't wait to get home to be with my family.
The six drains I had after the surgery were all removed within six days. Normally, they're in for 10 days or longer.
Dr. Orringer has been elated with my recovery. He said I have done as well as any patient he's ever seen.
I was back to work, in heels, within a week of the mastectomy! No one would ever know what I have endured except for the fact that my D's are now large B's/small C's and I can wear anything I ever wanted without a bra! It's amazing. Dr. Orringer gave me my silver lining.
But the best news came from Dr. Kristi Funk, who shared that my lymph node dissection pathology came back clean! There is officially no more cancer in my body, and no more breasts trying to kill me. I do not need radiation. My oncologist then confirmed I am CANCER FREE!
Jill, mom and I cried, we all held Adler, and thanked the universe. What seemed to have been our lives on pause for six months, holding our breaths every step of the way, was now a huge exhale with plans for the future and an incredible outlook on what's truly important.
I was asked to be on the board of directors of Pink Lotus Petals, a non-profit organization run by Dr. Kristi Funk's husband, Andy Funk. Honored and humbled, I accepted.
Breast cancer affects one in every eight women, yet many are uninsured, underprivileged and unable to pay for their own health care. Pink Lotus Petals provides free screening, diagnosis, surgical treatment and post-surgical treatment to women who are medically uninsured and are unable to pay for such care on their own behalf due to financial hardship, socio-economic circumstances and other emergencies. Find out more here.
It is my mission to raise awareness about the organization and the importance of self-exams and early detection, all of which saved my life.
I feel truly blessed to have travelled this journey and to be on the other side of it now. I had some very low days, but I got through it all with the unyielding love and support of my wife, our family and a few close friends. Of course, our son Adler was truly our bright light. Without him, I think Jill and I would have been balled up in a corner.
Moving a bit slowly now during my road to recovery, I am looking forward to the last phase of my reconstruction surgery in the fall.
Finally opening up about my own diagnosis has empowered me and I will continue to use my platform to inform, educate and raise funds for Pink Lotus Petals and cancer research.
My name is Nikki Weiss-Goldstein and I just kicked the sh*t out of cancer.
Follow Nikki Weiss-Goldstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WeissGoldsteins