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Survivorship Is a Journey All on Its Own

by Emily WolfeSurvivor, Stage 3b Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma May 14, 2024View more posts from Emily Wolfe

Survivorship Is a Journey All on Its Own: How 300 Miles Got Me There

Sharing my breast cancer journey has become very important to me and my grief process. I have found profound healing in the power of sharing my experiences and raw feelings with the world. The most important thing I like to talk about is survivorship, and this is the story of my walk to survivorship. For those of you who have had cancer touch your lives intimately, you know how it entirely changes your life. Last year I had the privilege of participating in a large bucket list item of mine because of my breast cancer diagnosis. I want to share that story with you today. I want to share it with you because it is both inspiring and educational. It is our job as women to be educated and I want to educate you about the power of breast cancer today.

In 2017 I read the book “Promise Me” by Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen. In a later chapter in the book a young woman describes the experience she had at the Susan G. Komen San Diego 3-Day walking with her mom who recently beat her breast cancer. I was drawn to her words and experiences, but most of all the passion she felt towards finding a cure for breast cancer. I walked past the seven houses that sat in between my in-laws’ home and mine and asked my recently diagnosed mother-in-law if I could walk in celebration of her survivorship. Five months later I walked my first 3-Day in the greater Detroit Michigan area. I arrived at the event in the dark of the morning cold and was very nervous. I was walking alone, with family in the area popping up along the route to cheer me on over the next three days. That first 60 miles was a walk that led me right into this newfound passion I had for finding a cure for breast cancer. For the next four years I fundraised, volunteered, and educated myself on the awful disease affecting men and women in the United States. I was involved locally in races and taught makeup and art therapy projects to cancer patients. I found a passion for fundraising and founded my in-home bakery Cookies for the Cure in 2018. To date, I have baked over 25,000 sugar cookies and raised $50,000 for various nonprofits supporting breast cancer research, advocacy, and support.

Soon I would receive the traumatic and life-changing news that I was becoming one in eight. In February of 2021, I was diagnosed with stage 3b infiltrating ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. My cancer was treated with 16 rounds of chemotherapy, two initial breast surgeries, 33 rounds of radiation, and hormone therapy that I am currently still taking. Upon completion of my treatment in December 2021, I was excited to celebrate my cancer-free status and move into survivorship. But in January of 2022 at a routine visit with my oncologist, It was brought to my attention that the redness appearing on my left breast—the cancer side—was not radiation burns and the beginning of an infection. I was started on antibiotics and instructed to send daily photos of my breast to my surgeons. Six days later I was admitted to the hospital with cellulitis of the breast. I was started on IV antibiotics and placed on a no-food or drink-by-mouth diet at midnight every night with the knowledge that the next morning I may have to enter into surgery to remove my left breast spacer (a temporary implant). On day six I was given a PICC line (which would be a temporary port that I could access at home to administer medications via IV) and sent home with a home health nurse and more knowledge than I ever wanted to know about infectious disease. Oh, did I mention I had an infectious disease doctor by now? On February 1 after almost a month on IV antibiotics, I was cleared by infectious disease. Seventeen days later I was wheeled into emergency surgery at 8 pm and my left breast spacer was removed leaving me unisided. I went home to heal and work on accepting the realization that survivorship wasn’t quite in the cards for me yet. During this time I continued to struggle with overwhelming body pain and ongoing symptoms of discomfort and sickness. Two months later after learning about Breast Implant Illness (BII) I voluntarily had my right breast spacer and capsule removed clearing my body of any foreign objects. For the next 18 months, I would work on creating a new plan for my breast reconstruction and preparing myself for that journey.

The only safe option for me to have breasts at this point was referred to as a Diep Flap reconstruction. In English, this is an 8-12 hour surgery where plastic surgeons harvest skin, blood arteries, and fat from the patient’s belly and transfer it to their chest to create new breasts. This would require a 6-8 week recovery. Being a mother to three young daughters, I knew this would be a procedure that affected the whole family. I also knew that this surely would stand as a huge hurdle in front of my real survivorship journey. This was a big thing that needed to be completed for me to feel like the survivor I wanted to be in my cancer journey. I wanted to walk into this surgery strong and completely confident in my decision to have the surgery, heal completely, and love the new vessel my soul resides in. This earthly body would be covered in scars and reminders that it had been through so many battles.

What better way to grow stronger than to spend the year walking? No stranger to The 3-Day, I decided that I was going to make the ultimate commitment to a cause affecting my life so much. I committed to being a series walker for the Susan G Komen 3-Day Series. The 2023 series included five cities across the U.S. It would require me to raise at least $11,500 for the cause and be trained to walk 60 miles five times! I began walking in January, training for the first event in August. My sore, tired body slowly grew stronger and my walks grew longer. I set my fundraising goal at $25,000, aiming at $5,000 per walk. I baked cookies, sent letters to family and friends, hosted game parties, a garage sale, and a wine bottling party. I was committed to finding fun (and yummy) ways of raising the funds necessary to make a significant difference in the fight against cancer.

By the time Boston rolled around in August, I was beginning to feel stronger and sure that this bucket list item was fitting perfectly into my journey. I traveled to Boston alone, staying with another walker for the weekend whom I did not know. I was so nervous on my first walk that season. I was not sure how to frame all the feelings I was having about walking. Of course, I was there because raising money for breast cancer research is very important to me! But I was also there because I needed to share my story. I needed to educate women on their rights when it comes to reconstruction. I needed to feel strong and inspire others behind me on their treatment journey to keep fighting to get their strength back. I needed to be heard and seen by other women who had been through some of what was happening to me. And at the top of the list of reasons why was to get my spark back and find my way to survivorship.

My journey across the country began in Boston. I was reunited with many friends from prior walks and introduced to many people who would be along my journey in this series. I knew from the moment I stepped into the hotel that this was going to be a walk to remember. Boston, Denver, Chicago, and Dallas were filled with memories of reassurance that I was, in fact, walking the right path. I met women who could share experiences with me about the surgery I was going to have. I shared my fundraising ideas and my love for Susan G. Komen and their commitment to the fight to end breast cancer. I hugged other flatties. I shared my experience as a young cancer survivor, being diagnosed under the age of 30. I grew closer to my pink bubble family and met new pink sisters I will forever hold close to my heart. And of course, I walked. Collectively, I walked 120 hours, 600,000 steps, 15 bagged lunches, way too many porty potty pit stops, and 300 miles. Flying into San Diego, 13 days prior to my scheduled diep flap surgery, I felt like a kid heading to Disney World. The pink decorations and hugs of reunited walkers filled my soul. I regularly found myself tearing up (and crying really heavily in the privacy of my pink tent). I could feel the healing happening. I could feel the broken pieces of my soul, my faith, my physical being, mending back together. Never quite looking the way they did before but healing and allowing my body to find complete healing. San Diego is the most beautiful city to walk around; it is a walk that comes with the best community support. You don’t turn a corner without someone yelling “You got this,” “Looking good,” and my least favorite, “You’re almost there” (LOL). I completed those miles with somewhat of an ease knowing that crossing the finish line here was sending me home to finally begin crossing the finish line with my breast cancer journey. I knew the 300 long miles I had walked in the last 87 days had led me to the beginning of survivorship. I returned home in November with time to unpack, clean the house and prepare for the life-changing surgery before me. On November 29, 2023, a 10-hour surgery was performed to create my new chest. I felt the love and support of every person I met throughout the series as I underwent and recovered from the surgery. The surgery was the beginning of the end. This would be the first step in my breast cancer journey. I had a successful surgery and am preparing for my final surgery in May of this year.

I continue to feel inspired to walk and share my journey. To tell you a story that reminds you that you are important and your journey is worth living. We don’t all walk the same path, we don’t experience the same joys or traumas, but we all exist in the same universe. We all need love and support and the opportunity to share and learn with each other. Thank you for allowing me time and space in your life today for my story. I hope my experience inspires you to fulfill the passions in your life. And please go get your mammogram.

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