Life after breast cancer: a story on thriving

Life after breast cancer

“It’s cancer.” I will never forget hearing those two words, what day it was, where I was standing, and who was with me. September 26, 2013, was the day that has forever changed who I am as a person and what my ultimate mission is in my life after breast cancer.

I found my breast cancer myself, despite routine mammograms and more

Prior to my diagnosis, I was happily married with two beautiful daughters. No real complaints or stress in my life. I saw a breast specialist every year for many years, starting at the age of 30. The reason: I had extremely dense breast tissue and a history of chronic benign masses called fibroadenomas. Not only would I have a full breast exam and mammogram, but I also had routine sonograms. The sonogram was a necessary added layer of screening because it was very difficult to see any potential masses on a mammogram.

Breast cancer appears white on a mammogram and so does dense breast tissue. I used to joke that it was like looking for a snowball in a huge pile of snow.

Because of the comprehensive nature of my yearly exams, I always felt confident when I heard my doctor say, “You are good to go! See you in a year.” But something just didn’t add up in 2013. I had been given the A-OK, all clear report early in the year, so I carried on like I normally did. I didn’t routinely do self-check exams, but one day I noticed a lump in my right breast while taking a shower. It was completely by chance, and I am so thankful that I happened to notice it when I did.

Seeing my physician and testing were the longest 24 hours of my life

I stewed over it for a couple of weeks. I finally asked my husband, who is a pediatrician, to feel it. He advised me, as he usually does, to contact my doctor. And so began the longest 24 hours of my life. A sonogram led to a mammogram, which then led to a biopsy, all in a matter of hours. Nothing could have prepared me for the call that came the next day. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, grade 2, stage unknown at the time. Age 42.

How was this missed only a few short months before? It made no sense to me. The system had failed me. The next week consisted of MRI, CT scan, bone scan… scan after scan in search of evidence of metastasis. I got the “all clear” on everything, but I was not convinced. The system had failed me once already.

Going through surgery and chemo

Just a few days after we celebrated our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I endured an 8-hour double mastectomy, revealing cancer in 1 out of 12 lymph nodes. I ended up back in the operating room at 3 a.m. due to a hematoma and loss of blood. The trauma was never ending.

Four days and two units of blood later, I got to go home and begin the next leg of my journey, chemotherapy. You would think this would be the worst part of my journey… the hair loss, sickness, fatigue, and stress. But along came the “chemo fairy,” four friends who left me surprise gifts after each chemo treatment. They brought me love, laughter, and light to my darkest days. They turned 16 cancer treatments into 16 birthdays, and I will forever cherish their love and support.

Obsessing over health and finally finding center

While undergoing treatment, I discovered that poor nutrition and lifestyle choices are risk factors for cancer and I wanted to minimize my risk of recurrence and any potential new cancers. I went through a brief period of obsessive dieting, which I now call “food prison.” This eventually took a huge toll on my mind and body. I was doing everything except living life. Constantly, I craved all the foods I had eliminated. All I wanted was to enjoy a nice glass of wine and a juicy steak. I was drunk with envy watching all my friends and family eat the foods that I had deemed unfit for someone with breast cancer.

Over the course of a year, I decided to live in strength rather than to live in fear. No longer did I want food to control me; I wanted to be in control of my choices, my body, my health. I realized that I needed to heal my relationship with food and adopt a “mostly healthy” lifestyle that allowed me to be more flexible with my choices. So, I slowly started re-introducing living back into my life. It was the most liberating experience. After being stuck in food prison for far too long, I discovered that balance and mindset are the keys to a thriving and wellbeing.

Turning life after breast cancer into something to be grateful for

I learned how to eat clean for my unique body, and today I live free of rules and restrictions. In 2018, 5 years after my diagnosis, I turned my passion into my career. I enrolled at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and became a certified health and nutrition coach. Today, I help women who are stuck in food prison lose weight without giving up their favorite foods.

I am still happily married to the love of my life, and our two daughters have become amazing young women. As a wife, mother and breast cancer thriver, I urge all women to be their own best advocate. If something does not feel right, see your doctor. Get your yearly screenings and do monthly breast self-exams.

I began my breast cancer journey fearful of the unknown and powerless to my fears. But what I gained in the end became a newfound strength and ability to live the life I have chosen for myself after breast cancer.

Andrea Berkowitz, INHC
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