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Nicole Collins-Van Zant
4/11/2017 Latest post:
Welcome to my CaringBridge website. I am using the site to share my story and to keep family and friends updated on my journey as I navigate my diagnosis with breast cancer. I
appreciate all of the love, support, prayers, positive vibes and well wishes I have received.
Here is my story.
I am a wife. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am an aunt. I am a friend. I am a colleague. And on December 23rd 2016 I added cancer patient to the list.
It was a day that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I will never forget waking up that morning after having arrived in the Bay Area from San Diego late the night before. Nick (my then fiance-now husband) and I were home to celebrate the holidays for the next week with our families. We were about to walk out the door of my dads house to meet our friends for lunch when I received the phone call. It was my gynecologist. She had the results from my biopsy that was done two days before. The lump that I had felt in the shower a week ago, and had seen her about 5 days before, was cancer. She told me I had triple negative grade 3 invasive mammary carcinoma with necrosis (whatever that meant). But my suspicions were right. I knew it. I knew it when the radiologist was reviewing my mammogram and ultrasound scans with me before my biopsy procedure. I could tell by the way she was talking to me. I could tell by the way she was looking at me. I knew it wasn't good.
I looked into Nick's eyes while I was on the phone and he was watching me like a hawk as I received the news. I watched as fear, confusion and pain crossed over his face. The news we were fearing and mulling over for the last 2 days was here and it was breaking his heart. I got off the phone and ran directly into my dad's arms to break the news to him. The 31 year old woman he raised and loved was facing the terrible disease that he lost his mother to almost 20 years ago. The same disease that he watched his sister valiantly CONQUER 15 years prior. And it was the disease, though hers was lung cancer and not breast, that we watched MY mother fight for almost 3 years before passing 8 years ago. And now it was my turn? I couldn't stand there anymore. I needed to do something and I needed to share the news with my loved ones. I just could not sit alone and silent in my own thoughts and fears. Everyone was shocked and scared, of course. They were confused, as was I. There were a lot of questions and most of them I didn't have answers to. I didn't know what my diagnosis meant. I didn't know what the next steps were other than I was meeting with a breast specialist surgeon the following Wednesday. I didn't know how I felt. I didn't know what to say. And I didn't know how anyone could help me. I tried to be positive and enjoy Christmas with my family; but in all honesty I spent the next 5 days feeling numb, confused and completely and utterly terrified. I could not wait to get back to the doctors office in San Diego so they could give me some answers. I needed answers.
After returning to San Diego we immediately began meeting with my "team" of specialists. I met with my breast specialist surgeon first, then my oncologist, my radiation oncologist and finally a fertility specialist. After meeting with each we had a treatment plan. I was to start with 6 months of chemotherapy starting January 19th and would follow with surgery (lumpectomy vs. mastectomy TBD). Then I would finish with 6.5 weeks of radiation treatment. But before we could begin, they needed conduct what felt like never ending tests and procedures. Bone scans. MRIs. CT scans. PET scans. Echo tests. Blood tests. Injections. Genetic testing. I also underwent surgery for my port-a-cath placement (we named the device Portia) as I elected to receive chemo through the device versus through IV each time.
One day in the midst of all the testing prior to treatment I was working to clean up the house a bit. I needed to make room for my "cancer binders" and books. We had a spot where I had kept my wedding planning binder and magazines. Nick and I were planning our October wedding. Well, we were up until December 23rd 2016, that is. That day as I took my wedding planning items and shoved them in a separate corner to make room for all my cancer items, I began to break down. I knew that our wedding had to be postponed. The day we were dreaming of and planning with such excitement wasn't going to happen and I had NO idea when it would. But Nick and I began talking about it and realized that what mattered the most to us was being married and committed to each other, not a big fancy wedding. Cancer may have taken away our big wedding but it wasn't going to stop us from getting married. We decided we would say our vows in a secret private ceremony with just our immediate family members at my dad's house. We were going to get married now while I still felt good and healthy and while I still had my hair and felt like Nicole. And our January 14th, 2017, we did exactly that, and it was the most perfect and beautiful day.
On January 19th I began my first round of chemo with two drugs that are commonly given to treat breast cancer, Adriamycin and Cytoxan. Chemo has proven to be
particularly challenging on me both physically and emotionally. I have experienced nausea, extreme fatigue, night sweats, mouth sores, nail discoloration, joint and back pain. But the emotional effects have been equally difficult. On a regular basis, I experience anxiety attacks where my heart seems to be beating out of my chest and I am finding myself short of breath. And about 2 weeks after my first treatment I lost my hair. I knew it was going to happen and I was prepared with my wig (we named her Victoria), but I don't think I was truly prepared for the pain I would feel watching my husband shave my head. And looking at myself in the mirror for the first time was one of the hardest moments yet. I am not the girl that changes her hair frequently, I didn't recognize the woman in the mirror anymore. Nick was a champ, though, and has continued to reassure me that I am still beautiful and he doesn't see the bald head. He still sees me.
Though my journey thus far has been difficult, I have tried to remain as positive as I can. I've asked a lot of questions. How? What? Where? But I am trying to steer my mind away from the question of "Why me? This is just a blip and I know I will go on to lead a very long healthy life. There is no other option. I feel that I have the best doctors in the land and am trusting their expertise. I know that I have the best family and friends around who are on a daily basis reminding me that I am strong and tough and I will get through this. I am so lucky to have friends that put on TWO, yes, TWO walks in my honor. On February 12th in Huntington Beach, more than 60 friends and family walked in support of my fight. And simultaneously, in Livermore, CA, a group consisting of family and friends marched for the same exact reason. In addition to the walks, my friends set up a site that raised more than $12,000 to assist with my medical expenses which blew my mind!!!I have received countless calls, texts, cards, gifts, visits, meals and prayers and I am so humbled and grateful to every single one of you.
To help guide me through my journey I have found great solace in a private online support group hosted on Facebook called the 'Young Survivor Coalition'. It is a site that is for women under the age of 40 battling breast cancer. I plan to stay as a member on the site for many years to come so that I can take what I am learning and experiencing everyday to help those women in need who are just like me.
Throughout the last few months I have been explained my diagnosis several times and I have done my own research on the subject. Though the statistics and information I find may be scary and hard to read at times, I've realized that I need to read it and face it.
For anyone curious, here is my diagnosis broken down:
*TRIPLE NEGATIVE- Sub-types of breast cancer are generally diagnosed based upon the presence, or lack of, three “receptors” known to fuel most breast cancers: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). The most successful treatments for breast cancer target these receptors. Unfortunately, none of these receptors are found in women with triple negative breast cancer.
*GRADE 3- High Grade: Grade 3 cells look very different from normal cells. They grow quickly in disorganized, irregular patterns, with many dividing to make new cancer cells.
*INVASIVE MAMMARY CARCINOMA- Cancer that has spread from where it began in the breast into nearby tissue is called invasive breast cancer. Typically the cancer has started either in the milk duct (Invasive Ductal Carcinoma) and has invaded nearby tissue. Or the cancer began in a breast lobule (Invasive Lobular Carcinoma) and spread to nearby tissue. In my case, the cancer did not begin in either the duct or the lobule, so is considered "mammary".
*NECROSIS- If the pathology report says that tumor necrosis is present, this means that dead breast cancer cells can be seen within the tissue sample. Its presence suggests a more aggressive breast cancer.
*STAGE 2A- The tumor is between 2 and 5 cm across and is not found in lymph nodes.
Thank you for reading my story. Throughout my treatments, Nick or I will try to "journal" and provide updates on my progress. Check out gallery for some pictures from my journey, my walks and our wedding!