“I was flabbergasted when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of just 50,” said Lynette Wiest. “I had three kids before I turned 30. I breastfed for a total of six years. I was a runner who once completed the Marine Corps Marathon in under five hours (with 41 seconds to spare). I only bought organic meats and dairy! I thought I was doing everything just right.
“My family history does shed some light on how it could have happened, but not in the way you might expect. My grandparents, aunts, uncles – none of them had cancer. But my father, who was from China, did. So too did my mother, who grew up in St. Paul. And we all shared one thing in common: our family home in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where the well water could have been contaminated by pesticides from any number of farms.
“It was May 5th, 2021 – the day of my daughter’s college graduation – when a pain inside my right breast drove me to the emergency room. I thought it was just an issue with my implant, but I got my real diagnosis two days later: HR+, HER2- stage three breast cancer.
“As an adult nurse practitioner who has specialized in hospice care, I understood what could lie ahead of me. But as a huge Stephen King fan, I also couldn’t help remembering those far-reaching words: ‘Get busy living or get busy dying.’
“I did six months of chemotherapy. I started off with four treatments of doxorubicin, which is also known as ‘the red devil’ both for its color and its side effects. I followed that up with 12 treatments of paclitaxel and 36 rounds of radiation. I was also put on tamoxifen, an estrogen inhibitor, and abemaciclib, which was approved for treating stage three breast cancer right around when I was wrapping up chemo.
“I knew what kind of illness to expect from so many treatments. Three different anti-nausea medications helped. So did anti-fatigue treatment, although I still have to take care not to overexert myself if I want to avoid having to stay in bed for three days. What I did not anticipate was just how badly chemo would affect my memory. One time I told my husband Tom that we should go see the new Spider-Man movie (we’re geeks like that). He looked at me kind of funny and asked if I was kidding. ‘We just saw the movie yesterday,’ he said. ‘You cried when Aunt May died.’
“I couldn’t tell my cancer story without fawning over my husband, at least for a little bit. He took me to every radiation treatment. He sat by my side through every chemo appointment. He was there for me while the side effects wreaked havoc on my mind and body. Tom is my angel … my wonderful, handsome furniture-selling guardian angel.
“One thing I was determined not to lose was my hair. It’s not about vanity. Or, to be fair, it’s not just about vanity. It’s also about control. I had a friend in Raleigh who discovered a treatment called ‘cold capping’ during one of her own bouts with breast cancer. It’s basically a special bonnet that holds four pounds of dry ice – horribly uncomfortable to wear for reasons I probably don’t have to explain. But thanks to it, I only lost about 50 percent of my hair, and the loss was evenly spread out.
“My oncologist actually discouraged me from cold capping, which he explained could interfere with the chemo. One of the nurses became downright rude when I brought it up. Now, here’s the funny thing: cold capping is actually quite common in Europe, where it’s covered by national healthcare. But here in America, where hospitals don’t make money off it, cold capping is usually treated like crackpottery.
“I decided to have the offending organs removed altogether. ‘I’m 50 years old,’ I told myself. ‘I don’t need my breasts anymore.’ And after enduring all that chemo, all that radiation, all that sickness, and finally a double mastectomy, my surgeon was shocked to discover a tumor growing inside my other breast as well. Just lying there, undetected all that time. Worse yet, the tumor we did know about hadn’t shrunken one bit. It was apparently completely unaffected by the chemo.
“I had many wonderful doctors during my treatment. My radiation oncologist was one of my biggest cheerleaders. He told me I shouldn’t waste any time worrying about the high chance that the cancer will come back. ‘Live your life – enjoy it – and move forward from here.’
“But doctors are still human. They make mistakes, and they ultimately do work for a very large and very profitable industry. That’s why you should never blindly defer to expert opinions. Do your own research. Get a second opinion. Get a third. Even when you’re told nothing is wrong – but you’re sure something is – pursue it. Nothing is black and white when it comes to cancer.”