On the blog this month, we're sharing the stories of the women that inspire us daily for everything they make happen professionally, athletically, in their communities and more. These stories have more than #unstoppable women managing to kick ass in everyday life as a common thread. All of the women we're highlighting have at some point in their lives been delivered a breast cancer diagnosis. And, they've all gone on to accomplish amazing things most people only dream of. Tara's story is no different, and in the interview below, she shares her personal story from diagnosis to recovery and beyond.
Tell us a little about yourself today. What is your occupation? Where do you live? What do you do for fun?
I have a PhD in Geography and am a University Lecturer in Geography and Environmental Science. I live in Squamish BC Canada - a little mountain town halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. Most of my fun comes from trail and mountain running or hiking, but I also love camping, walking my dog, reading, cooking, and drinking wine.
When were you first diagnosed with breast cancer? How did the diagnoses come about?
I was diagnosed in April 2014, when I was 39. I found a lump in my breast the previous summer, and had been to doctors about it twice, both times being told that it was "normal breast change". I had an ultrasound in December 2013, on which nothing showed up. Fast forward a few months and the lump had changed from being kind of soft and malleable to more hard and jagged; like I had an immovable rock in my breast. I (obviously) made another doctor's appointment, and in the meantime found blood leaking from my nipple after a run. After this, everything happened very quickly: I was sent for more imaging, including an ultrasound and mammogram; then a biopsy was taken which confirmed that the mass was cancerous.
What advice would you give to someone facing a similar diagnosis?
I recently shared a few of my top tips on my Instagram, based on my experience. Here they are:
- Make sure you know your own body, and if you think you have a lump in a breast, go see your doctor right away. Even if they say it is "normal breast change" - which it most likely is - keep monitoring it and be your own loudest advocate if you are convinced something is wrong.
- If you have been diagnosed, gather all the information you can about your exact diagnosis, prognosis, and different treatment options. No two cases are really the same. Make sure your oncologist, surgeon(s), radiologist, family doctor, and any other practitioners involved are all working together and answering any questions you have. Ask ALL the questions, just maybe not of Dr. Google ;). I said to a friend the other day that the worst part of breast cancer was feeling helpless, like you're just along for the ride on the cancer train. The more information you have, the more informed decisions you can make about your treatment. This gives you some power back.
- Join a support group of some kind. Breastcancer.org has excellent resources as well as online discussion forums you can join. I was part of an "October Surgery Sisters" group and it helped so much to read what other women were dealing with and discuss fears, concerns, and small victories with people who you know understand.
- Find a healthy outlet to deal with it. For me (of course), that was running.
- Just feel what you're feeling. I alternated among fear, defiance, sadness, numbness, and many other emotions for a whole year. You might not always feel like a "fighter" - and that is ok. You might come to hate the colour pink. And that's ok too. It's your journey.
What did your treatment look like?
I had a partial mastectomy (sometimes called a "lumpectomy"), but unfortunately, when my surgeon excised the tumour, there was not enough of a margin of healthy tissue surrounding it. Once this was determined, I had two options: to get a second partial mastectomy, plus radiation therapy; or, to get a full mastectomy. After consulting with a radiation oncologist who counselled me to avoid radiation if I could, I made the decision to get a mastectomy, plus a prophylactic mastectomy of the other breast. Although my cancer was only in one breast, part of it was an invasive type, which meant that in the future it could potentially spread to other parts of my body. Weighing these options was really difficult, but in the end I decided that my best course of action would be to minimize my risk of recurrence as best as possible. They were able to do what is called an oncotype test on the tumour, which analyses the activity of certain genes in the cancer and can give you information as to whether you would benefit from chemotherapy. Since my oncotype score was low, it was determined that chemo would not be an effective treatment in my case. My particular cancer was also estrogen-receptive, which means that it can grow in the presence of estrogen cells in the body. As such, I am also taking daily medication that blocks estrogen receptors, to further decrease my risk of recurrence.
How long have you been cancer-free?
I just passed my 5-year milestone at the beginning of October!
How did the diagnosis, treatment and current recovery impact how you approach life, work, goals?
The year I was diagnosed and going through all the consults, surgeries, and recovery, had me more or less in survival mode. It is all somewhat of a blur and at the time I just went through it step by step, which is all you can really do. The most difficult aspect of the process was feeling out of control, coupled with not being able to run for two quite lengthy periods after each surgery. Running is my foremost coping mechanism, so that was really tough for me. However, once I had time to reflect on what I had gone through, I came out the other end better off in many ways. I feel like I have gained a lot of perspective, and have lessened a bit of my Type A personality. I am still goal driven, but I am also much more likely to be kind to myself and give myself a break when I know I need it, both in terms of work and training.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments post-diagnosis?
My proudest accomplishment was running the Squamish 50k as my first ultra, 4 months after my diagnosis and 3 months after my first surgery. Not letting cancer stop me from achieving that goal was very important to me, and running that race gave me the power of being grateful for what my body could do, rather than the fear of what could happen to it. This past August, 5 years after that first ultra, I won the Squamish 50k - having improved my time by almost an hour since that first attempt. My journey with this race really parallels my cancer journey, so those are my proudest running accomplishments.
Anything else you'd like to share? How can individuals, brands, etc. best support cancer fighters/survivors in your opinion?
In terms of support, I think exactly what you are doing: sharing stories that can educate and hopefully inspire people. The more we talk and learn about it, the more power we can take back from this terrible disease. But it's also important to recognize that often, the outcome of a cancer diagnosis comes down to luck, frankly. We are so accustomed to hearing about "fighters" and "survivors", etc., but if someone doesn't survive this disease, does that make them less of a "fighter"? Definitely not. It just often means they got the crappiest end of the cancer stick. I have both friends and family who are in this camp, and so that is why I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the "warrior" language that surrounds breast cancer.
Can you provide a list of some of your most recent athletic accomplishments post-diagnosis?
Maybe repetitive from above, but:
2019: Squamish 50k 1st female; Comfortably Numb Trail Race 3rd female; Chuckanut 50k 1st Masters Female