When a Cough Turns Out to Be More Than Just a Cough

In August 2010, I was performing my routine breast self-exam in the shower when I noticed a small, hard mass in my breast. I was immediately concerned, as it definitely felt out of place. After an appointment with my primary care physician, I was referred to a breast surgeon for a biopsy out of an abundance of caution. No one expected for the mass to be anything more than a cyst.

I was 26 years young, healthy and had no family history of this disease. I was also a newlywed of four months and had merely scratched the surface of my career as a pediatric RN. But, when I met with my surgeon for the results, I heard four words that changed my life forever: “You have breast cancer.” I was immediately referred to an oncologist and began treatment.

Treatment involved six rounds of chemotherapy, complete with all the nasty side effects. I lost my hair, most days I didn’t have the strength to eat or take care of myself, and I had to take an extended leave of absence from my job. I was thankful that my cancer was diagnosed early at stage 1b and was expected to have a positive response to treatment.

After finishing chemo, I had a bilateral mastectomy to remove the tissue of both my breasts and my nipples. I then had implants placed and a surgery to create the appearance of nipples. After a year of a targeted therapy drug, I was given a clean bill of health. I would need to take a hormone therapy drug called tamoxifen for at least five years, but other than that, my life returned to “normal.”

Four years later, with the support of my medical team, I gave birth to my first daughter. This was a major blessing because I was told that chemotherapy may have taken away my ability to have children naturally.

And in early 2016, I celebrated being five years cancer free! In the cancer world, you are considered to be in complete remission at the five-year mark, and your chance of recurrence is extremely low. If that wasn’t monumental enough, I gave birth to a second, healthy baby girl in December the following year.

The new year began with what I thought were expected and understandable changes to my body. I was exhausted, but what new mom isn’t? I had an energetic 3-year-old toddler and a feisty newborn. I wasn’t sleeping at night, and I woke up early every morning to get my older daughter ready for school.

It was the height of cold and flu season, and everyone in my home had been sick. So when I developed a cough, I figured it was my turn. As winter came to a close and spring was in the air, my family was finally feeling better. But I still had a cough. My doctor assumed that the cough was related to my asthma and allergies, especially since we were entering allergy season. He prescribed a new inhaler, an antibiotic to treat a sinus infection and some oral steroids, and I received a nebulizer breathing treatment in the office.

A few weeks later, my cough had worsened. I was now concerned that this may be more than an asthma flare-up. Once again, my doctor ordered the same interventions, adding a steroid shot instead of pills. I expressed my concern and asked for a chest X-ray to get a better look at my lungs. He refused.

For the next few weeks, I made no improvement. At that point, I decided to make an appointment with an allergist, hoping to have better luck. I again pushed for a chest X-ray and was granted one. When the results came back, the allergist was completely taken aback. I had a huge pleural effusion (fluid) surrounding my right lung, and that was why I’d been coughing and short of breath. I was immediately referred to a pulmonologist to drain the fluid and determine the cause.

On May 11, 2018, nearly eight years after my initial diagnosis, I was back in a doctor’s office, this time with my 5-month-old in tow, hearing those same four words: “You have breast cancer.” My cancer had returned and was now in my lung, liver and several bones. I then began my journey with metastatic breast cancer as a mom of two small children.

I started chemotherapy immediately and have had great results in controlling the growth of the tumors. Currently, my lung and liver are both clean. I also receive an infusion to treat the areas of weakened bone left after treating the cancer cells in those places. In 2019, I had a seizure, and it was discovered that I have cancer in my brain as well. Several times now I have undergone a procedure called Gamma Knife, which is a nonsurgical, specialized high-radiation treatment to tackle those areas.

This is my new normal. I go for infusions every three weeks. I have lab work, CAT scans and MRIs regularly to monitor my progress. I may be on some sort of medication for the rest of my life, but I’m still here. I’m still fighting. I’m grateful for each day that I get to spend with my family. Grateful for each memory I get to make with my girls.

It’s been 10 years since my initial diagnosis, and what a ride it’s been. I implore women (and men) to take charge of their health. Early detection is key. Make sure to perform monthly self-exams and talk to your health care provider about your concerns. Never stop being diligent about your health. Be your own advocate.

Even though my initial diagnosis was an early one, my aggressive form of cancer returned. It was so important that I continued to listen to my body and not take no for an answer. As a result, today I’m healthy and my cancer is stable. I’m thankful for this body of mine and the life it’s allowing me to live.

This resource was created with support from Daiichi Sankyo and Sanofi Genzyme.