"I went in for my very first mammogram February 22, 2017, and within an hour and a half, my cell phone was ringing off the hook from 3 different doctors wanting to schedule a biopsy as soon as possible. My life literally flipped upside down from that moment" ~ Christie Schwab
Christie Schwab, a Pennsylvania native who now calls the Finger Lakes of New York home, with husband John, daughter Olivia, and pup Rosie. She went in for her annual gynecology exam when she turned 40 in 2016. At the time, they made light of her needing to have her first mammogram, "Happy birthday, here’s your script for a mammogram, welcome to your 40s!" Being an active, otherwise healthy, working professional with a busy family, "I took the script, not even sure what I did with it." Christie recalls.
Later in the year, Christie would come across an appointment reminder for her upcoming routine visit with her gynecologist, and remembered she still needed to schedule her mammogram before that appointment. Now 41, Christie would be experiencing her first mammogram.
Going into the appointment, Christie recalls everyone making light of it, being her first time, she laughs, "This is so ridiculous the things we have to go thru as a woman." Reflecting back on the experience, Christie recalls how the technician performing
the procedure had changed her tone. "It took a little bit longer, I think, than it was suppose to," as they had kept repositioning her left breast.
"I went back to the office, working, and an hour and a half later, cell phone kept ringing, another phone number, and another phone number. My phone just kept ringing."
"I finally answered, and here it was a Doctor (from Crouse Breast Center) saying he had just been asked to review my mammogram, and there were some alarming calcifications that are not in a normal formation, they needed to get a biopsy."
"I had a lengthy conversation, he was amazing, gave me his cell phone, you are going to go home tonight and your mind is going to wonder. There was a mass, but not a tumor mass, but a mass of crystallizations."
Christie would call the doctor back three times that day, called her husband, and was physically shaking. "My life literally flipped upside down from that moment. I knew something was not ok."
Christie and her husband John would return to Crouse Breast Center on February 27, 2017 for her biopsy. "I was freezing cold. Every time I thought about it, I went cold. They laid me on the table, the doctor showed me my mammogram, they new it was DCIS (Ductal carcinoma in situ). Before doing the biopsy they were telling me I had breast cancer, and if it was what they think it is, they will not be able to save the breast."
"Right there I started crying, had not even had the biopsy yet. I went back on the table and felt like a cow, your boob is hanging through the bottom of the table, they are tugging on it, you feel really alone in that moment."
They would complete her biopsy, "my whole boob turned purple right away, would not stop bleeding, it’s an awful experience." The sample was taken across the street to their diagnostic lab for immediate review, and within an hour they called back with results. It was explained to Christie that it was their hope for it to be early stage, and that they wouldn't have to be too invasive. However, the one breast (left) would have to be removed, with the option to remove both.
“You are going to take both, I will never sit in this room ever again and have these words spoken to me. We were taking care of this. We were beating this. There would not be a second time ever.”
The hours to follow that day would be emotional for both Christie and her husband John. "My husband and I hardly spoke to each other, we just didn’t know what to say. I remember sitting there. I didn’t cry, I was shaking. He was watching and waiting for me to completely break down. I got that cold sensation, my voice was shaking, I could hear it. I kept it together. I didn’t cry."
"My wheels were turning, we are going to get through this, and I focused on my little girl. I will NOT allow this to take over."
"I made it a point the day they diagnosed me this was not going to take over my life, this was not the end, this was not going to change me, it did change me, but it did not change our life."
Christie and her husband knew they needed to let members of their family know, "One of the hard parts about any of this was telling people. You don’t even know where to start, but you need to get it out. If I talk about this, it’s making it real, maybe I’ll stop shaking." One of the hardest phone calls she would have to make, was to her father, "I didn’t want to tell my dad. Telling my family. I just relive that. The thoughts, the reactions, I wasn’t there, I couldn’t sit in a room with them. Every time I talked to my dad he cried. I got to the point where I didn’t want to call him because he just cried. It just killed me."
Together they would share the news with close family and friends. They new in those early moments, they wanted to do everything in their power to minimize the impact on their daughter. She was 8 years old at the time, and her experience with "cancer" was one of unhappy endings. With the help of close friends, they welcomed the support and filled her days with sleep-overs when necessary, and after school play-dates. While she knew her mom was sick and had to have surgery, they did their best to hold-off on using the word "cancer" at that time.
The day of Christie's double mastectomy had come, "I had no idea what to expect, when they say “mastecomy” I think of a massacre! What am I gonna look like? They are chopping them off! What in the world is going to become of me after all of this?" Unless you have already experienced what Christie was about to undertake, one can only imagine the worse case scenario, and with that comes fears of the unknown.
From how she would look post-surgery, to chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy (her tumor was estrogen fed), Christie's mind was flooded with fears and worry. "I am so scared of how it’s going to change me in ways I won’t have control over. Sex is important to the two of us, we have always connected in that way, and I just knew hormones would change my relationship with my husband."
"Not only that, my body image. I was always a pretty fit person, and always put so much emphasis on how I felt, and like every other women in the world, look at themselves in the mirror, picking themselves apart, never satisfied, and didn’t know how that was going to change."
It was the evening before her surgery and their close friends had been listening to Christie's fears and worries leading up to this important day. "I’m not worried about my house getting cleaned, the things I worried about were: I’m going to run out of Q-tips, who’s going to get Q-tips for John, he likes to use Q-tips for everything!” They brought her a giant care package of "stuff", a case of Q-tips, and ridiculous things which made her laugh. Additionally, they had pooled together a schedule of meals, and support with looking after her daughter while she recovered from surgery.
"That is what I worried about, Q-tips and who was going to take care of my daughter."
The next morning, March 24, 2017, would be the second time Christie would remember crying. "It was a weird feeling. I was kinda calm, didn’t feel overwhelmed, didn’t feel like I was going to break-down. They had to do this mapping, where they shoot radioactive dye into your lymphatic system. I was laying there on the table, laying there (husband sitting across from her), looking up at the ceiling, and examining the ceiling tiles. You have no idea how many ceiling tiles you kinda count! Oh maybe they need to replace those. Oh this must be a well taken care of hospital... These are the things that go through your head! This place needs some updates. Is this the right place for me to have this surgery? Is it clean enough, am I going to get an infection?"
"Laying there and your mind just wonders about the most ridiculous things. I laid there just feeling very alone, for whatever reason. I laid there and the tears were running out of my eyes. I couldn’t control it, they shot dye into my system because they were looking for more cancer. Looking to find more cancer, that flipped a switch in my head."
Christie would come out of surgery to learn her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes (they removed 15 lymph nodes), which meant it was not early detection, and reality of being sick for awhile sunk in. Up to this moment, they had been able to avoid sharing with their daughter that her mom had cancer. Christie was terrified of her daughter seeing her in such a way. Though with the support of family, friends and husband, they would get through the recovery period as they prepared for the next phase of treatment - chemotherapy.
One of the great many challenges faced by those impacted by cancer, losing control over important aspects of life/living. They do advise cancer patients who are preparing for chemotherapy to consider cutting their hair before treatment begins, and being fitted for a wig. While cutting her hair and acquiring an adorable new look was within her comfort zone, being fitted for a wig was not, and something she held off on doing till she had no choice but to go. She was, at the time, one week out from her first chemo treatment, and this too was something she had no control over, yet had to get thru it.
The morning of her wig-fitting, Christie would have a welcome surprise as two of her close friends found out the date she was going, and took the day off from work. They were not going to let her go through this on her own. In sitting with Christie, one learns quickly she is a driven woman, unafraid to do what has to be done. In that moment, she did not want to do what had to be done.
"I am not going in there. I’m not doing this. The car is running, it’s freezing cold and all of sudden I grabbed my purse and went running into the shop. I don’t know what came over me, not like me. I just go out, slammed the door!"
"I walked in and had this attitude with the lady. I was just like “show me what you’ve got.” I was miserable, and acted like it was her fault I was there, so mad I was there, but knew I had to do it."
"After awhile, I don’t know what changed my attitude, but we were laughing. We were all trying on the sillier looking wigs, making light of the whole thing. We settled down and picked a handful to try on for real. I put one of the wigs on and started crying, hyperventilating, and began having an anxiety attack."
"I can’t do this! I can’t do this! I CAN do this! Suck it up! Just do it!"
She did it! They found her a beautiful wig that matched her natural hair color, and one which would later prove to fool even those, who at a later date, knew she lost her hair from chemotherapy. However, despite finding the perfect match, Christie would never come to find comfort in wearing the wig.
"I always had a problem with it. I put it in my closest and it sat on the floor for a very long time, but one day I had to put it on. I had to go to work. I felt ridiculous putting it on."
"I don’t want people looking me. I don’t like to be the center of attention. I don’t want people looking at me, and felt like everyone was looking at me. They knew I lost my hair, and now all of sudden I’m walking around with this silky beautiful mane of hair. I felt so uncomfortable."
She would later come to understand why she never came around to wearing the wig. Christie explained how she has never been, or needed to be, one who managed a routine around her hair style/look. Not one to own hair product and kept a hair dryer on hand for those days when it's too cold to leave the house with a wet head of hair. However, she shares, “this wig was just so perfectly done, you couldn’t mess it up.” Despite the wig being of natural hair, in wearing the wig, for Christie, it was not a natural reflection of herself.
"I have sick sense of humor about that stupid wig. I use to call it the dead squirrel. I would get in the car, take it off and toss into the backseat, then you’d walk past my car and look, "oh my god it looks like a dead squirrel!” Just this furry little thing in a ball in the back of my car. I hated that thing!"
Christie is still living her breast cancer story, and while we talked over hot tea at her home in Owasco, NY on the morning of February 5, 2018, not even a year since going in for her first mammogram, she reflects on how the diagnosis did changed her. From February 27, 2017 to current day, she had 1 biopsy, bilateral mastectomy where they removed 15 lymph nodes, 14 weeks of chemo, 2 weeks in the hospital on major antibiotics for mastitis, surgery to remove one implant and replace due to infection, 3 additional weeks of at home IV antibiotics, and 6 weeks of radiation. All of this while working full time, raising a 9 year old daughter, and trying to keep her life as normal as possible.
"The hardest part of this whole process was I had no control over the majority of my whole past year."
It's easy to take for granted how fortunate we are to make choices for ourself, unless we are faced with a challenge which dictates the choices we must make. Listening to Christie share to detail the challenges of 2017, from having to endure two major surgeries which required her to live day-to-day with drains coming out of their body, to being so sick from a post surgery infection that prevented her from being with her daughter for an extended period of time, to letting go of the old image of herself, now embracing her new self.
Christie, while never a Girl Scout, is one at heart. She thrives to be active, spending time outside camping, fishing, walking, working in the yard. Name an outdoor activity and there is a good chance Christie would be up for it. While she and her husband made sure their daughter's active lifestyle was unaltered, unfortunately for Christie, due to the effects of treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy), a compromised immune system, her active lifestyle came to a halt. The impact of treatment for breast cancer alters the body's abilities to be at it's best.
The impact of breast cancer on women particularly (men are susceptible to the disease) is humbling. Christie, despite having to let get and welcome what comes with choosing to survive and thrive, has kept her humor and wit, "People don’t realize the weight gain that comes with this type of cancer. I always joked that I had to go and get the fat cancer, and not the skinny cancer." She acknowledges that's a bad joke, however, the vast majority of women treated for breast cancer not only have to let go of a life they once knew, they are often forced to let go of a body they once knew.
For Christie, her husband and daughter, their story and how breast cancer has come to impact their lives is still unfolding. They still relive the experience every time she goes in for a scan, where she knows they are looking for cancer, and just hoping they come back with positive news. It's very stressful and many women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result, Christie included.
"People say I was so graceful (in how she's handled her experience), but I had no choice to get through it the way I got through it. I had a child watching my every move."
Through all this, in the lowest of moments, being a mother and the love a mother has for her daughter, clearly played a significant role in Christie's ability to dig deep for strength and will to "get through." While she managed to maintain as normal of a life as possible for her family, not allowing breast cancer to take over or change their way of living, it did change her perspective on life. Life is to celebrated and lived regardless of cancer.
"We work double hard for something I hope we both get to enjoy someday. Stock piling money in the retirement for someday. I get it, it’s important and we want to be able to retire. To live a good live and travel like we always wanted to, but at the same time, why couldn’t we spend a little of that money now and travel with our daughter while we are healthy." ~ Christie Schwab / Breast Cancer Thriver