Although we see a lot of black and orange this time of year, there’s another color that we associate with October: PINK. Most of us know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Right now pink is everywhere — and with good reason. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014, about 232,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the U.S. Everyone knows someone affected by the disease.
Over the years my family has supported the cause in multiple ways. We’ve donated, run in races and attended fundraising events to raise money for research. I’ve known survivors and ached for family members who have lost loves ones to breast cancer. But never has Breast Cancer Awareness Month hit me as hard as it did this time around.
This year, one of my dear friends, a local Steiner Ranch resident, wife and mother of two, is fighting the disease. She has a long road ahead of her, and although she has tremendous support from family, friends, neighbors and even strangers, I’m seeing up close what a toll breast cancer takes on a family.
From the beginning, Alana Weston has been very open about her story — the good, bad and the ugly. She strongly believes that if sharing can help even one person it’s worth putting herself out there. So in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month here is the personal, ongoing story of a friend and local community member. It’s much longer than my typical blog posts, but it’s important. Remember, she’s one of us.
Here’s Alana’s story.
After attending a Justin Timberlake concert in New Orleans in August, Alana felt a soreness in her left breast. She chalked it up to an ill-fitting strapless bra, one that she rarely wears, so didn’t think much of it. She did feel a small lump that evening, but wasn’t too concerned because after all, cancer isn’t supposed to hurt, right? She enjoyed the rest of her trip and almost brushed it off, but thankfully decided to schedule an appointment when she got back to Austin. Her doctor ordered a mammogram, then an ultrasound that showed a 1.6 cm lump and a 10 cm line of calcifications. She had a biopsy the very next day.
On Monday, August 18th, 2014, Alana was diagnosed with breast cancer (specifically, invasive ductal carcinoma, poorly differentiated). It came out of the blue — no prior signs and no family history. She is 39. This was tough news to receive, but once she had time to process it there seemed to be a silver lining. The cancer didn’t appear to be attached to her pectoral muscle, and doctors were optimistic they had caught it early.
So she was facing a Stage I cancer, and although scared and nervous, Alana was encouraged by so many survivor testimonials. She was optimistic and full of hope. She shared her story in a humorous post about how Justin Timberlake saved her life, because clearly if it hadn’t been for him she wouldn’t have worn that dress that required that strapless bra that pressed the tumor into her muscle causing the soreness. Yay Justin!
Her courage and optimism was so infectious that we were all ready to fight right along with her. Friends, family and even strangers provided support. People sent gifts and encouraging messages. We threw a pre-surgery party at the Oasis with pink boas, balloons, gifts, a (tasteful!) boob cake and, of course, Justin Timberlake paraphernalia. Her out of town friends sent gifts and made a video. It was a fun evening and as she danced around in her pink tiara you could see that she was ready to face this cancer head on. She even posed with pink boxing gloves to prove she was ready to fight. Good thing, too, because little did we know the extent of the fight she had ahead…
From Bad to Worse
Two days after that party, On September 23rd, Alana underwent a double mastectomy. Before they wheeled her back to surgery, we hoped and prayed that she would wake up cancer free. We just knew it.
But sadly, that wasn’t the case. During the surgery one of the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer. The surgeon removed several and sent them off for testing. Naturally, it was the first thing Alana asked when she made it to recovery after surgery. Being in the room when her husband and mom broke the news was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch. They were honest but tried to remain optimistic. Alana was crushed. She had tons of questions, but nobody had the answers. They knew this meant chemo and radiation, but they would have to wait for the pathology report to get all the details.
So the next day, with drains attached to her body, bandages across her chest and a heavy heart she went home to recover while waiting for the report. It also happened to be her daughter’s 12th birthday, so she put on a brave face, sang Happy Birthday and enjoyed cake with the family. But in private she wept. She was in a lot of pain and it hurt to move. But slowly, day after day, with help from her mom, husband, family and friends, she began to heal physically. Then, six days later, she got the pathology results.
Unfortunately, it was more bad news. Ten of the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer. Worse, she learned that one of them had broken through, indicating that there was a high probability the cancer had spread to other areas of her body.
As you can imagine, this was devastating. Alana was still in physical pain from the surgery, but the emotional toll was the worst of all. She scheduled the body scans for that Thursday. It was yet another exhausting day. Then they had to wait for the results.
The next 24 hours were excruciating. We were all on pins and needles. Finally, about 4pm that Friday there was a knock at her door. Her family doctor, who also happens to be a friend, came to break the news that no doctor wants to give. She had to tell her patient and friend that she has Stage IV cancer. It had spread to her liver and sternum. Surgery wasn’t an option due to the location of the tumors on her liver. Aggressive chemo would be the next course of action.
It felt like we were in a landslide. Alana went from a nervous but hopeful Stage I to devastating Stage IV metastatic breast cancer in a matter of days. The video she posted on her Facebook page that night sharing the news was full of raw emotion and hard to watch. How do you digest that type of news?
This is something that happens to other people. And it’s so sad when it does. We pray for them and send donations and post uplifting messages on social media. But to our friend, wife, mother and daughter? Our 39 year old, PTA volunteer, minivan driving, light up the room with her southern accent, hilarious room mom? The one full of life and energy and always up for an adventure? No way.
Yes way. It happened. And I realized that if it can happen to Alana, it can happen to anyone.
Alana will be the first to tell you she had terrible days that first week, trying to process and cope yet remain strong for her kids. She was utterly devastated. People brought meals, sent cards and flowers and offered to help. But nobody really knew what to do. We could provide emotional and even financial support, but none of us could do the one thing that we all wanted most — take away the cancer.
So she grieved. She grieved for the news she had received and what it meant for her family. She thought of her husband and her precious children, ages 8 and 12, and what they would have to deal with over the next months and years as she battles through aggressive treatments.
She desperately wished she could rewind time, or wake to find it was all a bad dream. She wanted to go back to her “normal” life, where she was so busy working and picking up kids from soccer and volleyball that she thought she was stressed. Oh how she’d give anything to have that stress again. “Normal” worries such as quarterly goals at work, what to make for dinner, piles of laundry and a messy house? Yes, please. That would be lovely.
But she knows that’s not the reality. And now that she had time to process the news she’s once again showing that same positive, fighter attitude. Alana pointed out that none of us know how much time we have left on earth, so we might as well make the most of what we do have. She realized she could lay in bed feeling sorry for herself and wallowing in fear and grief — or she could get up and go play with her kids. Make them breakfast, talk to them, listen to their fears and reassure them. Go to the soccer games and cheer on the sidelines. Braid her daughter’s hair. Do regular family things. Not always be “Cancer Alana, “ but simply be “Alana.” Live intentionally and choose to be happy. Be strong and fight. Hard. Beat this.
She knows there will be good days, so-so days and terrible days ahead. Chemotherapy starts next week, and nobody ever claimed that is fun or easy. But she’s prepared to take her fight one day at a time. Her longtime friend and hair stylist recently cut her blond hair short, in an attempt to lessen the shock when she loses it from chemo. She scoped out wigs and hats. She’s ready.
Alana feels fortunate to live in this community where her family has so much love and support. But honestly, I think it’s the other way around. We’re lucky to have such a strong and caring woman here in Steiner Ranch. She has already made such a positive impact and will continue to do so throughout her journey. She’s ready to fight and come out on top – and we’re ready to fight right along with her!
One last bit….
When I asked Alana if she had any specific things to share, she gave three pieces of advice. These are things she wished she’d paid more attention to earlier, and her reminders are a great takeaway for everyone, no matter their age or stage of life.
Alana’s Advice from the Trenches
1). Take Care of Yourself. Eat the right foods. Exercise. Make healthy choices. Alana didn’t have any other high risk factors, wasn’t overweight and had no family history of breast cancer. But she grew up in the south eating fried foods and drinking multiple sodas a day. Fast food was a staple of her diet. In recent years she shifted toward much healthier choices including organic, gluten free and now the Paleo diet. She said if she had to do it all over again she would make healthier choices much earlier. Would that have made a difference? There’s no way to know, really. Perhaps she’d still have been diagnosed with breast cancer. But at least then she wouldn’t be left thinking, “What if?” Take care of yourself today, for you don’t know what tomorrow brings.
2). Early Detection is Key. We’ve heard this before but it bears repeating again and again. Women should not only perform self-exams, but do them properly, regularly and thoroughly. Schedule your mammograms on time. And if you have symptoms, don’t ignore them. Alana remembers feeling a pain just underneath her right ribs on and off for the last several months. She even Googled it, trying to figure out what might be the cause. But it wasn’t terrible so she always chalked it up to something she might have eaten. Her liver never entered her mind, but in retrospect she wonders if this was due to the cancer growing there? Again, who knows? But she stresses the importance of listening to your body and asking questions. If something doesn’t seem right see a professional. Breast cancer is not just an older woman’s disease or something that happens to someone else. Any one of us could be next. Don’t wait.
3). Live Life to the Fullest. This is single most important piece of advice. Alana has decided to live intentionally and choose to be happy. She explains that we all have a choice. We can be frozen by fear, or we can face that fear head on. Find joy in the little things. Take time to enjoy your family and friends. Focus on the important things in life and worry less about the trivial. Know the difference. Surround yourself with positive people and shut out the haters. Enjoy and acknowledge your blessings. Because even with cancer, Alana knows she’s abundantly blessed. She is full of faith, hope and love and ready to move forward and beat it. One day at a time.
To follow Alana’s journey as she starts chemo, you can visit her Caring Bridge site here.
Or, if you wish to help her family with medical related expenses visit here: http://www.gofundme.com/A-TEAM All donations go directly to the Westons.