I am no author. I am a photographer who never thought I would be a part of the Pink Sisterhood, but in May 2011 diagnosed with Stage 3A triple negative breast cancer, I joined the club.
A 44-year-old photographer originally from Fort Mill, living in Rockville Centre, NY for the past 16 years, I was finally getting busy with photography and pet sitting work when I experienced a sore left breast and a swollen lymph node. This led to 2 needle biopsies, a lumpectomy, 8 wicked chemo treatments, radiation 5 days a week for 7 weeks, and a lot of photos. I have always had incredible coping skills and a positive attitude, so I wasn’t going to let the scariest time of my life get me down. I had my camera with me for every appointment and treatment. The first photo I took on my journey was the day after surgery of the drainage tube that was coming out of my left side. I felt like Frankenstein.
I am not the normal Breast Cancer patient because I didn’t panic, but when hearing the words “You have Cancer,” my world was turned upside down. I chose to stay positive, increase my intake of veggies and fruits, and photograph my journey. I embraced my baldhead and laughed as much as I could. I even dressed as Charlie Brown for Halloween. I continued to work fulltime, take photos, pet sit and install 6 photo exhibits during 2011.
How My Journey Began
Monday, February 20, 2011, I was at the hematologist/oncologist office for a routine blood test after 4 years of seeing him for a high white blood cell count. I told him my left breast was sore, which I simply thought might be a pulled muscle from carrying my camera bag over the weekend in NJ. Dr. K examined me and found no swollen lymph nodes or lumps in the breast, but scheduled a mamo and sonogram for me the following week. I went home not worried, but the next morning after seeing Dr. K, as I was taking a shower, I felt an egg size lump under my left arm. I called Dr. K and he said it was probably an infection, so he gave me antibiotics for 2 weeks and the lymph node went from the size of an egg to the size of a grape. I saw Dr. K every other week until May 6th. At that point, we decided it was time to see a surgeon and have the lymph node removed. He sent me to a surgeon, who sent me for an ultrasound and biopsy.
Diagnosis of Breast Cancer
Thursday, May 24, 2011, the day I will never ever forget as long as I live and I am determined to live a very long and eventful life, I was told I had breast cancer. It was surreal at first, but then I realized “wait a minute, where’s the owner’s manual for this crap?” What am I suppose to do? What questions should I be asking? I instantly had 3 new doctors...an oncologist, a surgeon, and a radiation oncologist.
I got the phone call while I was at work. I called Greg (my long time boyfriend) and told him and my supervisor at the same time. Hearing myself say, “I have breast cancer” was weird. As I was in the car driving home for the day, I had a brief moment of Why Me?!! Then I decided to take control. So what, I thought. I have breast cancer, I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. Research and treatments have come a long way and I am NOT going to let this thing beat me. I WILL get rid of it.
Breast MRI and PET Scan
Thursday, May 27, 2011, everything was in fast motion. I was leaving for a visit to Fort Mill and the opening reception for my photo exhibit at Town Hall. Before I left, tests had to be taken and doctors had to be seen. Questions were asked about cancer running in my family. I knew of only one person that had and survived breast cancer 35 years ago in my family. That was my Aunt on my mom’s side. The BRCA genetic test that was run was negative, so my sister was relieved. I still wondered – Why Me?! Something every cancer patient struggles with is the WHY. Was it too much candy? Was it stress? Was it eating the pizzas and other junk foods? Was it environmental? The list of WHY could go on forever.
The tests I had to have were a Breast MRI and a PET scan. The results would tell me if cancer had spread and determine the size of the tumor as the ultra sound and mammogram only showed calcifications. It was frightening to think that there might be more cancer than I knew of already. I can tell you my breast were not ready for more squeezing, needles, or scanning.
After my lumpectomy and axillary clearance, it was confirmed that I had Stage 3A triple negative breast cancer. The actual tumor, I was told, was tiny and no one could feel it. I had felt the pain from it. It was on the bottom of my left breast and it was like sleeping on rocks. Cancer was found in 6 of the 17 lymph nodes removed. The cancer had not metastasized to other organs or bones.
I chose the conventional approach with my Oncologist. I did the 8 wicked chemo treatments and 7 weeks of radiation. With all the poison (chemo) going in my body, I was glad that I was already eating healthy. I still needed to add more greens to my diet. I wanted to do more with my eating habits to help my body heal. I started making changes like getting more exercise, eating more vegetables and fruits, and adding lots more greens and wheat grass to my smoothies. I stopped eating red meat, drinking sodas, eating candy and sweets. I started drinking lots of water with lemon and green tea with no sugar. I was walking 2 miles or more a day and, yes, even through chemotherapy.
I had to wear a compression sleeve. I still wear it when I need to and when I am taking a flight, even though I’m not at high risk for developing lymphedema. I wear it when flying home to visit my family in Fort Mill. Going through the airports is always fun because my sleeve is covered with good wishes from friends and family in SC. Yes, I had people sign it for me because I didn’t like its flesh-colored, boring look. I like the tattooed look of it now much better.
I was already familiar with my oncologist, Dr. K. He had been seeing me for the 3 years prior because my white blood cell count was high. There had been no signs to make him think I had cancer. I remember telling him I never wanted to be sitting in that chemo room. And here I was now starting my path to surviving cancer. I saw him after surgery. He told me what treatments I would need, how often treatments would be, which poisons would be put into my body, and what side effects I might have. Greg was with me to let Dr. K know that I would be eating a whole food diet and smoothies as a way of fighting the cancer.
Preparing For Chemo
I met with the chemo nurse to go over what would take place and spoke to a couple of people that were getting chemo the day I was there. I would start Chemo on August 4, 2011. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be on my first day. I drove myself. I brought snacks, water and my iPad with videos and music ready to go. The nurses were great and let me document my poison, as we so fondly called it, by taking lots of photos.
Chemotherapy and Side Effects
How did I cope with my chemo? Well, I have to say very well indeed. I was surprised by the way I dealt with it and how it actually affected me. I seemed to always have a dizzy drunken feeling. I went for my 2-mile walk every morning that I could. There were two mornings after chemo kicked in that I just didn’t want to do anything but lay around.
Chemotherapy affects the immune system and reduces the body’s defense against infection. I was particularly at risk of picking up infections in the 7–14 days after chemotherapy when the level of white blood cells was lowest. I was told to take my temperature regularly and to contact the hospital straight away if it goes above 100.5ºF or if I suddenly feel unwell.
Chemo side effects vary considerably and not all women experience them. Every woman’s body is different; so one woman may experience a side effect that another woman never will have. Before the chemo, I was given a fact sheet containing a list of all possible side effects that I may experience. The steroids that I was taking caused my face to break out really bad during the first 2 treatments. Then there was the fatigue and hot flashes that I am still experiencing. A really bad side effect was the fact that food was tasteless, but my smoothies were still wonderful. I had them twice a day and lunch was usually a salad.
I had gotten my long blondish brown hair cut short by my hairdresser in Charlotte, NC in July. I liked having short hair again and everyone around me seemed to like it, too. I wasn’t sure what I would do when I went bald. Would I go with bandanas, wigs, hats or just go bare?
I noticed that my hair was becoming very dry. It started coming out in handfulls, but no one seemed to notice but me. Just like my Oncologist said, my hair fell out after the 3rd treatment. I did dye it pink before it fell out, then I shaved off what remained and totally embraced the baldness.
Time for Radiation
After 4 months of chemotherapy, it was time for radiation. A mold of my upper body was made as l lay on this warm pillow and had a cat scan. I needed photos of this so the technician took a couple for me. I took photos of my finished body mold. Radiation would be 5 days a week for 7 weeks. Fun! I wanted the earliest morning appointment (6 am), so I could go before work. The appointment only lasted 15 minutes. I took photos my first day of radiation and posted them on my blog. The technician there was so excited she told someone who told the hospital Administrator and I was told through the techinicaian that the photos had to come off the blog. Well, I took down the ones in question, but continued taking photos. Every time I had to visit the hospital, I put on my glasses, hat, and scarf to cover my face. The security guard stopped me once to ask what was going on and I told him I felt like I had a wanted poster with my name on it for taking photos in the hospital. He laughed and just waved at me whenever he saw me.
Documenting My Journey
My passion for photography is a powerful motivator that has kept me strong and positive during some of my darkest days. It was a great way to relieve the depression that can come with having cancer. I took photos, as I always do, of the cats and flowers, but I also started doing a lot more self-portraits.
The first photo I took was the day after surgery of the drainage tube coming out of me. I totally felt like Frankenstein. I posted on my blog and Facebook about how I was feeling along with photos that I took. I noticed that people were inspired by my story. As a photographer, I do hope to inspire others with my photos and my story by just doing what I love to do – take photos.
Like all the other cancer patients out there, I know that destiny is largely in my own hands. I have chosen to focus on living a healthy lifestyle through nutrition, exercise, and positive thinking.
It has been a little over a year now that my world was turned upside down and here I am still taking photos and still fighting the cancer with whole foods. Diet and positive attitude are the biggest part of the healing process. I have both and will continue to have both.
Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.
Photos by Darlene Cunnup.
About Darlene Cunnup
Darlene Cunnup is a Fort Mill native, currently residing in NY. She visits Fort Mill often and offers photo sessions when she’s in town. She volunteers with Shoots for a Cure--where she offers free photo sessions to cancer patients and their families. It’s her way of “paying it forward.” For more of Darlene’s story and her photos, go to photosbydarlene.blogspot.com.