To be honest, I don’t really know how to begin this post, except to say that I’ve been wanting to share this story for a long time.
Paula was diagnosed six years ago, when she was pregnant with her second son, at 35 years old, with Stage IIa Breast Cancer and then four years later with Stage IV. I’ve known Paula, who I affectionately call “P,” for a long long time (since I was eighteen). First of all, she’s one of the wittiest, quirkiest, hilarious and fun women you’ll ever meet. P was one of my first mentors. She groomed me into becoming the teacher I am today, when I was working for Universal Dance Association. She was my cohort, I mean co-choreographer, for years, which really means we spent endless late nights drinking too much Diet Coke and gummy bears as we created what I think was some pretty kick-ass choreography at the time. More than anything, she’s a lifelong friend – one of those people you can just pick up talking to, no matter how much time has elapsed, and relive your old memories together and laugh about how we got to where we are now.
The problem is there hasn’t been a lot of laughing as of late. Granted we live in different time zones (LA versus Chicago), but I am self-admittingly that friend who didn’t know what to say or do, especially when the cancer returned as Stage IV, and thus, regretfully, I didn’t say or do a whole lot at all. Plus, the thing about Paula is that she’s so incredibly strong and beautiful, by looking at her, you’d never know how bad it is. I asked her a while ago, when I first started blogging, to tell her story and unfortunately didn’t follow up on it. So why now? Timing I suppose . . . I’m a mom of two now, and sometimes I think my life is challenging. Ha. Paula’s a mom of two, and a really amazing mom at that, with Stage IV Breast Cancer. In my opinion, she’s a living and breathing Super Hero.
So, here’s my friend Paula’s story, Q&A style. I got a chance to ask her questions that not only do I think people need to hear the answers to, but moreover, the questions I’ve always wanted to ask her. This woman can write, so I wanted it in her words. So here’s to my friend, Paula . . . a Super Mom like no one else I know. I love you, P. Thanks for doing this interview.
How did you find out you had Breast Cancer?
I went to my midwife when I was ten weeks along in my second pregnancy, complaining of some discharge from my left breast. She was not concerned and reassured me that the discharge was very likely just from having breastfed my first son and now being pregnant again. “Don’t worry — breasts are weird” is what a lot of childbearing women who have concerns about lumps or discharge are told. As the pregnancy progressed, the discharge increased and became blood-tinged, and I could find a lump with my fingers. I went in for an ultrasound at nine months pregnant and stayed for a mammogram and needle core biopsy. When I was called the next day with the results of the biopsy, I was also told to prepare for my son to be induced a week later and to stock up on formula because breastfeeding would be prohibited. I was really looking forward to another amazing natural childbirth and nursing experience, so the cumulative effect of the news was pretty devastating to me.
How long have you had Breast Cancer?
That’s a tough question to answer. The tumors in my left breast, which we discovered six years ago, were each one to two centimeters in diameter, so they were probably years old. I think all the hormones from my two pregnancies really gave those tumors a boost which is why they made themselves known when I was nine months pregnant with my younger son. After my mastectomies, adjuvant chemotherapy, radiation, and three and a half years on Tamoxifen, I didn’t have any CT scans to see if anything had taken root anywhere else. That’s not the standard of care. The assumption was that, if the cancer did not go to the lymph nodes, it was nowhere else in the body, so finding my liver chockablock with breast cancer was certainly a surprise.
How do you talk to your kids about having Breast Cancer?
My sons don’t remember a time when I didn’t have cancer. I explain to my six-year-old that Mommy has to go to the hospital and that I don’t feel good after treatment, and though I know he doesn’t really understand cancer, he is extremely sweet and caring. He pets my bald head and gives me kisses and snuggles. My eight-year-old is incredibly bright so I can discuss cancer and even our BRCA2 mutation with him, but I haven’t explained to him that metastatic cancer is incurable. Fortunately, the breast cancer hasn’t spread beyond my liver since we found it two years ago, so I don’t think I need to go there just yet. In the meantime, we send him to Camp Kesem
, a fabulous week-long summer camp for kids who have or had a parent with cancer. There, he gets to hang out with other kids just like him and realize he’s not alone.
What’s been the biggest change in how you live life since being diagnosed?
The biggest change is coming to terms with just not having the energy or physical capacity to do all the things I want to do. Having cancer doesn’t make you want to do the things you love to do any less and that’s been quite a drag! I have had to learn the concept of moderation, a concept I have strenuously rejected my entire life, and try not to overdo it. When I’m feeling great and skiing or running on the treadmill or just jumping around with my boys in the pool, it’s hard to force myself to do less, but if I don’t, I can seriously be tapped out for days.
Since you’ve been living with the disease for a while and in different stages, what has the difference been in your outlook as well as those around you?
Disillusionment. Since the media mainly portrays women who endure their year of adjuvant treatment and come out as pink beribboned survivors, you naturally assume the same fate for yourself. The reality is that no one knows why 30% of breast cancer becomes metastatic and only 2% of research funding goes toward Stage IV breast cancer.
What is the most helpful thing someone can do to support/help a friend or family member with Breast Cancer?
There are so many easy little ways to help that can really make a difference! Can you pick up the kids from school on the day he has chemo? Why not drop off a little bag of beautiful fresh fruit on his doorstep? Does your friend have pets? Chemotherapy compromises her immunity, so she shouldn’t be doing things like changing cat litter boxes or picking up dog poop in the yard. What helps the most, however, is understanding that your friend isn’t a cancer patient — she’s still your friend! Sometimes, she’ll want to talk about cancer stuff, but sometimes, she wants to forget she has cancer and just have fun with you the same way she always has.
With everything you know about the disease, what, in your opinion, are the best things you can do for prevention?
At this time, no one knows exactly why some people get breast cancer and some don’t. Prior to being diagnosed, I was very active, a vegetarian, and in outstanding physical condition. I was even given the very top life insurance policy available, reserved for people in fantastic health! All you can do is listen to your body and learn about how it works. You must learn to advocate for yourself, so if you sense that something is wrong, be persistent about your concerns.
Paula Hess is 41 years old and lives in Chicago with her husband, two sons, and entirely too many pets. After twenty years in sales and event production in the dance team industry, her focus has shifted to caring for her family and self full-time while undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer. In her next life, she has decided she will be a super-crunchy homebirthing midwife.