Interviewer: Sue DeGregorio-Rosen, RN, CLNC, Contributing Editor
Nique is a 53-year-old woman, from Boston MA. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She is a Registered Professional Nurse, Masters prepared, who is currently working on her Doctorate in Nursing Practice, while doing research on a controversial topic called ” Cannabis Use Disorder.”
Nique is divorced, a mother of two grown children, a grandmother, and a Veteran of the United States Marine Corps, where she was trained in electronics and worked as a teletype repair tech stateside for 2 years. This is her story.
NP: Nique, tell us about your professional background.
Nique: I am a graduate of Salve Regina University with a Bachelor of Science degree in May of 1995. I went on to achieve my Master of Science in Nursing Leadership in 2012 from Regis University, CO, and am working on my Doctorate in Nursing Practice. My current practice is in psychiatric nursing.
NP: When did you first discover that you had breast cancer?
Nique: I was 43 y/o the first time I heard the words ” You have breast cancer” in August of 2011. I had a lump in my breast for years. It was a tiny lump that moved around. The myth with breast cancer is that the lump does not move around. That is not always the case, as in my own experience, so what I will say to all our readers, please get yourself evaluated if you ever feel something suspicious. Self-examination is so important.
NP: Did you have that suspicion beforehand?
Nique: No, I had that lump in my left breast for years and thought it to be benign.
NP: What was your initial reaction like?
Nique: I was in total disbelief. The mammogram came back as suspicious, and I had to return for an additional ultrasound and needle biopsy of the site in question. I was in disbelief. It wasn’t until the results of the needle biopsy came back that I knew for sure and believed that I had breast cancer.
NP: Can you tell us about your treatment?
Nique: In November of 2011. I underwent a total left breast mastectomy at Brigham& Women’s Hospital in Boston, Ma. I had both non-invasive and invasive cancer cells that fully accommodated my left breast and my oncology team felt this was my best option. I did not need chemotherapy or radiation treatment at that time. My oncologist had performed an oncotype test with me and the results showed that I had a 16% chance of a recurrence. The average woman has a 12% chance of developing breast cancer, so my odds were slim. At least that’s what I perceived it to mean, I had no idea that 18 months later I would hear those words from my doctor ” Your breast cancer is back, I am so sorry.” And then, I remembered the wise words that a friend had once told me medicine is an art, it’s not just a science.”
NP: Can you tell us about that second time?
Nique: The second diagnosis was different. I had another hard, pea size, approximately 1.5 cm lump that had formed on the scar from the original surgical site of my left mastectomy under my left arm. I showed it to my plastic surgeon. At this point in time, he stopped any further reconstruction, and we contacted my surgical oncologist.
From the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes I knew it was back. More testing was required and along with testing, more time was also required. There is so much anxiety connected with time. I felt like a ticking time-bomb.
My 14-year-old daughter had accompanied me to that appointment, she was only a child, and I watched as her heart was breaking. She held onto me, and I cradled her in my arms and told her that we were going to be alright. I had to be, for my children.
NP: What happened next?
Nique: The day before my surgical procedure, to remove the lump and biopsy, we witnessed *The Boston Marathon Bombing. I was greeted at Brigham by a S.W.A.T. Team in their black uniforms donned with M16’s. As a former Marine, I knew that weapon well. Here is where I began to experience a whole new perception of war and combat, between my own life, and the overwhelming catastrophe that had occurred just hours prior to my admission.
*The Boston Marathon bombing was a domestic terrorist attack that took place during the annual Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Two terrorists, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, planted two homemade pressure cooker bombs, which detonated 14 seconds and 210 yards apart at 2:49 p.m., near the finish line of the race, killing 3 people and injuring hundreds of others, including 17 who lost limbs.
My perception of life and its interpretation sat humbly around me with the healthcare team that began to prep me for surgery.
When the procedure was completed, I asked my surgical oncologist what he thought. He was such a kind professional, but his words stung when I heard him say that it was a 50/50. His body language and his eyes were beginning to reveal to me the reality that I was being prepared for within the next 10 days. As I dressed to return home there was another bomb scare. The hospital was on lock down, and so was I, both emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It was frightening.
Nine days later I would be told with certainty that my breast cancer had returned. This time, more aggressive and this time my treatment would be very different.
NP: How was your treatment different?
Nique: I was set to begin my 16-week journey with chemotherapy, followed by 33 days of radiation. The side effects that I suffered from the chemo was nausea and severe constipation. I lost my hair. The severity of side effects varies greatly from person to person. those were mine, what I experienced. I would begin to feel the effects on the 3rd day after chemo and when I would start to feel better, the cycle would begin again. My chemo lasted for 16 weeks both orally and through infusions. When the chemotherapy ended, I was given a month’s reprieve before beginning 33 days of radiation treatment. My last 7 radiation treatments were of a higher frequency radiation that targeted the tumor and the areas surrounding it.
NP: Did you ever lose hope, or become afraid of dying?
Nique: I was devastated. However, this is a difficult question for me to answer authentically.
As a teenager I struggled with anorexia, anxiety, depression, panic attacks and chronic suicidality. I suffered from my first suicide attempt when I was 16 y/o. And there have been moments in my life, since my initial diagnosis that I have stopped and thought why did I choose treatment, not just once but twice in my life? What is my purpose?
My purpose was to find my purpose, my purpose to live, to be a survivor and to prosper. That purpose is my love for my family, my children, and my mother, they are my purpose to go on, to fight for them. Three months prior to my breast cancer diagnosis, my brother was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and I felt my mother’s pain, as a mother, myself. I remember her words, ” I can’t lose my children before me.” I had put my own children through so much in their younger years with my mental health issue and my eating disorder. I saw my 14 y/o daughter’s tears when she thought she may lose me, for real, and that was because my breast cancer was concrete, it was for real, where my mental health issues were not, and I knew I needed to fight. I had found my purpose and that had given me hope. I truly believe my breast cancer returned because there was something I needed to learn, someone I needed to touch. That someone was me.
NP: I would like to touch on another subject, one that we both share a common professional interest in controversial treatment modalities. Did you use Cannabis for your cancer treatments?
Nique: I did not begin to use cannabis until my second battle with breast cancer. It was during chemotherapy that I found I was allergic to anti-emetics. Cannabis helped with the nausea, the insomnia and, any neuropathy I endured. Although today I am in remission, I continue to use Cannabis for my mental health, and I believe it may be keeping my breast cancer at bay as I do not use any pharmaceuticals otherwise recommended for breast cancer patients, such as tamoxifen, Tamoxifen enhances my depression, mood swings and suicidal ideation, where Cannabis seems to alleviate my disease.
NP: How did you learn about introducing Cannabis for your cancer treatment?And can you tell us how it was helpful both physically and spiritually?
Nique: I would like to first thank Steve Placek, for helping me through the legalities of obtaining my Cannabis patient card in Rhode Island and for connecting me to my caregiver, Chapman Dickerson. Chappy came to my home with a car package filled with an array of cannabis products. This loving, compassionate man helped me to understand what I needed to treat and what my best options were based on my medical history.
Cannabis helped my nausea, anorexia, and my insomnia. I found that I was also comfortable enough to have the ability to look deep inside my thoughts and feelings. I began to open the parts of my emotional self that had been blocked for so many years. I understood the trauma of being faced with a cancer diagnosis, a very real traumatic life event. I now understand the importance of the spiritual aspect in medicine, something that traditional medicine had not offered me.
NP: What would you like to say to other women about early detection and the importance of routine mammograms?
Nique: Breast self-exam is very important. Routine mammograms are important. This needs to be an active discussion in health class, with providers and in teaching our own children and loved ones, in the home.
Women need to understand that it’s ok to understand their bodies without shame or guilt.
I had no family history of breast cancer and I do not have the BRCA gene. (A positive test result for the BRCA gene means that you have a mutation in one of the breast cancer genes, BRCA1 or BRCA2, and therefore a much higher risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer compared with someone who doesn’t have the mutation. But a positive result doesn’t mean you’re certain to develop cancer)
Breast cancer does not discriminate. Men can get breast cancer too.
NP: How are you feeling today
Nique: I am currently in remission. I ask myself, why have I survived this awful disease not once, but twice, while I have watched some of my survivor sisters’ struggle. I savor their hugs before they pass and have looked into the eyes of their loved ones as I walked through the line at their services as a survivor. I wonder why me? Why am I still alive? I think I understand why that is and I am now determined to fight for the courage to live, and to remain in the trenches of healthcare to help promote continued change, a change that we all deserve.
NP: Is there anything you would like to add about your experience?
Nique: I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share my story and the pieces of my life, living with breast cancer. I would hope to help raise awareness in women and in men who are not exempt from this diagnosis. I encourage all to become proactive in their care and to question the path they are currently on in their own healthcare and wellness journey from within. Know your body, understand that you have choices, that you have rights, and recognize that men get breast cancer, too.