ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For breast cancer survivors, awareness is more than the month of October every year.
Awareness is moment-to-moment.
“All my breast cancer survivor sisters deal with that fear all the time,” says Albuquerque resident Stephanie Cornelius, a registered nurse, who survived aggressive phase III breast cancer and still is recovering from her surgeries and treatments more than seven years later.
“A headache is not just a headache ever. You try to be positive, but you’re like what if it’s cancer?” she says over a vegetarian lunch.
She hopes women everywhere will take the time to examine their breasts this month and every month. “One in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime,” she says. “That sounds like an epidemic to me. The more we bring awareness to it, the more we can save lives.”
According to a recent “CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians” and “Breast Cancer Facts & Figures,” about 12 percent of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Cancer deaths have dropped 40 percent from 1989 to 2015, but the rate of breast cancer has slightly increased.
“My healing is like a roller coaster. Some days I feel like I’m past all of it, but this year I was back in that place. A lot of cancer symptoms hit me.”
Still she reaches for tools that have carried her through it – her love for her two children, now 13 and 26 years old, her support system, her family and friends, her faith, yoga and soccer.
She recently had a scare after losing weight without trying, a symptom of cancer.
Her breast cancer surgeon, Dr. Linda Ann Smith, ordered a magnetic resonance imaging test and Cornelius was cancer free.
A medication change could have triggered the weight loss, perhaps.
Cornelius, a single mom, received a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder, not uncommon among cancer survivors.
“Every physical sensation shot me back to that time,” she explains. “When you are in the middle of it, you go into survivor fight or flight mode. You don’t face a lot of the emotions. I think that’s why they are all coming up now.”
In spring, 2010, Cornelius, then 39, found a small lump on her right side that she could barely feel.
She was young for breast cancer, most women get a diagnosis in their 60s.
“It was tiny,” she said. “I thought it was a cyst. I had very cystic breasts.”
That what her midwife thought as well. But she ordered a mammogram.
A subsequent biopsy confirmed Cornelius’s fears.
The news kept getting worse. “I had cancer in my lymphs and my cancer markers were outrageous.”
“I’m an athlete. I wasn’t abusing my body,” she says. “I went into a pretty good depression. I was the only breadwinner for my family and I had gone through a horrible divorce on top of everything.”
She doesn’t have the BRCA gene, a marker for inherited breast cancer.
She underwent four rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the large tumor before surgery. She opted for a bilateral mastectomy because her cancer was so aggressive. The surgeon put in expanders to allow for later reconstruction, but all of the breast tissue, skin and 20 lymph nodes were removed.
“The expanders felt like footballs in my chest. They were under the muscle,” she says. Sometimes apparently well-meaning people tell Cornelius at least she got a “boob-job” out of her ordeal, but that’s just insulting, she says.
“This is not a boob job. I don’t have any breast tissue,” she says, explaining that she also has a pit under her arm where her lymph nodes were removed. “Until you lose them, you don’t realize how connected we are to our breasts for our femininity.”
After the surgery, Cornelius had radiation therapy which added to the trauma her body suffered, further scarring her muscle and skin.
Even though she’s a nurse, she didn’t feel like one when it came to her own cancer. “I listened to the doctors and did whatever I was told. I got to the point where I was like, suck it up, Stephanie. Don’t be a baby.”
Because her cancer grew with estrogen and progestin, she was put on two drug therapies. One caused problems in her uterus, so two years after her breast cancer diagnosis, she had a hysterectomy. That way her body no longer made hormones that could feed the cancer.
Still she doesn’t dwell in the loss.
While she was bald and still had tubes and angry scars, she made herself look in the mirror until she could appreciate what she saw – herself, alive.
“I would tell myself I was a (expletive) badass. And I would say it until I felt it,” she says.
When she just couldn’t face it, she would pray. “I leaned a lot on God. I would pray, ‘You take this burden tonight so I can sleep and tomorrow will be a new day.'”
She’s changed her diet and gave up meat, which contains hormones, and buys only organic food to avoid chemicals and toxins.
“I switched to organic. Yes, it costs a fortune, but I am not going to give my daughter anything with extra hormones or antibiotics in it,” she says.
She never stopped playing soccer.
“I kept playing, even though I really couldn’t. My team was so supportive. I got short of breath just walking,” she says.
Cornelius, who practiced hot yoga before her diagnosis, says “I was so grateful I found it. I could do it all through chemo. I could cry on my mat.”
Stretches for her back, chest and shoulders that her occupational therapist recommended and she practiced in yoga kept her from getting lymphedema, swelling that can occur in the arms without adequate lymph drainage.
One aspect of her ongoing recovery from breast cancer is teaching a Pink Prana class every Monday at 5:45 p.m. at Mi Vida Yoga for breast cancer survivors. Updates are posted on Facebook on the Pink Prana Yoga page.
“I was laying on my mat after yoga and I felt so good. Yoga took away my pain and my worry. I knew I had to turn people on to this.” So she became a yoga teacher.
Stefani Bur, 33, one of her students, says she started the class a week after a bilateral mastectomy two years ago. Bur had a very aggressive type of breast cancer.
She says the stretching helped her keep her range of motion and prevented lymphedema. The poses helped her sweat out the chemotherapy. She says she has continued going to Pink Prana for many reasons – physical, mental and spiritual.
“You can have breakdowns in there and it’s OK. Everyone understands,” she says. “The sisterhood can’t compare with anything else.”