Getting diagnosed six months ago with an aggressive form of breast cancer was one thing. But going through cancer treatment during a deadly and life-altering coronavirus pandemic? Talk about a double whammy. Right now, I don’t know if the cancer is distracting me from COVID or COVID is distracting me from cancer. But let me start at the beginning — this is my story.
I was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer on my 40th birthday. November 19, 2019.
I found the lump in my breast intuitively and had just placed my hand right on it; I’ve always been in sync with my body. I have dense, lumpy breasts but I immediately knew this thing was a cause for concern.
My husband felt it and yelped, which didn’t exactly help ease my looming anxiety as I sprung up from bed feeling dizzy from my new discovery. Luckily, I’m highly proactive and was on the phone scheduling a mammogram within minutes. I think I even got in the same day. Of course, I was already Googling “most common breast cancer tumor area” or something along those lines. Left breast? Check. Outer, upper quadrant? Check. Oh, the most common area for a cancerous tumor? Wonderful.
This was my first mammogram. Sure enough, it came back suspicious and four days later I was back for a biopsy. (P.S., I’d had a check-up with an ob-gyn two months prior and this went unnoticed during the routine breast exam. Apparently, you can’t feel a mass until it has divided 28 to 30 times.) I am also BRCA1 and BRCA2 negative, with no family history of breast cancer.
My biopsy came back malignant for infiltrating ductal carcinoma. My doctor held my hand and told me the news, empowering me that I had found my cancer myself. It was only stage 1 and they would do a lumpectomy to take it out. Then chemotherapy most likely.
I took the news well. No tears. I was already putting on my imaginary war paint.
Stage 1, no biggie. My surgery was scheduled for the following week. Off for more tests, including an MRI. In the meantime, my doctor explained that they would test for the specific type of breast cancer. There are different types of breast cancer? I had no clue. But my cancer crash course was just beginning.
Cut to four days later (my birthday) and my doctor calls with my MRI results.
The words poured out quickly. “It’s actually stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer, one of the most aggressive, and you need to start chemotherapy right away for five months and then have surgery after.” Wait, back up.
“And if you want to have kids, you need to freeze your eggs immediately.” Say what?
Pacing around my office, the weight of this update sunk in like a much quicker version of the Titanic as my doctor scheduled me to see a fertility specialist the next morning. “Do I have time?” I asked. She assured me that I had a couple of weeks and that they would fast track me through the egg preservation process.
Okay, I could handle the cancer news for now, but this whole egg thing was putting me into a tailspin. I called my mom and husband to somehow calmly update them and headed home to get ready for the Madonna concert at the Wiltern that my best friend Bethany was taking me to for my big 4-0. Not exactly what I had planned for the past 39 years. Nevertheless, I glammed up and threw down some White Claws with the mostly soccer mom and gay men crowd, putting my life on hold for a blissful two hours with my bestie to dance along to the soundtrack to my life — as I’d known it so far. Gulp.
The next morning, I began the highly emotional fertility process. Daily hormone self-injections, blood draws every other day — and all the while wondering if Marisa Jr. was worth this process considering that if I waited any longer to start chemo, there may be no Marisa.
This was the hardest part of my journey. The paranoia of not knowing if the cancer had already spread and “if I waited to do this would it be too late?” and other fuzzy thoughts like that. My lymph nodes looked okay thus far but I was informed that we would not know for sure until the surgery. Oh, I only have to wait six months to find out? Awesome!
I almost gave up halfway through the process but was talked off a ledge and I finished with five eggs. Not great but could be worse. Only a 5 percent chance that each egg would “take,” however. Well, fingers crossed the chemo won’t completely destroy my ovaries.
I was actually excited to start chemo — yes, I’m kind of a freak. I’ve lost many loved ones to cancer and have seen the worst of it. But if this was the only thing to save me, let’s do this! A few weeks after my diagnosis, it was time. I felt ready.
My mom flew in from Florida to be there with me. I woke up that morning and showered, applied my signature red lipstick, put on jeans, my Johnny Cash “middle finger” shirt and combat boots, and we were all out the door. I walked down that hall like I was heading to war. I felt a confidence and strength and determination like no other. I was ready to conquer.
My first treatment was a breeze. I hardly had any symptoms and felt okay. Now that the whirlwind of all the appointments and tests calmed down, I could somewhat relax a little. Just 19 weeks of treatment to go.
At first, I had panicked and wanted to go on disability immediately, but then realized that the distraction of working was good for me and luckily my compassionate boss let me work from home for the most part. (I’m an events director at an agency in Los Angeles as well as an entertainment reporter and celebrity journalist.) Some days were harder than others emotionally, but overall I was doing okay. I got through weeks of chemo without feeling bad physically. I was working full-time from home, still meeting clients here and there, taking classes, having weekly appointments with my therapist, yoga here and there. I did a photo shoot with Joe Simpson several weeks into chemo with a black, bobbed wig and a whole #FCancer theme. I was not going to let this cancer take away my spirit.
I started sharing my experience online, which was therapeutic for me, but I was also finding I was helping others. Women were going to get their mammograms, messaging me daily how inspiring I was. They were asking questions about the fertility preservation process. I am a massive over-sharer in person, but not one to typically lay it all out on the socials. This community helped me so much to get through this. The support I was shown was incredible. I have a large support group of amazing family and close friends, but this was an extra halo of protection and love.
Weeks into my chemo, I was still holding strong. My doctors and nurses were baffled and said they never saw anyone quite so bubbly and handing chemo this well. My longtime doctor said she had never seen anyone with cancer as positive as me in her entire career. I will say that I grew up a hard partier from Chicago and I’m Irish.
Chemo seemed nowhere near the self-destruction I had brought upon myself for years and years. Working hungover was the norm. I never called in sick. I was tough. This work-hard play-hard mentality and experience ironically prepared me for my biggest “hangover” yet. And now that I’m NOT drinking, my clarity and drive is laser-focused. On week 12 of chemo, I even got up on stage and performed in a sketch comedy show in Hollywood. I wanted to show everyone — especially myself — that you could still LIVE with cancer.
Don’t let it stop you from doing things you love, I told myself. Take care of yourself and don’t overdo it, I reminded myself. Don’t let the stigma of the words “cancer” and “chemo” bog you down, I Pep-Talked myself. Sometimes we give in to the defeat of disease without realizing our inner strength. I did not want to be one of those people.
But the week after my Hollywood show, another disease swooped in to affect me — and everyone else in the world. All of a sudden, we were on lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic. Really? Things were going somewhat swimmingly for the most part, and now this?!
Talk about a curveball to my cancer treatment. How will this affect me? What if I catch coronavirus — could I die? The signs point to yes: My white blood cells are low due to cancer treatment. I have asthma.
Nicknamed “Wonder Woman” throughout my cancer experience thus far, I’d like to think I could make it through cancer and COVID-19, but I didn’t want to be cocky. I might not survive this. And if I did contract coronavirus, I would probably not be able to follow my scheduled cancer treatment or surgery. There’s a chance I could have my surgery postponed, which cannot happen. I have a tumor in me in the middle of a global pandemic and I. Want. It. Out.
If the chemo has not fully worked, this aggressive tumor could do me in. I asked if I could get the surgery now but my doctor said, “Let’s stay the course.”
I called other hospitals for potential back-ups; surely a cancer hospital would be safer. The thought of getting surgery in a hospital crawling with COVID-19 patients is a little disconcerting to say the least. So far, I am being assured that everything will be fine. Will it? I have no choice but to remain calm, and I’m doing my best. I have no control over any of this and just have to be careful and believe I’m going to make it through.
I am trying to be as safe as I can at home. I’m isolating. But the reality is I could get this thing just going into chemo. I drove up last week and a nurse was sticking a thermometer down my throat in the parking garage. We can’t bring anyone with us anymore. My heart goes out to the older patients and the first-timers.
Thank GOD this is not the beginning of my treatment. I have one more week to go. I’ve made it so far. I am NOT going to be brought down by this new enemy. The thought of anyone dying alone is beyond scary and heartbreaking. That is NOT going to be me.
I will have answers in a month or so, if all goes as planned, with where I’m at with this aggressive cancer. If it has gone to my lymph nodes or not. What my chances of survival are. A clinical stage 2 triple-negative is more like dealing with a stage 3 from what I was told.
For now, I can’t see my family; my family can’t get to me. I was already feeling trapped. I’m an avid traveler and had been dreaming of visiting Paris to celebrate my cancer treatment being over. My husband and I had to cancel a planned trip over the December holidays after my diagnosis. That was the first time I had really cried since getting the cancer news.
I never thought in a million years that just a few short months later, the entire world would be trapped just like me. It’s quite a surreal feeling.
Oddly, maybe it’s just what the doctor ordered. I’m forced to be at rest. My amazing therapist texted to check in on me soon after the coronavirus became prevalent in our area. “I’m sure your body was thrilled that you were literally forced to take it easy. It took a global pandemic to get Marisa to slow down!” And she was right. I am now on disability. I’m resting. I’m eating as well as I can despite needing to rely on CVS and convenience store scraps between being able to get Amazon/Whole Foods delivery windows, which are getting more few and far between.
At 19 weeks on chemo, I’m still feeling pretty damn good. My eye is still on the prize.
I perhaps want to get out of L.A. when I am able. I want more space. I’ve been stuck inside an overpriced box with no yard in an overcrowded city and I will be immunocompromised for a bit. I like to look at travel pics and plan out where I would like to go next. If I can’t get on a plane for a while, maybe I’ll take road trips to beautiful states like Montana or Wyoming that I may have overlooked while jetting off to Switzerland or Ireland. I like to “play Zillow” and look at what I can get for my money in other areas.
We cannot stop planning and visualizing a beautiful future, no matter how bleak it may seem right now. All I know is after this, it will be time for a change. A pause. A slow-down. I can always come back to L.A. I was already heading for a more introspective life after flitting around for an eternity as an entertainment reporter and professional partier, hobnobbing backstage and living life somewhat on the edge.
I’ve picked up the guitar again, I’m writing a lot, I’m finishing my degree online. I have time to read books again. I am appreciating the quiet.
My will to live remains strong. I feel for the people who are having a harder time with this, whether because of their cancer, other illnesses, or managing depression or anxiety during this unfathomable time. We have to believe it will get better. And we’re all going to get through it together.
For now, I’m dreaming of a world that is cancer- and COVID-free. But first, my surgery. And I can’t help but wonder if this cancer, in the end, will reveal itself to be the ultimate birthday gift. Strangely, it has already brought me on a better path. I’ve always been a glass-half-full type.
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BY: Marisa Sullivan
The Global Healthy Living Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the mission to improve the quality of life for people living with chronic illness.