Renee Wheeler is a 38 year-old Charlotte, North Carolina resident, wife and mother of two preschool age children. She had just turned 37 years old when she had her first mammogram. As Renee shared, “Neither my OBGYN or myself had felt a lump during routine breast exams.” Her story is important because it speaks to why it is so critical to be your own best advocate, and also why you have to know your body and know that no statistic, doctor or standard should influence your decision. Renee’s story also has a twist. Not only was she diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, but she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 29 years old.
RW: It was terrifying. My husband and I had been together for 10 years, married for 4. We were ready to start a family and finding out I had ovarian cancer was devastating. Breast cancer was actually something that had always crossed my mind because of my family history, but ovarian cancer was shocking. We wanted children and we wouldn't know until after surgery if that was going to be a possibility or not.
MK: You were diagnosed for a second time, years later. Tell me what happened.
RW: Because of my strong family history of breast cancer and my past ovarian cancer, I had pushed for an early mammogram – and for it to be 3D - after my 37th birthday in October. I was a stay at home mother of two children who would soon be 4 and 2. I thought a lot less about myself and a lot more about them. I wanted test results as soon as possible, so I could get a plan in place, heal as quickly as possible and just be "normal" again for them. I received the biopsy results in early November, met with nurses, surgeons (oncology and a plastic surgeon for the reconstruction), etc over the next several weeks and had my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction surgery scheduled for early January. After getting a plan in place, I was able to enjoy the holidays with my family and start the new year healing.
RW: My husband is my biggest fan and supporter. My Mom was extremely helpful. I also reached out to friends, family, neighbors, babysitters, my children's teachers... it takes a village.
MK: What do you wish you'd known before being diagnosed with breast cancer?
RW: It is important for others to know that they should advocate for themselves to get screening as early as possible. Catching it early meant I did not need chemotherapy or radiation. I believe because of my past surgery, I knew what the recovery would be like and what to prepare for - having support was key.
MK: Do you ever wish you could go back to life as if was before breast cancer?
RW: Of course I wish I never had cancer. I have some extra scarring and numbness, but I am healthy and enjoying lfe. Everything happens for a reason and I'd never want to change where I am now.
MK: How has this experience awakened you to yourself and your purpose?
RW: I now have no secrets. If I can give any insight on my experience and it can help others, then I am willing and ready to do so. It adds purpose to what I have already been through.
MK: What word do you wish you could take out of the breast cancer vocabulary?
RW: Recurrence. It would be nice if no one ever had to hear or think about that.
RW: Surround yourself with people who love and support you, an excellent surgical team and as much information as possible to make your recovery better. I was extremely happy that I was able to have the mastectomy and reconstruction done in the same surgery. Ask your doctor if you are a candidate, and if there is a plastic surgeon that can perform immediate reconstruction. I only had to go through one surgery and one recovery. You are able to skip the expansion process where you would have even more appointments and can have more discomfort. More importantly to me not needing a second surgery a few months later was huge. I would suggest that if you are a candidate for a one stage surgery, push for it, then find an excellent plastic surgeon you can trust to perform the reconstruction portion – my choice of Dr. Peter Capizzi was based on not just my oncologist’s referral, but on my consultation with him. Do research for what recovery will be like and listen to your doctors’ advice. I had a plan in place for household duties, groceries, meals, child care, etc., so I could rest and heal. I also had plenty of button-down shirts, surgical bras, and all the small things such as a wedge pillow, straw cups, lip balm, throat drops, face wipes to make myself even more comfortable during the process.