Sandee is a two-time breast cancer survivor. What that means, as she puts it, is that she has travelled to the edge and back again, twice. At the time of her first diagnosis, she was in the middle of a huge life transition. During her second diagnosis, she was living in a foreign country and didn’t know how to navigate the medical system. Both were learning experiences for her and she has come out of them even stronger than when she went in.
Her breast cancer, and its recurrence, was discovered through routine mammograms. Both times, the radiologist noticed a small spec on the film. She was lucky that they were spotted as both times the cancer was less than 1cm in size, which could have easily been missed because of their location. Fortunately, she was very intuitive and the wobbly smiles the radiologists gave her when they said ‘good-bye’ sent her running to a bookstore to do research. In both cases, she was on the operating table within two months of her mammogram.
In 2010, she had a lumpectomy, radiation and started on tamoxifen – an anti-estrogen medication. The second surgery was a bilateral mastectomy and included new medication. She chose a bilateral mastectomy rather than a single mastectomy because she did not want any chance of the cancer returning. She also had been a 34DDD and the thought of being really lopsided was an emotional trip she did not want to take. Mostly what she felt was, “If my breasts are going to kill me, I want them off!”
She had the bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction in September 2010 in Hamad General Hospital under the care of Senior Consultant, Dr Salahddin A. Gehani, and his surgical team. The reconstruction process started off slowly because she experienced an infection that lasted a couple of months. However, Seven months later they exchanged expanders for silicone implants.
Despite it sounding glamorous, in reality it is far from it. I was still ‘under construction’ and will be for the better part of a year as they try to even my breasts out, and, if I decide to go ahead with it, create nipples with tattoo areolas. I like to think of myself as a work of art, changing every day. All I really want now is for things to be as normal as possible, that’s why I like to talk openly and honestly about my experience.’
Staying in Doha was the right choice for me. The clinical care team on the third floor of Hamad and the Dr’s working with Dr. Gehani are all fantastic.’
Staying here was the right choice for me. Catherine Marie Mckirdy, Advanced Clinical Nurse Specialist, and the nurses in Ward 8 South have all been fabulous. They are taking great care of me. Cathie is there for me at every turn and has kept a very close eye on me, especially when I had the infections. I found a great Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) massage therapist and went to the Physiotherapy Department at the NCCCR immediately following surgery to help me heal.’
Cancer does not have to be the big scary elephant in the room. It needs to be talked about openly, honestly and without embarrassment. This is how we will beat breast cancer. This is how we can survive and this is how we live.’
My advice to other survivors and newly diagnosed people is to live their life as largely as possible, ask lots of questions and do not be afraid. This is possible. You have GOT THIS!’
OCTOBER 2017: Since this article was originally written, Sandee has undergone a number of surgeries. The implants continued to give her problems and she was constantly on antibiotics and visiting the clinic to deal with infections.
In October of last year, the decision to begin the process of removing the implants began. Her body didn’t like this process either and another 6 months of infections and skin that wouldn’t heal continued. Finally, in May of this year, the second implant was removed (this is called ‘explanting’) and Sandee decided to ‘go flat.’
It wasn’t an easy decision, she said.
I gave myself three days to mourn the loss of my breasts. I gave away any clothes that had darts or ‘shape’ and I sat on my couch and allowed myself a day of wallowing and feeling frustrated and then halas! I only lasted a day and a half. Feeling that kind of pain is draining and a waste of energy but it was a necessary part of the process of letting go.’
Learning to dress for a new shape has been an interesting experiment and she is now helping to organise friends to knit ‘knitted knockers’ for the american Women’s League to distribute along with their dragon bags and heart pillows to women undergoing breast cancer surgeries.
The dragon boat team Sandee started in November 2014 has blossomed into a community team of survivors, supporters who have or have had family members with the disease and community members who just want to paddle for fun. The team is a mix of nationalities, both genders and range in age from 18-60+. They have recently bought their own boat, with the help of Niall Brennan’s Saracen’s Community Group, and are anxiously awaiting its arrival later on this month.
If you would like to know more about dragon boat racing and would like to come and try it, send Sandee an email at: [email protected] They paddle at Katara three times a week and everyone is welcome.