Introduce yourself (Name, where you’re from) - What was your life like before undergoing chemotherapy?
My name is Rhonda Eyzaguirre, PhD. For the past 16 years, I have been a school psychologist in Northern California. I have been married for 17 years and have two children (ages 6 and 9 at the time of my cancer diagnosis). I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38 in March 2017. I completed active treatments three years ago.
Bring us along your journey – when were you diagnosed with cancer?
At age 38, I felt a lump in the middle of my right breast. It seemed to get bigger when I was having PMS symptoms and would then seem to disappear shortly after my period. In early March, I decided to have the lump examined and made an appointment with my new primary care doctor. I told her about the disappearing and reappearing lump. She felt it and immediately referred me for a biopsy the next day. I was diagnosed a few days later.
What was your initial reaction to your cancer diagnosis?
My initial reaction to being diagnosed with Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma at age 38 was complete shock. Even though my mother is a breast cancer survivor, I did not expect the results of my biopsy to be positive for cancer before I was 40! It felt like my entire world was crashing down on me. I got the diagnosis over the phone while I was at work. I was completely stunned. I immediately called my husband and mother, and it felt like I was relaying news about someone else. It took me some time to process that this was my new reality.
What was your first chemotherapy treatment like?
My first chemotherapy session was pretty challenging. I had decided to use cooling caps to preserve my hair. The cooling caps I used recommended putting them in dry ice the night before. I lugged them in a cooler to the infusion clinic. I had multiple caps and rotated them every twenty minutes. It felt like my head was being frozen solid. I also had several side effects of chemo after my first session, including nausea, an excruciating headache, and difficulty sleeping (from the steroids). I was able to tolerate my other chemo sessions better once I knew what to expect.
What treatment/treatments did you or are currently undergoing?
I underwent a double mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection, 16 weeks of chemotherapy, 28 sessions of radiation, reconstructive surgery, and a salpingo-oophorectomy. I am currently taking Arimidex for at least five years.
Who did you turn to as your support system?
My support system included my loving husband, 9-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter, mother (a breast cancer survivor), and a solid group of friends. I also utilized the online breast cancer community such as breastcancer.org and Sharsheret.org.
What is something you wished you knew before starting your chemo treatment?
I wish that I had known that I would be more susceptible to spicy foods and sunlight during chemo. I became more nauseous when I ate spicy meals. Also, my skin became even more sensitive to being out in the sun. I tried to wear protective clothing and avoid the sun during chemo. This was especially challenging during a hot summer in Sacramento!
What are your top three resources you would recommend to people going through chemo?
One resource is Magic Hour Foundation (www.magichour.org). Magic Hour Foundation is a nonprofit agency and “national network of professional photographers who look to serve individuals and families fighting cancer.” I applied to the Magic Hour Foundation while I was undergoing chemotherapy. I was matched with a photographer in our city. My hair was thinning from chemo and I was paler than usual, but I wanted to document this phase in my family’s life. I am filled with gratitude for having that time in my life memorialized in pictures and still look at them to this day.
A second resource is the Look Good Feel Better program (www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org). This program provides in-person hair and makeup tutorials, and a complete makeup kit, to people going through cancer treatments. According to their website, the program “offers complimentary group and virtual sessions that teach beauty techniques to help people with cancer to face their diagnosis with greater confidence.” They gave us a large bag of makeup that included name brand makeup, from foundation to brushes to lipsticks. As we applied the makeup to ourselves, the presenters gave general tips and special considerations for people undergoing treatment (such as how to pencil in eyebrows, avoid the sun, and tie head scarves).
A third recommendation is massage, preferably with a massage therapist certified to work with breast cancer patients. I received a free massage from a massage therapist at an event for cancer survivors. Since she was getting her certification in massage therapy for cancer patients, she accrued hours and practice on me, while I benefited from in-home massages. She brought her own music and massage chair, documented my symptoms, and taught me massage techniques to avoid lymphedema. While a professional in home massage may not be practical, do consider visiting a massage therapist who is certified in massage therapy for breast cancer patients.
Any final advice for other chemo patients?
A diagnosis of breast cancer is devastating and the treatments can be grueling. Beyond the support of my friends and family, community support helped carry me through my treatment. These community resources included a support group, online breast cancer community, phone peer support and care packages, a family photography session, a cancer beauty program, and massage for cancer patients. However, each patient needs to tap into their particular resources of interest, and create a uniquely tailored support network that works for them. Additional resources can be found at www.breastcancerfreebies.com.
How are you involved in the breast cancer community?
After two of my close friends were also diagnosed with breast cancer, one as a two-time cancer survivor, and the other going through breast cancer treatments during COVD-19, we decided to share our stories. We recently published Hope Among Us: Stories of Three Young Breast Cancer Survivors. Breast cancer can be a very isolating and unsettling experience. Our hope is that people find strength, comfort, and courage from reading our inspirational stories to help them move through their own cancer journey. The book is available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle ebook. Please visit our website, www.hopeamongusbook.com, for more information.