Today is the 3rd annual celebration of the Chardonnay grape, and we definitely have a reason to honor ONEHOPE Chardonnay. Not only is it deliciously tasty, ONEHOPE Chardonnay gives 50% of its profits to breast cancer charities all year long. We think the perfect way to celebrate “Chardonnay Day” is to talk about the cause behind the wine. So today Britt Levinson, a breast cancer survivor diagnosed at the young age of 20 years old, shares her journey with us…
How did you find out you had breast cancer? Did you detect it yourself?
I did not detect my cancer myself. Like most 20 year olds, doing regular breast exams was the last thing on my mind. I was getting an annual exam along with all the other physical exams and immunizations I would need to study abroad my junior year. During my exam the practitioner stayed on a spot on my breast a little bit longer than everywhere else. She asked me if I would mind following up on it, and of course being oblivious that anything could be wrong, I said sure, no biggie. The crazy part was that I had gone in to the same practitioner the year before to have an annual and she actually said I could wait another year if I wasn’t comfortable (I must have had a really uncomfortable look on my face). Had I opted to have my annual that year, more than likely she would have felt nothing and knowing me, I probably wouldn’t have had one the following year. Needless to say, I would be dead. Colleen Jones NP saved my life.
How did you feel when you first heard the diagnosis?
When Colleen first told me that they found cancer in my right breast, my initial reaction was to laugh, naturally, and hysterically. I’m only 20 and breast cancer didn’t run in my family. This is a joke, right? Where is Ashton?! Am I being Punked? Unfortunately, I wasn’t. I said thank you very much and I will get in touch with a surgeon. Luckily Colleen said she would go with me to my appointment if I wanted. I was grateful. I left the office, got in my truck, drove home, and ordered pizza. Screw studying, get me some pizza! The first person I called was my best friend in Arizona. He was so supportive and told me to call my parents right away. I called my dad and as soon as I told him he went silent, then he went into what I call ‘Lawyer mode”….. Okay, what do we do…
Describe your treatment.
I had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructing in late June of 2005. I had about one month of recovery time before my chemo started, which consisted of a lot of pain pills and watching a lot of Looney Tunes. Recovery from surgery was hard and painful. I couldn’t wash my own hair for 2 weeks. The weirdest part for me about the whole thing was the night before sitting in my bathroom staring in the mirror thinking, wow, the twins are going to be gone tomorrow. No more breasts. I stood there feeling the tumor and kept thinking, this is going to kill me if I don’t do anything about it. That helped me get through it. Chemo started a month later and treatments were about once a week from what I remember, and it was brutal. The first treatment put me in the hospital due to throwing up for 12 hours straight. Gross! Chemo is exactly like they show it in the movies. You are pale, skinny and bald. (Although I like to think I was the sexiest bald woman on the block.) I did about 2 months of chemo treatments, which left me weak and fatigues, all the time. I had my ups where I could ride my bike in the afternoons, and my downs where I couldn’t get out of bed. I continued with IV Herceptin treatment for the next year and was able to return to school. I lost a lot of weight and strength so I had to start from scratch to get healthy again. I was on daily oral Tamoxifen for 5 years after (horrible hot flashes!!!) which I finished about a year and a half ago thankfully. Now I am off all medication and I am living my life as healthy as possible. My treatment will be life long. I exercise daily, eat healthy, and educate others about the importance of prevention and a healthy lifestyle. I did years of therapy after to help me deal with the aftermath of having cancer. My therapy to this day is a journal and a pair of boxing gloves (oh yeah baby!!). Humor was another huge part of my treatment. Without humor, I wouldn’t have been able to function. To this day I am still amazed at how many boob jokes I can get away with. I can’t take life too seriously, it is meant to be rough but fun.
What kind of resources were available to you?
I wasn’t really aware of what was available to me at the time. When someone tells you that you have cancer, you go into survival mode. But now that I look back on it, I had a plethora of resources. Of course there are breast cancer support groups, but for me at such a young age, these didn’t resonate with me. I found an organization called the Young Survival Coalition, which is a support resource for women under 40 diagnosed with breast cancer. They have online forums and also hold annual bike rides around the country (the Tour de Pink) that helps raise money and awareness for the cause. I also had my family. They would have found anything I could have ever needed. My advice is to reach out to friends and family. Also, try and find other survivors to talk to, if possible.
What kind of effect did it have on your family members and friends?
It was VERY hard on my family. I can’t imagine what it was like to have a daughter call to tell you that she has a cancer that could potentially kill her. As for my friends, they felt helpless. I didn’t exactly help that case though. I didn’t know how to act or where my emotions were supposed to be. I pushed my friends and family away during treatment and it took years to get my relationships back on track. Even through all of this, they were always there. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Who or what gave you Hope and kept you motivated to keep fighting?
What gave me hope was my family. They probably didn’t’ know it at the time because I was on a crazy emotional roller coaster, but just seeing how much they cared was an inspiration. My parents were amazing when I moved back in with them during treatment. The other thing that kept me motivated was cycling. It was my ‘me time’. I guess you could say exercise in general. It is still what keeps me motivated today!
What has life been like for you post-treatment?
Life has been hard, very hard. It has gotten much better in the past few years. The first few years after my treatment, I was still confused as to how I was just going to pick up where I left off. It was impossible for me. I left college for a bit to get myself emotionally healthy. This is going to be a project that never ends, as it shouldn’t. I have made great decisions and made horrible decisions, which is all part of life.
I am now almost done with nursing school and my goal is to be an Oncology Infusion nurse. It took me awhile to get to this point but I believe in perseverance and never giving up. I WILL reach my goal. ALSO, I have turned into a dog person. My 3 1/2 year old pup Reo is my sidekick and we take on the world together, superhero capes and all.
If someone has a loved one who is going through breast cancer, do you have any suggestions on things they can do (or shouldn’t do) to help?
TALK ABOUT IT!!! I would suggest getting a therapist right away. Get on that couch and start sobbing people! If you keep your emotions bottled up inside it’s only going to come back to haunt you. Your emotional health is just as important as your physical health. I would also suggest eating healthy during treatment. If your body is going to work at it’s best to fight the cancer and keep up with the treatments, it needs to be fueled as best and healthy as possible. I would also suggest finding something that is all your own during treatment. Find something that you can do just for yourself. For me, it was exercise. I got on my dad’s bike and rode the neighborhoods for a half an hour when I felt that I had the strength. This was MY time. My time to clear my head, cry, laugh, pretend I was in a race with Lance Armstrong. You need that time for yourself where no one can interrupt. People wanting to help you and be there for you during your treatment is natural. All they want to do it help, and it doesn’t go unappreciated but sometimes you just need to be by yourself. I can’t say ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ because treatment is different for everyone but these are my suggestions.
In what ways can companies like ONEHOPE be of support to the breast cancer community?
ONEHOPE can really support the action of prevention and awareness. Focusing on prevention as well as the awareness of ones body is very important. Young women need to be proactive in their own health care. I also strongly believe it is important to never forget the men that are affected by this disease too. This is one aspect of the Breast Cancer culture that really drives me nuts. I understand that it is somewhat rare for men to be diagnosed with breast cancer but it still happens and it is equally important to talk about it. :)
How does being a survivor change your outlook and involvement towards Breast Cancer now?
I believe more in prevention. Yes, treatment is a must once you are diagnosed, but I really see the importance of prevention now after the fact. Eating healthy, exercising, and taking care of yourself mentally is of the utmost importance. Be proactive!
Thank you, Britt, for sharing your incredible journey with us! You’re a fighter and an inspiration to us all!