(Professional Photos courtesy of Karey Michelle Photography, all other photos courtesy of Andrea Popkes)
by Andrea Popkes
Note from Allie:
Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it would be a great opportunity to invite my friend Andrea Popkes to share about her battle with breast cancer. She was diagnosed at just 31. Andrea and I met back in 2007 through work and we had the chance to explore the North Island of New Zealand together when our travel plans crossed in 2009. She is a brave, beautiful soul and I think we can be encouraged and inspired by her story.
How did you find out that you had breast cancer? What emotions were you experiencing when you heard your diagnosis?
I had been living in Australia for a year and it was only two weeks after returning home that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was only 31. It was February 3, 2010 when I received the call that my pathology report came back positive for Stage 3 triple positive invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast and lymph nodes. Thankfully, I was surrounded by my family when the doctor called. Hearing the news was a huge blow, of course, but in all honesty, not much of a shock. During my last few months in Australia, I started to notice changes. Part of me was in denial… the thought of breast cancer seemed ridiculous at my age. I didn’t even have a history of breast cancer in my family! The other part of me was being selfish. I was living in beautiful Sydney, Australia and had no intention of getting it checked out or even telling anyone about it. I wanted to finish my year living in Australia and knew if I told my parents, they’d have me on the first flight back home. I shouldn’t have waited as long as I did to have it checked but I was in denial, and frankly, really scared of what the reality of my situation might be.
What was the time frame from diagnosis to treatments to beating cancer?
After I was diagnosed, it was about three weeks before I started 18 weeks of chemotherapy, finishing at the end of June. In August 2010, I had a mastectomy (removal of my right breast) and in September I started radiation therapy for seven weeks, which was every day excluding weekends. In January 2011, I opted for a prophylactic mastectomy of my left breast and they put a temporary tissue expander in it’s place. I had three more surgeries which included latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction in July 2011, the tissue expander replaced by the permanent implant in November 2011, and nipple reconstruction in April 2012.
Self-image is already a huge struggle for so many girls and women. Did you ever struggle with self-image issues before you had cancer? How did losing your hair and undergoing surgery influence the way you saw yourself and how you defined beauty and self-worth? What is it like to deal with losing such a visible part of what makes you a woman?
Like most girls, I have struggled with image issues and low self-esteem. There’s just that constant comparison that we do with other girls in regards to weight, perfect skin, hair color, height, you name it… we’re always finding something we don’t like about ourselves and wishing it was different. It’s a constant battle to remember how God sees us through his eyes and not how we perceive ourselves.
My whole life I’ve always been known for my naturally long blonde hair so, of course, I became quite attached to it, almost to the point of it defining me. I was always that girl with the beautiful blonde hair. It was that one thing I started to believe made me beautiful. When it came to losing my hair, that’s when the cancer became all too real. Part of what made me feel beautiful, what essentially had defined my beauty, I was about to lose. My hair started shedding about 3 weeks after I started chemo. At night, I found myself constantly waking up, scared to move my head, for fear that I would find chunks of hair lying on my pillow. Then one day while I was in the shower, I lost a huge chunk of hair and I just fell apart. When I got out of the shower and gently started combing my hair, all I was doing was combing it OUT… and again, I started crying. Even when you’re expecting it, there is still no way to actually prepare how you’ll feel when it happens. So, that night we shaved my head. My good friend, Zak, and my brother, Mark, decided they would shave their heads too. It turned out to be a memorable night of laughs and surprisingly no tears!
Then, the inevitable came. The day I dreaded from the beginning. My mastectomy. This is when I really struggled with losing my femininity. I was terrified to wake up from surgery, look down, and see my entire right breast missing. The idea seemed traumatizing. But, by the grace of God, I handled it better than I anticipated. I lived an entire year without my right breast and even though I had a silicone prosthesis to slip in my bra, my tops still didn’t fit properly and felt limited in what I could wear. I felt so unbalanced and incomplete. I looked forward to reconstruction and the wholeness I would feel once again. But reconstruction brought a new issue to the table. The procedure that was done for reconstruction left me with an eight inch scar across my upper back. My brother likes to refer to it as my “shark bite.” As you can imagine, it can be difficult to “hide” when wearing a bathing suit or strapless dress.
Body image was a big deal. My hair loss and scars from surgery weren’t the only body image issues I dealt with. I also struggled with weight gain, hot flashes, extreme fatigue, acne and other skin issues from chemotherapy, the loss of my eyebrows and eyelashes, and lymphedema (the build-up of fluid that causes swelling) in my right arm. Dealing with all these scars and changes to my body were some of the greatest challenges I faced and honestly, I still struggle with some of these things today. My body isn’t what it used to be and never will be. Despite all the painful parts, I continue to develop contentment and a stronger sense of self… that I’m okay just as I am and that I’m valuable because God made me. I have come to see these remnants as my battle scars… a clear indication that I fought the good fight and I’m still here!
You are now cancer free – thank you God! What are some of the unexpected gifts your battle with cancer has given you?
I think the most unexpected gift would definitely be my niece. My brother and sister-in-law became pregnant a little earlier than they were hoping but God’s timing is always perfect. My niece, Adelyn Faith, was born in the midst of my treatment. The anticipation of her arrival definitely kept my spirits up during those rough days. Every time I look at her I’m reminded of the gift of life and how much joy she brought into mine during such turmoil. I hope one day she will understand what a huge impact her new little life had on me while fighting for my own.
How has your battle with breast cancer changed your life?
You always here people say “Why me?” when they find themselves in the middle of a crisis but I can honestly say I never really asked that question. Being 31 at the time of diagnosis and still single, what I did question is “Why NOW?” I was in a really good place in my life, excited about the future and what was to come, but this definitely sent me on a major detour.
Even though the last two and a half years have been difficult and trying, my trust in the Lord has grown tremendously, in ways that would have never been possible otherwise. My attitude and perspective on life have changed dramatically and I’m so thankful for every experience, good and bad, and can already see how these experiences have forever changed me, my faith, and my purpose.
I have been able to connect and talk with other young women facing breast cancer and share my experiences with them. It has been so fulfilling to offer advice, understanding, and support during a time when they feel no one around them understands what they’re going through or how they’re feeling. I’m hoping to continue helping young women become more aware of this horrible disease and that it CAN be caught early! I don’t want young women to be scared or act as if it can’t happen to them because of their age. Breast cancer does not care how old you are!
Return tomorrow for the second part of Andrea’s incredible recovery story!