Branwyn Lee’s life changed in an instant when she received a breast cancer diagnosis only months after an annual checkup at which she was completely healthy. Then she had to go through surgery and treatment alone due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions.
“One way to describe my cancer journey: For me personally, it was like a whirlwind,” she said in an interview with CURE®.
Lee, who works in insurance sales, was always educated about health matters and attentive to annual checkups. During an annual examination with her gynecologist in August 2021, she asked about mammograms because she was turning 40 in a few months. The doctor told her she had nothing to worry about and could get one the next year. In November 2021, a day before her 40th birthday, she felt a lump on her breast after adjusting a tank top strap.
“And immediately you know what you think — ‘I have breast cancer’ — but I told myself to take a step back,” she said.
She had her husband, Phil, take a look. At first, they thought it might not be a big deal. An hour later, they decided to call the doctor. She went for a mammogram a week later and the doctor called the images “suspicious.” A few days later she had a biopsy, and soon received the call from her doctor telling her it was cancer.
That was when her husband walked into the room and they embraced, with tears. Her surgeon explained that she would need a full mastectomy on her left breast because there was more cancer in the area than originally thought. Lee opted for the full double mastectomy, to avoid anxiety that the cancer could return.
During the surgery, it was determined that the cancer had spread to seven lymph nodes. This led to Lee receiving chemotherapy, which began in February 2022 and ended that May, and 33 rounds of radiation, which ended in August. Lee then started taking Nolvadex (tamoxifen) in August and with the help of her oncology team she will remain on a drug regimen for the next 10 years.
By Herself, But Not Alone
What made it all harder was that during Lee’s treatment the hospital was still following pandemic guidelines, so she was not allowed to bring anyone to appointments or treatments.
“It was horrible,” Lee recalled. “Even though I knew I wasn’t alone, I was so alone. I had everyone, I had the nurses and my husband was right there waiting every time, (but) I had to do it alone. And then I had to come back and talk to him and tell him if he wasn’t on the phone. A lot of times I would just put them on the phone because I wouldn’t rehash everything, and it was so lonely. And so (it) just it made it that much scarier because I had no one to be there with me.”
But Lee’s nurse navigator, Sarah, became her family. She was with Lee every step of the way from the mammogram to surgery day and through chemotherapy and radiation. Sarah was “essential” to her treatment journey, according to Lee, as she helped set up appointments and coordinate times with doctors.
“I think there are people that are meant to do certain things, and she was meant to do that,” Lee said of Sarah. “She told me, ‘I’m going to be here every step of the way; we’re going to figure this out and you’re not alone here.’ ”
The day of her double mastectomy, Lee’s husband had to drop her off and couldn’t go in with her. Never having been in surgery or undergone anesthesia, she was terrified, but Sarah walked her into the hospital and stayed throughout the day.
“She was holding me up,” Lee explained. “She said to me, ‘This is really horrible. I know I’m not your husband or your mom, but I’m your family today and I’m going to be with you.’”
It meant a lot to Lee that someone would be with her when her family could not. She advises any patient going through a cancer journey to ask about a nurse navigator, or someone who can advocate on their behalf.
“Because it’s hard to advocate for yourself when you’re scared and crying, and you don’t always know what to ask, and having that professional there that can coordinate and do things is important,” she added.
Lee also reassures patients that they are not alone on their journey. Although they could not always be with her physically, her husband, children or any other family or friends she knew they were always there for her.
“The big thing to know is that you are not alone,” Lee said. “No one fights alone.” Lee is now one year cancer free as of December 2022 and has found further help through support groups and therapy. “This is really hard; there’s nothing about it that’s pleasant,” she concluded. “Other than, for me, learning that things I was doing and worry about and taking so much for granted — that was a big eye opening for me because just like that everything changed. Absolutely everything.
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