October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and today I had the opportunity to interview one of Chrysalis’ own, Sarah Snyder, who has been cancer free for eleven years this year! A special thanks to her for being open to sharing her story of survival, inspiration, and courage.
When were you diagnosed?
“I received the diagnosis on Tuesday, February 21, 2012, at 31 years old, with a 10-month-old and a five-year-old.
I sat alone in Dr. Charles Scott’s office at Wilmington Health. I was there because the week prior he performed a breast biopsy, and it was time for the results. He first came in and checked my biopsy incision, said that “everything looked good”, and promptly excused himself so I could get dressed and we could go over the pathology. It may not have been a red flag for others, but because I had worked in healthcare my entire career, I knew that if I were really fine he would have said just that when he checked the biopsy site- there would have been no reason for a second chat.
I knew the next time he walked into my room, I was going to hear a word that no one is ever prepared for, and even though I had hoped that I was wrong, the pit in my stomach was telling me to prepare myself because my life was about to be forever changed.”
How did you handle the diagnosis?
“When Dr. Scott came back into my room, he was carrying a piece of paper and his nurse Angela was with him. He looked me in the eyes and asked, “Ready?”, I remember slowly nodding my head “yes”, even though I was not ready. “Ductal Carcinoma Institute” was his statement to me, but behind those big words was the real diagnosis… breast cancer.
I do not remember everything that Dr. Scott said to me while I sat on his examination table because, for some reason, I was intent on not breaking down in tears. I remember not wanting to look weak in front of him, so I kept telling myself to “hold it together ” and “don’t you dare cry”. My mind was busily trying to accept my diagnosis and everything about to follow. I remember thinking about how I was only 31 years old, had a full-time job, was a full-time college student, and was just three courses away from completing my MBA. Most importantly, I had two small children at home, and couldn’t help but wonder who was going to help my husband raise them if I died? My mind went back and reviewed the previous six-month journey that brought me to this very spot and how I had hoped to get here, just not with the same ending.”
What do you mean, “hoped you’d get there”?
“In September of 2011, I was sitting on my couch when suddenly, I had this weird sensation run from the middle of my left breast to under my armpit. It was not a painful feeling, just a very odd one. At that moment, I had a powerful thought, “you have cancer”. At first, I thought, “what a crazy thought”, but at the same time, I had a pit in my stomach because breast cancer has affected every generation of women in my family. It has always been a worry hidden in the back of my mind that I, too, would pull the unfortunate short straw and be diagnosed with this disease. To ease my mind, I scheduled an appointment the next week with my GYN. When I explained the sensation I had as well as my family history of breast cancer, I was certain that my request for a simple mammogram would be instantly approved. I expected him to appreciate my being proactive and would order the test, even if just to ease my mind. He instead patted me on my knee and told me that I was being overly paranoid and that a mammogram was unnecessary because I was too young to have breast cancer and no insurance would cover it. I left that office feeling shocked and unheard, but I was not yet defeated. The following day I scheduled an appointment with my PCP to get a second opinion, believing that even though I did not feel heard the first time around, I hoped this doctor would hear me out and take my concerns seriously. Two weeks later, I told my doctor the same thing I told my GYN, the sensation I had, my family history, and my request for a mammogram. I was unfortunately told very similar statements as before, “too young”, “your family history is not that bad”, and “no mammogram is needed”.
I wish I could tell you that the third time was the charm, but unfortunately it was not. Neither was the fourth. I spent the next six months “doctor shopping” for a mammogram. I even went as far as calling a local radiology office to ask if I could pay cash for a mammogram, but their answer was no because special testing requires a referral from a medical provider. I honestly could not believe that it was this challenging to get a mammogram! I think this is the point where I started to lose hope and began to feel defeated. Defeated as a patient and defeated as a woman, but I knew that I had to keep going and make someone hear me.
A couple of weeks later I was at work in my office when one of my medical assistants came in and asked if I was still looking for a new doctor. I told her I was, and she told me how amazing her PCP was and urged me to call her. I took down the information, but I was reluctant to call and go in because I wasn’t sure if I could handle being dismissed by yet another physician. I gathered my hope and made the call to Dr. Catherine Daum’s office at Wilmington Health later that day and scheduled an appointment with her later that same week. Walking into Wilmington Health for the first time was a little overwhelming but as soon as I met Dr. Daum, I knew I was in the right place and that this was going to be a different experience from my other appointments. Dr. Daum listened to all my concerns and without any hesitation ordered a mammogram. I cried tears of joy in her office because someone finally listened and was willing to help me. One week later, I went in and received the mammogram that I hoped for, and after I few days I was back in Dr. Daum’s office being told a mass had been found and that she was referring me to Dr. Charles Scott, a surgeon with Wilmington Health who specialized in breast health/cancer. I met with Dr. Scott for the first time a few days later and he, too, listened to everything I had to say. He asked me if I wanted to revisit the mass in six months or have him perform a surgical biopsy; I choose the biopsy and the rest is history.”
What did your cancer treatment look like?
“I opted for a bilateral mastectomy, which was performed three days after I met with Dr. Scott on February 25, 2012. I was officially cancer free. A couple of months later in May, I had my reconstruction surgery by Dr. Kenneth White at Wilmington Plastic Surgery.”
What was your biggest self-discovery or revelation after your diagnosis?
“That’s a hard one, I have had a few revelations.
“1. You must be your own advocate. If you feel that something is not right with your body, do not let anyone (healthcare professional or not) dismiss you. Get the answers you need.
2. Attitude is everything. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew that there were only two options for me to take: the low road or the high road. I refused to fall into a pit of depression and let this diagnosis win. I can’t say that I was not scared because I was, and while there were some bumps in my road to recovery, I knew my faith and hope were stronger than any fear. By no means do I mean to not take the time to break down and feel all of your emotions (I would have my breakdowns in the shower), just don’t live there.
3. Take your time and let your body and mind heal. Do not rush back to anything, work, school, or responsibilities. Too many times the mentality is to “just get back to your normal and everything will be better”. But what the message should be is, “take the time YOU need, and do not compare your journey with anyone else’s”.
4. Ask for help when you need it. Asking for help does not make you weak.”
What was the most difficult part of your journey and how did you overcome it?
“Almost immediately after my cancer diagnosis and my initial surgeries were complete, I started speaking and volunteering at as many breast cancer events as possible. Although I had always participated in these charities, I felt a new pressure to pay it forward. I thought I owed it to all of the others battling cancer since I had it so much easier. I also began to experience insomnia and anxiety symptoms and found myself obsessively reliving the day I was diagnosed. I would think about that day step-by-step every single day. I thought about it while I was driving to work, even while I was on vacation with my family. Despite the persistence of the thoughts and memories, I never addressed these issues or thoughts with any of my doctors. I assumed it was normal. I told myself that since my cancer was caught early and I survived, I should just deal with these issues. After all, I did not have it nearly as bad as other individuals diagnosed with later stages of cancer, so I did not have the right to complain. I should just be grateful.
Two years after my diagnosis I received a phone call that one of my closest friends and biggest support systems during my cancer battle had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. I remember immediately breaking down, not being able to catch my breath, and saying, “She is too good, it should be me.” After she passed, the thought of “it should have been me” turned into “why wasn’t it me” and later that thought was not just directed at my friend’s battle, but at anyone that did not survive their cancer battle.
I began feeling compelled to follow stories on social media about families documenting their terminal cancer journeys. I felt like it was my responsibility to show these families support during what was the worst time in their lives. But what I did not realize was that I was punishing myself for not suffering enough and ultimately for surviving.
One day my friend asked me why I was constantly following “those sad stories”, and I told her, “I needed to experience the pain, difficulties, and loss other cancer patients not as lucky as me go through to be worthy enough to be a “real survivor”. I will NEVER forget the look on her face after my response, in that moment I knew I needed to get this figured out. I began seeing a therapist to help figure out why I was no longer myself and had these crazy thoughts and feelings. What I learned was that I was, in fact, not crazy and that all the emotions and symptoms I had been experiencing were Cancer-related survivor guilt.
Cancer-related survivor guilt is a complex, multi-faceted emotion that has not always been recognized and talked about. Luckily, the stigma surrounding survivor’s guilt is lifting. More mental health professionals are starting to speak on this topic, as well as oncology professionals learning to recognize it so if their patients are suffering, they can offer them resources and support.”
What advice would you give on how to best support a loved one going through breast cancer?
“1. Just be there. Love them. Check-in. Cheer them on. Have a positive attitude. Make them laugh. Going through cancer is hard enough. But if you have someone, or even a community of people, around you to help you through the fight it makes all the difference.
2. Spend time with them to offer a distraction, and try to attend doctors’ appointments with them.
3. Offer, but don’t force. Be flexible. Every day can be different when a loved one is going through treatment. Educate yourself and try to find yourself an outlet as well. ❤️❤️❤️