The Fight Begins:
January 25, 2016 is a day that I will never forget. My best friend, Rechelyn DiMare was diagnosed with grade 3, stage 2A, triple-positive, invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer at the age of 27.
Rach has been a nonstop force of nature in my life for twelve years. We both attended the University of Iowa together and went on to spend every tailgate, “study session,” and girls’ night out together. When classes were no longer in session, I spent every weekend at her house and was dubbed her parents’ third daughter. Her extended family still refers to me as their cousin. We have gone on five trips together. Post-graduation, Rach and I moved into our first big-girl apartment in downtown Chicago where we lived together for more than a year. She taught me to love and embrace running, which has since become one of my biggest passions in life. She also taught me to properly julienne a pepper, chop garlic like an Iron Chef, and have overall confidence in my cooking abilities. Most importantly, she taught me how to love a friend unconditionally. In exchange for all that she has given me, including full access to her enviable closet, I introduced her to the love of her life and now husband, Tre.
Rach and I have been there for each other through emotional breakups, the transition into adulthood, family woes, career changes, and later celebrations of each of our engagements (within one month of each other) and the entire wedding planning process as we simultaneously joked about the highly underrated film, Bride Wars. We even picked the same date for our weddings, the 26th – hers June and mine September. We used to spend most of our time dreaming about buying houses in the same neighborhood and having our future children grow up together. Now we pray for a clean scan.
On diagnosis day, I was at my office when I received the news. I knew that Rach had a biopsy taken two days prior. She had brought up the appointment casually during a dinner we had gotten together for a week earlier. Her doctor had mentioned that the lump on her right breast had changed since her last appointment and she wanted her to have a biopsy scheduled. It never occurred to either of us that she could actually have cancer. She was a couple months shy of twenty eight years old, health-conscious, physically fit, and was unaware of any family history of the disease. Her exact words to me were, “I wish I had good news, but all three of my lumps have cancer.” Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face. I tried to pull myself together, but it was impossible. I told my boss that I had an emergency and had to leave the office immediately.
Within twenty minutes, I was at Rach’s side. Her sister and parents arrived shortly thereafter. I held her mother in my arms as she cried and asked me why this couldn’t have happened to her instead of her young daughter. We all sat around nervously as Rach continued to field calls throughout the day from her nurse coordinator, taking a stronger sucker punch to the gut with each subsequent phone call detailing more bad news. Two days later, Zach and I brought Rach and Tre dinner. I hugged her while Tre did the talking and gave the play-by-play of the discussion with the oncologist since Rach couldn’t get the words out. Her sweet husband recalled fainting in the oncologist’s office while listening with concern to the atrociously vivid details of the cancer that his new wife is now facing.
That Sunday, Zach and I went to the Holy Hill Basilica in Milwaukee with her family to say a special prayer for Rach and have her blessed by a priest. I held her mom’s hand as we sat through the service. The priest gave a sermon about a young man in his congregation that has to wheel his new wife around in a wheelchair after she was recently diagnosed with MS and spoke about how when we recite our vows we don’t truly know what it means when we say “in sickness and in health,” until we do. Never has there been a more poignant moment. On that day and every day since, I asked God to give Rach the strength to fight this cancer and prevent it from spreading while giving Tre the fortitude to help her survive it.
In the months following her diagnosis, Rach successfully completed six chemotherapy sessions. She was given four chemo drugs, a regimen known as TCHP, administered through her port in eight hour sessions. I spent much of my free time frantically digging up research on her treatment plan and delving into the side effects of those drugs. I suppose I was mentally preparing myself. Thankfully, I was able to arrange with the company that I work for to take longer lunches during many of the chemo sessions. I showed up to the hospital with my “Team Rach” t-shirt underneath my business attire and distracted her as best as I could with Bachelor contestant gossip and the most noteworthy selections from the highly anticipated Nordstrom sale as I tried not to watch the slow drips from the fluid bag out of the corner of my eye.
Rach’s first session was so intense that she started losing her hair almost immediately. She had told me in advance about the night that she had planned to shave her head. She wanted to get it over with as she didn’t see the point in waiting for her hair to fall out in patches. That same evening, I knocked on her door with a wool hat to keep her head warm. She answered the door timidly, unsure if she wanted me to see her in this way quite yet. Truth be told, neither of us were prepared for what was to come.
Chemo left Rach feeling weak and nauseated following each session. Zach and I would arrive at her and Tre’s condo with takeout and she wouldn’t be able to finish her plate, a disturbing site to witness because as anyone that knows her well can testify, the girl used to be able to throw down a large pizza with little effort and still fit into skinny jeans. The drugs made water taste like metal. Tre would lovingly have to remind her to keep hydrated. Her mother-in-law tried to make drinking water fun by sending her home from the hospital with a care package full of brightly colored fancy straws. Like a cruel joke, she would just start to regain her energy and appetite the day before she would have to begin the next vicious cycle.
Subsequently, Rach underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. The surgery lasted approximately nine hours and went very well, per her surgeons. They removed four sentinel lymph nodes in the process. She was taken to recovery for a few hours before moving into the ICU, where they kept her for a total of three days.
When Zach and I visited with the carefully selected flowers I had chosen to cheer her up, I had expected to see the same perpetually optimistic smile that had always graced her face despite the horrific circumstances. This time was different. I could see the pain sting her eyes before my body had even fully entered the room. She couldn’t sit, stand, or use the bathroom without assistance. We took turns shuffling in and out of the room with her extended family. She fell in and out of sleep and didn’t feel much like chatting. We pretended to watch the Olympics, but all we could focus on was her suffering. I kissed her on the forehead, too scared to even graze her with the slightest touch of my hand out of fear that it would cause her more pain.
Post-surgery, they released Rach with four drains, two on each side. It was a month before they would all be removed. The pathology report indicated that two of the four tumors had completely disappeared and the remaining two had significantly shrunk in size. Her doctors boasted that she had a very strong partial response to treatments. Her cancer went from stage 2A to stage 1A. Her oncologist determined that she no longer needed another round of chemo. Her treatment plan would instead focus on targeted therapy and Aromatase inhibitors.
The Fight Continues:
Rach now requires Zoladex shots and Aromatase inhibitors. She receives Zometa intravenously (rather than through a port) every six months, and will continue to do so as part of her targeted therapy regimen for the foreseeable future. This targeted therapy drug was used in combination with others as part of her chemo cycles. She still gets anxiety about taking this particular drug as it has flu-like symptoms that make her feel truly terrible.
While she has been thrilled to no longer have to sit through eight-hour chemo sessions, she now faces a new daily set of struggles. Perhaps the most frustrating is that many people in her life expected that after this part of her fight was over, things would go back to “normal.” The harsh reality is that she can’t return to her life pre-cancer. Rach currently faces a 30% chance of metastasizing.
She has maxed out on her FMLA and disability benefits, leaving her with little choice but to quit her job after her doctor recommended she take things easier this year as stress can have detrimental effects on her prognosis at this particularly delicate time in her recovery. It has been a year and a half since her last scan. Every time she develops a cough or cold or a myriad of other symptoms that on the surface would appear harmless, she has to pay close attention to the persistence as it could be a sign that her cancer has spread. Ridiculously, scans are not considered routine care due to the fact that there is no cure for metastasis, so she is often left worrying without any reassurance.
In Rach's Words:
When people think of Breast Cancer, the assumption is that the individual is probably over 50. That was not the case for me. Being diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 is more rare and the process is slightly different. When you are diagnosed at a young age there are different life decisions you have to make and many factors to take into account - most are life-changing and can completely change future goals. A lot has to be set aside. It is also very isolating. Not many young women can relate to what I am going through.
This new life of mine is confusing, frustrating and scary, but when I discovered YSC, it gave me comfort that I was not facing these challenges alone. The women I met at YSC have evolved into incredible friendships and we have this special, sacred bond. We can have conversations about cancer to everyday stuff and back to cancer naturally (which we all feel like we can't have with others). We can cry and laugh in the same conversation. We understand that our everyday life and decisions revolve around cancer. I love that we can be raw about our diagnosis and treatments and share the most intimate details about one another. We know when to check on each other and provide extra support and encouragement. Overall, YSC has given me a community of hope.
A Sincere Request:
As I ascend into a new decade, I am reminded that my best friend’s future may not be as certain as mine. In lieu of birthday cards or gifts, please save your postage and well-meaning gestures by instead making a donation to YSC.
Thank you, in advance, for your generosity.