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Heather Lau – Reconstruction after Triple Negative Breast Cancer

Heather Lau – Reconstruction after Triple Negative Breast Cancer
Photo Courtesy of Heather Lau

Dan and Heather Lau

This is the last in my Breast Reconstruction Thoughts series (at least for now). I continue to be thankful for the willingness of these women to share their stories. Heather Lau and I both graduated from West Hancock High School in Britt, Iowa. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 35 years old and made it through treatment and reconstruction while raising young kids. Here are some of her thoughts.

Name: Heather Lau

Family: Husband – Dan, Son – Camden (15), Daughter – Kenadie (14), Daughter – Macie (9)

Occupation: Office assistant at an insurance agency

Hobbies/Interests: Going to all my kids’ activities and spending time as a family.

Diagnosis: Triple Negative Breast Cancer – Stage 1

Age at Time of Diagnosis: 35

Type of Reconstruction: Implant Reconstruction

What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis?

Complete shock! I didn’t think people my age got breast cancer. I was only 35 and my kids were young (4, 9 and 10.) I just kept thinking this happens to other people, but not me.

How much time passed from your mastectomy through the completion of reconstruction?

I had the mastectomy, then chemo, and then reconstruction. So from mastectomy to reconstruction completion it was about 11 months

What was something you found surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process?

I was very surprised at how much better I felt about myself after I was done with the whole process. I kept telling everyone that I didn’t really care about having breasts again, but it turns out I did! It just made me feel normal again.

What was the hardest part of he process?

It was definitely physically hard for me. I got expanders put in two months after chemo, and my body was still recovering from that. I thought the drainage tubes were awful. I had to have them in for almost three weeks, and they were painful and made sleeping impossible. I would say the first month after getting the expanders in was the hardest for me

(Wonder what the expansion process is like? Breast Reconstruction – Expansion)

What is something you learned about yourself through your mastectomy/reconstruction experience?

There’s a saying, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.” I always thought of myself as weak, but going through this I found out that I am strong.

Do you have a piece of advice for women who are just beginning this journey?

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had reconstruction, and everyone had different experiences. It really helped me to talk to other women who went through it. Do what you are comfortable with. Stay positive, and lean on your friends for support.

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Free Mastectomy Pillows and Seatbelt Covers from The Bosom Buddies

Free Mastectomy Pillows and Seatbelt Covers from The Bosom Buddies
Photo by Jan Nelson

The Bosom Buddies: Connie, Jan, Becky and Judy

525. That’s the number of mastectomy pillows the Bosom Buddies have made since August 2016.

Women in 29 states have received their pillows. 4 cancer centers currently keep their pillows on hand to give to mastectomy patients. And new pillow requests come in through this website regularly.

Cancer is a taker.

Breast cancer sometimes takes one or both breasts. It often takes hair. It always has financial cost. And it always steals away sweet time. One woman who went through a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, intensive chemo and radiation said to me, “My oncologist said, ‘give me two years of your time and I’ll give you your life back.’”

Two years. Cancer is costly.

The Bosom Buddies know this cost because they have all watched someone they love very much walk the cancer road.

Becky’s daughter, Rachel, was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2016.

Judy’s daughter, Jodi, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016.

Jan’s daughter (ME 🙂 ) was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016.

Connie’s mom, Janice, fought cancer for years before succumbing to the disease in 2016.

Because these women saw the hard things of cancer first-hand, they were compelled to do something. That something turned into digging into their pocketbooks and clearing days on their calendars to buy supplies and sew mastectomy pillows and seatbelt port protectors which they give away free of charge.

1 John 3:17 says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”

A woman who received free mastectomy pillows.

Jan, Becky, Judy and Connie don’t just provide for the needs that they see, they go looking for people in need. (They’re really pretty amazing.) They bless women who are undergoing cancer treatment, but in turn, they said they are also blessed.

Becky said, “I think one of the most rewarding things is delivering the pillows to the cancer centers and hearing the medical staff talk about how appreciative all of the recipients are.”

Because of the Bosom Buddies’ giving attitudes and their servant hearts, women all over our country who are experiencing the cost of cancer, are also receiving a gift of comfort.

If you or someone you know could benefit from free mastectomy pillows or a seatbelt port protector, follow the link below to my online request form.

FREE MASTECTOMY PILLOWS and SEATBELT COVER PORT PROTECTORS

 

What is a Mastectomy Pillow?

It is a small pillow that fits nicely in the armpit to help ease the pain after a mastectomy and/or lymph node surgery. After having your breasts removed and having had a surgeon dig around in your armpit for lymph nodes, sitting like a “normal” person with your hands at your sides is quite painful. The pillow provides a buffer.

What is a Seatbelt Cover Port Protector?

Women undergoing chemo for breast cancer generally have a port placed in their chest area. This remains in place for the duration of treatment. They receive meds through this port. A seatbelt cover port protector provides a bit of a buffer between the chest port and the seatbelt in their car.

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Krystal Ruby – Bilateral Mastectomy with DEIP Flap Reconstruction

Krystal Ruby – Bilateral Mastectomy with DEIP Flap Reconstruction
Photo Courtesy of Krystal Ruby

Krystal and her husband Mike.

Krystal and I live in the same community and have mutual friends, but have only met in person once in passing at a school event. (Maybe someday we can find the time to grab a coffee and talk about our shared experience.) She has graciously taken the time to tell her story, and you will not regret taking a few minutes to read it.

Name: Krystal Ruby 

Family: Husband Mike, Three Children – Tanner -9, Sadie-7, Dayton-5

Occupation: Industrial Hygienist for the State of Iowa

Hobbies/Interests: My number one hobby is definitely spending as much time with my family as possible! I love volunteering when I can and love being that mom who is constantly running around, taking the kids to their weekly activities.  However, I also love kicking back at home on a Friday evening with family and watching the newest superhero movie while eating popcorn and M&Ms.  I also love spending time with my friends. From browsing through aisles at Target with a Starbucks in my hand, to catching up with a bite to eat. I love spending time with the people who make me the happiest! 

Diagnosis: Tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation in December 2015. My aunt had just been diagnosed with Breast Cancer a second time.  She made the decision to get tested for the gene and was found to be positive.  It had been 14 years since her first diagnosis.  Since she was positive, her daughter, and sisters (one being my mother) were able to get tested. Everyone was negative except for my mother. That led to my brothers and me getting tested. 

The test was quite simple, but nerve-racking altogether. We sat around this table and swished Scope Mouth wash in our mouths for 30 seconds and then spit into a tube. We did this three times and then had to wait for a few weeks. My brother got the first call. He was negative!

Age: 31

Type of Reconstruction: Bilateral Mastectomy/Expander/DEIP Flap Reconstruction

What was your initial reaction to diagnosis?

 I received the call at work around 3:30pm.  My mom had already warned me that the first thing the doctor would say whether we were negative or not was: “Is this a good time to talk?” Well I for sure wasn’t going to tell her No!  I said yes as I was walking out of work.  She says I have to tell you that you tested positive for the BRCA2+ gene. I still get choked up just thinking about that phone call. I was devastated. I remember telling her that I couldn’t comprehend anything she was saying and would have to call her back. I was shaking and crying and more importantly, I just wanted my Mom.

I called my Mom and let her know immediately. It was heartbreaking. I was sad, nervous, and scared. However, I straightened up and realized that I am so thankful I knew because I now was given the opportunity to prevent Breast/Ovarian Cancer. 

How much time passed from your bilateral mastectomy through the end of your reconstruction process?

The first surgery took place on November 2, 2016. In April 2017, a second surgery was necessary to replace an expander that popped.  The surgery I call the “BIG ONE” was May 17, 2017. That type of surgery can last up to 12 hours. There was an incision from hip to hip where the fat was removed from my stomach and transferred up to my chest (DEIP Flap Reconstruction).  This surgery was definitely the most difficult of the surgeries. I had incisions on my breasts and stomach.

On December 1, 2017, I will go back in for another phase of surgery. This will be for nipple reconstruction, scar revision, and to fill any areas that “fat necrosis” took place. Basically that means that the fat from my stomach that was used to create my new boobs does break down in your boobs, so fat grafting can be done to ensure boobs are at their full potential 🙂 .

After this, I plan to go see a tattoo artist name Vinnie who specializes in nipple and areola 3D tattoos.  He will be my final stage and the completion of my reconstruction. It may not be until 2018, but sooner than later my breasts will be complete.

What are some challenges you faced during the reconstruction process?

The expander process can I say..SUCKED!! I didn’t have a problem going every week to get filled. My fill days were never painful, but my chest was what my then 4-year-old said was “rock salad”  (solid) and he was right. I’m not a back sleeper, so sleeping on my back was super difficult to get used to, but I did! The neck pillow that I received from the hospital was a lifesaver in and out of the hospital. I had to sleep on the recliner too, which my husband and neighbor brought upstairs for me.

Unexpectedly on Sunday April 9, 2017, my right expander popped overnight. I was devastated. I was so close to my surgery date and was worried I was going to have to reschedule. Fortunately, I spoke to Dr. Carlisle that Sunday and on Tuesday they had me scheduled for surgery to replace both expanders. I was still good to go for surgery in May! YAY!

Did you find anything surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process?

One thing that surprised me were the different options available for breast reconstruction. I went in there thinking I would get implants that needed to be replaced every 10 years. I was wrong. My doctor told me about DEIP Flap Reconstruction where they basically take the fat from your stomach and transfer it to your chest. These were more natural than implants and would allow my breasts to shrink and grow with my body.

A surprising thing for me was that after my DEIP Flap Reconstruction, my chest still had no feeling from the first surgery so I was not in much pain in my chest.   My stomach on the other hand was TIGHT. I was super happy with the outcome of my stomach. I no longer had the baby pouch which was awesome, but I was hunched over for a few weeks and couldn’t stretch very far either.  I was off work for 9 weeks compared to 5 weeks after the first surgery.

What was the hardest part for you?

The hardest part of the process was not being able to play the role of Mom, like I normally do. It was hard having people wait on me. My husband played the role of Mom and Dad. He did so amazing, but it was still hard to deal with. I wanted to hug and squeeze them, but instead they hugged my legs and that was tough.  I wanted to do stuff with them, but for those first 3-4 weeks, I couldn’t do much.

Another hard part was looking at my chest for the first time. I was scared of what I would see, and that fear in the not knowing made me feel sick. But I was actually pleasantly surprised when I looked. I still had boobs! They weren’t big, but I wasn’t completely flat either. I knew at this point things were going to be okay.

What have you learned from this experience?

I have learned from this experience that I have on amazing support system. My family, my friends, and my community stepped up and helped out when we were in need. I also learned that I am stronger than what I give myself credit for. I went through 3 surgeries and every one of them was painful, but I conquered.

The most important thing I learned from my experience is that God is GOOD, ALL THE TIME! He has a plan for all of us, and although we may not understand it during the hard times, he’s there beside us every single step of the way and his plan is truly the greatest. I am truly blessed by God’s grace.

Are you happy with your results?

I am so happy with my results. My boobs look real. My stomach is flat. And most importantly, my risk for breast cancer has gone down over 90 percent.

Do you have a piece of advice for someone just starting this journey?

One piece of advice I can give to women who are going through the same thing that I went through is that: You CAN do it! The process might be long, there might be bumps along the way, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to ask for help, but you CAN do it! You are stronger than you think and even if your body looks different after surgery and you have scars that are visible or even if they’re not visible, YOU are STILL BEAUTIFUL! Those scars tell a story. I love this quote “Never be ashamed of a scar.  It simply means  you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”

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Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Amber Schoenauer – Single Mastectomy

Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Amber Schoenauer – Single Mastectomy
Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts where I feature women who have undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also had breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis. I hope their words bring insight and encouragement.


Amber and I had a sleepover when I was in Chicago for a writer’s conference this summer. 🙂

Amber and I grew up together. She’s my cousin and lived just two blocks away from me in our tiny hometown of Britt, Iowa. We had more sleepovers than I can count. We wore a path to the Dime (not Dollar) Store after school to buy candy. And we drank tea with milk and lots of sugar at Grandma’s house every Saturday afternoon. I can only remember fighting with her one time, and that fight ended with my face in a snow drift, which I’m sure I didn’t deserve 😉

In 2016, just a couple months after my diagnosis, Amber was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Hers was more advanced than mine, and she underwent chemo and radiation in addition to her mastectomy and reconstruction. And she was (and still is) a rock star. Every time we spoke during that cancer year, she exuded positivity. She took what life gave her and she handled it with strength and grace.

I didn’t want cancer and neither did she, but I am sure thankful for a friendship that was rekindled through it. 

 

Name: Amber Schoenauer

Family: single

Occupation: Compliance

Hobbies/Interests: Exercise, sports, dogs

Diagnosis: ER2+, Stage IIIB

Age at Time of Diagnosis: 41

Type of Reconstruction: Tissue expansion with silicone implant (following unilateral mastectomy) *Amber’s mastectomy and reconstruction are just a small piece of her breast cancer story, but I’m thankful she took the time to share reconstruction her experience. She had a long road through treatment, but she kicked cancer’s butt.

 

What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis?

Defeat.  My divorce was final one year prior to diagnosis, my beloved pet was recently paralyzed, I’d been denied a promotion at work, and one more negative thing (and a pretty major thing) just seemed like I had officially been defeated.

You decided to have a single (unilateral) mastectomy instead of a double (bilateral) mastectomy. How did you land on that decision?

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Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Tamara Becker – Breast Cancer at Age 30

Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Tamara Becker – Breast Cancer at Age 30
Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts where I feature women who have undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also had breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis. I hope their words bring insight and encouragement.


Photo Courtesy of Tamara Becker

Tamara Becker

Tamara is my mom’s cousin. I grew up playing Cabbage Patch Dolls with her younger sister, Heather, out at their farmhouse. She is the first person I ever knew to be diagnosed with breast cancer. She is also one of the first people I called for wisdom after my diagnosis.

Name: Tamara Becker

Family: Collin – Age 22, Mallory – Age 20, Gavin – Age 17

Occupation: Legal Secretary/Legal Assistant

Hobbies/Interests: Boating and water-skiing, reading, sports – playing and watching, exercise/fitness

Diagnosis:  Stage II Breast Cancer with lymph node involvement – Bilateral Masectomy

Age at Time of Diagnosis: 30

Type of Reconstruction: Latissimus dorsi-fla

What was your initial response to your diagnosis?

How can I have breast cancer? – the only risk factor I had was being a woman and I need to live as I have a toddler and 3 month old baby to raise.

How much time passed from your mastectomy/bilateral mastectomy through completion of reconstruction?

I had a bilateral mastectomy in October of 1997. I started the Reconstruction process in August of 1998 and finished it in February of 1999.  A total of 1 year and 4 months.

What was something you found surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process?

My reconstruction surgery was worse than the mastectomy surgery as far as pain and recovery.

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Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Kerry Brannan – Twice Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Kerry Brannan – Twice Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts at Life Reconstructed. Each Tuesday this fall, I am featuring a woman who has undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also had breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis. I hope their words bring insight and encouragement.

Photo Courtesy of Kerry Brannen

I have not met Kerry in person, but once you’ve gone through breast reconstruction, you feel a certain connection to others who’ve experienced the same thing. I’m thankful she was willing to share from her experience, and I hope someday that I might have the opportunity to meet her face-to-face.

Name:  Kerry J Brannan                

Family:  Husband of 39 yrs, 3 adult daughters, all married, 9 grandchildren (6 girls, 3 boys)

Occupation: Homemaker

Hobbies/Interests:  Music (play piano), currently LOVING an acapella group called “Home Free”

Diagnosis: Multifocal DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) 20 yrs ago (L side).  Micro-invasive ductal carcinoma 3 yrs ago, R side. 

Age at Time of Diagnosis:  1st -39;  2nd– 58

Type of Reconstruction: 1st –  none, mastectomy only;  2nd – bilateral reconstruction with silicone implant

Profile Questions

What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis?

Annoyance, determination to do research well, ask every possible question

How much time passed from your mastectomy through completion of reconstruction?

Just over 9 months – I delayed some parts of it to fit my schedule (with doctor’s approval!)

What was something you found surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process? 

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Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Rachel Akslen – BRCA2 Positive

Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Rachel Akslen – BRCA2 Positive
Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts at Life Reconstructed. Each Tuesday this fall, I am featuring a woman who has undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also had breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis. I hope their words bring insight and encouragement.

Rachel was one of my closest college friends, and we’ve stayed friends for 20+ years. When I met her, her mom was dying of breast cancer. She later found that she had a very high likelihood of getting cancer as well. I remember when she went through her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. It seemed so foreign and scary to me. Little did I know then, that about 4 years later, she would be my mentor as I went through the same process. But God knew, and I’m so thankful for the gift she is in my life.

Name – Rachel Akslen

Family – Husband Eric & 4 kids – Clara – 14, Jairus – 11, Ellie & Kaylee – 9

Occupation – Busy mom & part-time accountant

Hobbies/Interests – watching movies, reading, baking, watching kids play soccer

DiagnosisBRCA2 positive, prophylactic bilateral mastectomy & oophorectomy

Age at Time of Diagnosis – 35

Type of Reconstruction – expanders & silicone implants

Profile Questions

  • What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis or to finding out you had the brca1 or brca2 gene?

I actually felt a lot of relief to finally just know & to have the ability to do something about it instead of just feeling like ticking time bomb.  There were also a lot of tears mostly when thinking about my kids & knowing that there is a 50% chance I have passed this on to each of them.

How much time passed from your mastectomy/bilateral mastectomy through completion of reconstruction?

About 5 months

What was something you found surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process?

I didn’t realize how much you use your chest muscles & that pretty much every movement would hurt.  I also didn’t expect to have so much trouble sleeping & for so long.

What was the hardest part of the process?

I think the hardest part for me was the sleep deprivation.  I have learned that I am a much different person when I’m so over tired.  I’m not very patient with the kids & am just crabby.  It also made it easier to feel sorry for myself & question my decision.

Do you have a piece of advice for women who are just beginning this journey?

Find someone else who has been down a similar road to talk to & ask very frank questions to.

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Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Cathy VanMaanen

Breast Reconstruction Thoughts – Cathy VanMaanen
Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts (a profile series) at Life Reconstructed. Each Tuesday this fall, I will feature a woman who has undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also undergone breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis. 
Each woman will tell us a little bit about herself and her experience. I hope their words will serve to bring encouragement to those who need it, and enlightenment to those who haven’t walked this path.

My first guest is Cathy.

Photo courtesy of Cathy VanMaanen

Name: Cathy Van Maanen

Family: 3 adult children, Alex, Erica (& husband David, Kristyne & Jake), Anna

Occupation: Librarian & children’s theater director

Hobbies/Interests: books, walking, movies, my grandkids

Diagnosis: I had stage 1  Breast Cancer, originally diagnosed as Ductal Carcinoma In Situ.  After a lumpectomy it was determined I really needed a mastectomy. A tumor was discovered and removed during the lumpectomy, but the margins weren’t clear so we proceeded with the mastectomy a few weeks later.

Age at Time of Diagnosis: 40

Type of Reconstruction: TRAM (transverse rectal abdominal muscle, tunneled under the skin to form new breast)

 

Profile Questions

  • What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis?

Fear for my kids. They were 9, 8, and 4 at the time of diagnosis.   I had been widowed at age 35, and at the time of diagnosis had recently remarried.  (Yes, the 4-year-old was born shortly after her father’s death.)  I will never forget my 4-year-old daughter’s comment while we were driving down the street.  “Sorry you got cancer Mommy, and I hope you don’t die, but at least I got to know you.”  Now that’s a wake-up call.

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Breast Reconstruction – Thoughts From Women Who Have Been There (a profile series)

Breast Reconstruction – Thoughts From Women Who Have Been There (a profile series)

On Tuesdays, starting next week, I will begin featuring profiles of women who have undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most of the women to be featured have been through reconstruction of some sort, and a few have opted to go flat as it’s called in the breast cancer world. There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s a decision all of us in the “mastectomy club” have to make.

Breast Reconstruction Photo by Kim HarmsThese profiles are not meant to be exhaustive interviews. Instead they will highlight some key parts of the process, providing insight and encouragement to women who have unwittingly found themselves in the bizarre world of mastectomies and reconstruction. It’s a heart-breaking, weird, scary, challenging, and for me at least, faith-deepening experience. If you are a new member of our club, I hope the words these women say help you feel less alone.

My desire is that these profiles will also be educational for those of you who have not been on the receiving end of the statement “You have breast cancer.” I pray you never hear those words spoken to you, but I can almost guarantee that at some point in your life someone you love will.

If you or someone you know of would like to be a part of this series or would like more info, please contact me through the form below. (If you don’t hear from me within 2 days, email me at kimharms@rocketmail.com.)

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Life Reconstructed

We live a construction life over here at the Harms house.

I’ve been watching my man build amazing things for two decades. But I never imagined there would be a point in my life when a piece of me would have to be physically reconstructed. That at age 40 my chest would literally be taken apart and put back together.

During that process of physical breast reconstruction, non-physical parts of my life were reconstructed as well.

Pieces of my marriage were taken apart and reconstructed.

Pieces of my thought life were taken apart and reconstructed.

Pieces of my self-esteem were taken apart and reconstructed.

Pieces of my sense of womanhood were taken apart and reconstructed.

And pieces of my relationship with my Savior were taken apart and reconstructed too.

The funny thing is, when my physical body healed, the feeling was gone and I was left with permanent physical numbness.

But as the non-physical parts of me worked through the reconstruction process, the depth of my emotions intensified. I now feel more deeply than I ever have before. I love my husband more. I have more confidence as the woman God created me to be. I find more joy in adventurous things. And I cling to my Savior with a new intensity.

Sometimes I miss the before-cancer me.  I miss life without hot flashes. I miss knowing my husband was the only person who ever got to see me with my shirt off. And I miss the naivety of thinking I’d live my smooth-sailing-life to old age and die on a porch swing with my Corey by my side.

But I don’t miss those things of the past as much as I treasure my life in the now. Breast cancer and breast reconstruction were the means the infinitely wise God used to get me to this place, and I choose to be thankful. Thankful for the trial and thankful for my life reconstructed.

I’m also thankful you’ve come along for the ride 🙂

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