Kick-Off Survivor Speaker Julie G.

Our 2021 Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day Virtual Kick-Off started Saturday morning, November 7th, with an inspiring morning kick-off hosted on Zoom. The highlight was getting to hear Julie’s survivor story, which was both poignant and also made us laugh. If you missed it, here is Julie’s story, in her own words.

It is Monday January 7, 2019, about 3:30 p.m., and I am sitting at my desk at work when my cell phone rings. It is the doctor who performed a needle biopsy on my right breast three weeks ago. I have an appointment with her tomorrow, but she wanted to give me a heads-up that the biopsy results came back positive for breast cancer. For a moment everything around me ceased to exist, froze, and it is as if time stood still.

I was not surprised. Deep down I had known for some weeks, a couple of months even, that something was not right; that this time, this lump, was different. But I was still shocked. That may sound like a contradiction, but I know all of you will understand that narrow distinction between a feeling and facing the cold hard truth.

When my Susan G. Komen 3-Day coach, Tisho, asked me to speak at the Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day Virtual Kick-Off I was a little hesitant, I felt that compared to so many others, my breast cancer journey was fairly uneventful, even easy. As I talked it through with my wife Dawn, she reminded me that my journey and story was not just about the discovery and treatment events of the past year and a half, but the three decades I spent “paying it forward”. I did this by fundraising for and participating in breast cancer awareness events, including two other 3-Days, and my strong belief in being an advocate for one’s own body.

I come from a female-centric family, yet none of us, female or male, had been diagnosed with breast cancer until my diagnosis last year. In spite of that, a number of us, myself included, have spent more than our fair share of time being squeezed by mammogram machines, lubed up for ultrasounds and needled for biopsies or had benign cysts drained.

So when I first noticed a lump in my right breast, mid-September 2018, I was not overly concerned. If anything, I was a little frustrated as I already had two mammograms in the past 10 months; one my routine annual and the other when a reoccurring cyst in my left breast got to the size that it was causing discomfort and required draining.

At the time I was still on Active Duty with the Air Force, I had recently moved to a new assignment and military base and was still getting settled at work and in my personal life, so I figured I would just keep an eye on the lump and try and “wait it out” until my next scheduled mammogram in a few months.

Then over the course of two weeks the lump grew noticeably and instead of feeling like the usual round tangibly unattached cysts, it became irregular and appeared to be connected to the breast tissue itself. At this point I realized my “wait it out” approach might not be the best way forward, so I went to the radiology department during their Walk-In hours to get checked out.

Well, it turns out you could only “Walk-In” if you just need an annual exam and have no symptoms. If like me you had a lump, you needed a referral from your primary care doctor for a scheduled appointment. Accomplishing those two steps took more than six weeks and it only happened that fast because I insisted on being a squeaky wheel. To say I was more than a little bewildered and frustrated would be an understatement.

By mid-October when I saw my primary care doctor, I was having noticeable discharge from my right nipple, enough that I needed to put a gauze pad in my bra each day. This was a first for me. Then there was how I was starting to feel physically in general. I do not even know quite how to describe it, I just felt “off’,” not myself. It was at this stage I started to think that something of significance could be going on.

The mammogram and ultrasound on November 19, 2018 showed exactly what I had been feeling, an irregular mass about two and a half centimeters long, made up of (according to the radiologist) a variety of different cell types, that while most likely benign (90% are) was worth further investigation by the Breast Care Center at Walter Reed Regional Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, as a precaution.

At this point I should say that I am what I like to call an optimistic realist. If the glass is nearly half full, I’ll call it half full, but if it’s only a third full, I’ll call it what it is. So, while I heard the radiologist’s words of optimism, somewhere deep inside I just knew I was going to be one of the other 10%. Over the next six months, I would become well acquainted with the amazing staff and facilities of the Breast Care Center, plastic surgery department, and oncology at Walter Reed Regional Medical Center.

The results of my December 16th biopsy revealed ductal carcinoma in situ. At this point, I should point out that my wife, Dawn, who I mentioned earlier, had only been my girlfriend for two weeks when I got my cancer diagnosis. But wow did she step up to help me get through both physically and emotionally. In addition, a week before my diagnosis, I had filed my formal retirement request after having spent over 27 years in the Air Force.

After discussing all the treatment options, recommendations and the fact that being the first in my family to be diagnosed with breast cancer technically put me at a genetically low risk for reoccurrence, I initially opted for a lumpectomy over a mastectomy. For “reassurance” it was decided to order a breast MRI just to confirm nothing else was going on.

So, on February 4, 2019, surgeons removed the mass, now four centimeters by two and a half centimeters and surrounding margins, and we all crossed our fingers and waited. While in the airport on Valentine’s Day waiting to fly from Washington, D.C. to Detroit to visit Dawn for a long weekend, my breast surgeon called to give me the news that results of tissue tests done along with my lumpectomy showed that they did not get clear margins. In other words, there were still some cancer cells left.

Also, the results of the MRI showed a few additional areas of potential concern. I do not know how most of you spent or envision spending your first Valentine’s Day with a new love but talking cancer treatment options is probably not at the top of your list. But that is what Dawn and I did that weekend along with talking to my parents and twin sister.

My mother at the age of 80 had gone through treatment for Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2018, the first known case of any type of cancer in my family, and so she more than anyone could understand what I was going through emotionally. As well as being a pretty optimistic person, I am also quite pragmatic, but there is something about knowing there is a living “thing,” a cancer inside you whose ultimate course if left unchecked would be to kill you, that is disconcerting even for the most rational of us.

On March 11th, my right breast was removed during a skin preserving mastectomy. As at the time we did not know whether I would require radiation treatment, so a spacer was put in place until actual reconstruction could be scheduled. I had a nerve block prior to surgery and so the pain was minimal, but the fatigue and general loss of strength was unexpected.

Dawn is a nurse and so after my initial follow-ups a week after surgery, we were permitted to go to Michigan for the rest of my convalescence and she was able to remove my remaining drain. Thankfully, tissue and lymph node testing results would show no trace of further cancer and so negated the need for radiation or chemotherapy. Having seen my mother go through chemotherapy, I was most concerned about having to do the same.

Reconstruction on the right breast via an implant and surgery to “lift” the left breast (so one side didn’t look like it belonged to a 20-year-old and the other to my 51-year-old body) were accomplished in May, and at that point, I honestly expected life would go back to normal.

Instead what followed were eight months of real struggle with the way my body now looked and felt and accompanying guilt over feeling that way, knowing that compared to many, I got off “easy” — no radiation or chemotherapy. I also struggled with my body’s reaction to taking the preventative hormone treatment Tamoxifen. I was having up to a dozen hot flashes a day. My sex drive and ability to enjoy physical intimacy all but disappeared. I was tired and getting depressed and I just felt disconnected much of the time.

In February of this year I made two decisions. One was to stop taking the Tamoxifen and schedule a prophylactic mastectomy on the left side. By then I had gotten used to how my right side looks and feels and taking all breast tissue out of the equation would address the nagging fear of a new episode of cancer occurring. And it would definitely help my wife Dawn, who would have preferred I had a double mastectomy to begin with. She’s more of a butt person than a breast person, so no loss there, LOL.

Then COVID-19 hit and the surgery had to be put on hold. It was finally rescheduled for the end of July, and then I got into poison oak while clearing land for a chicken coop and goat run and the surgery got postponed again. Is the third time a charm, or is the universe trying to tell me something? Well, I know the option to have the surgery is there for me when and if I want it.

One of the reasons I wanted to speak at the Kick-Off is to encourage you all to be ardent advocates for your own bodies and medical care. Listen to what your body is telling you and trust your instincts. If you do not get answers or care that makes you feel you are being adequately being taken care of, be the squeaky wheel. I was on the phone every day, sometimes multiple times a day, until I finally got a referral for a radiology appointment back in November 2018.

Experience is good, but sometimes youthful enthusiasm wins the day. A brand-new officer and doctor picked up my care and proactively got me in the queue for an appointment with the Breast Care Center while we waited on radiology. Once I was in the system at the Breast Care Center, my confidence level rose, and I would recommend them to anyone eligible to get care there.

In May of this year, Dawn and I moved from Michigan to Delaware into a house we had been renovating for the previous year. It sits on an acre and a half just outside of town and so we are realizing a lifelong dream of mine (and one Dawn has bought into) of a small homestead and pet-sitting business.

At this point I am feeling the full benefits of not taking the Tamoxifen and am under close surveillance by the Breast Care Center, so surgery is on the back burner for now. I think about giving the Tamoxifen another try, it might be the responsible thing to do. But I know I would not be able to stick with it if the side effects came back.

So for now the plan is to be diligent in keeping up with my follow-up plan and living life to its fullest, which brings me to the second choice I made in February of this year — to register for another Susan G. Komen 3-Day. When we walk in Dallas/Fort Worth next year, it will be 15 years since my first 3-Day and 12 years since I last walked.

I distinctly remember waiting in the finishing area of the 2006 Boston 3-Day, my first. As more and more finishers gathered, I commented to my friend on the palpable energy and that surely if there was anyone in there who was sick, there was healing power present. I can still feel it just thinking about it.

I have wondered what it will feel like participating next year as a survivor. I know I will feel immense gratitude. Gratitude for life, for sharing the experience with my wife (who will be participating for the first time) and gratitude for all the other participants (walkers and support staff and volunteers) present who are “paying it forward” until we find the cure.

We’re looking forward to seeing you in Dallas/Fort Worth in 2021, Julie and Dawn!

To hear more inspiring stories like this, you have one more chance by attending our San Diego 3-Day Virtual Kick-Off on November 21st. RSVP today.

#OOTD Inspiration for the 3-Day Virtual Kick-Offs

Looking for some creative costume ideas as you prepare to join us for our final two 2021 Virtual Kick-Off events this month? Level up your selfies for the Dallas/Fort Worth Virtual Kick-Off on November 7 and the San Diego Virtual Kick-Off on November 21 with these costume ideas from the 3-Day community. Though we cannot gather together in person, we can take on the streets with a great Outfit Of The Day, Pink Bubble style.

We polled each of the 3-Day Facebook groups for their best Halloween photos as #ootd inspiration. Check out these great suggestions from your fellow 3-Dayers! But make sure whatever you wear is comfortable for walking, and you’re masked appropriately. Why not make your mask a part of your costume?

Grace your route as pink royalty.

Don your crown and robe as you begin your 3-Day Virtual Kick-Off journey. Bonus points if you match your walking shoes to your finest ballgown or suit.   

Photo by Ruth P. of the San Diego 3-Day

Walk in costume with your furry friends

While 101 dalmatians may be hard to walk at the same time, a sweet pup with a pink leash is the perfect companion on your Virtual Kick-Off walk.

Photo by Marci H. of the New England 3-Day

Embrace your wild side.

Squeal the show as a pig or other barnyard animal! Be sure to ham it up for photos and give lots of virtual hogs and kisses to your adoring social media fans and donors. Remember, these Kick-Off events are a great catalyst to ask for donations. Need help? Check out this recording of our latest fundraising webinar, hosted by your fellow 3-Day walkers and crew!

Photo by Kate P. of the Chicago 3-Day

Bundle up in theme!

This pink sled dog getup is sure to blaze the chilly trail as temps begin to dip.

Photo by Julie J. of the San Diego 3-Day

“Bee” yourself, get groovy, rock a wig, or more!

If none of these ideas suits your fancy, check out these other great costume shots of the 3-Day community for inspiration. Whatever you decide, we guarantee that dressing up will make your Virtual 3-Day Kick-Off experience even more memorable.

What will you wear for the 3-Day Virtual Kick-Off events? Post your ideas here in the comments!

Kick-Off Survivor Speaker Lisa Weier

We had such an amazing time with our 3-Day family at the 2021 Chicago 3-Day Virtual Kick-Off on September 12th. One big reason was getting to hear from a couple of our inspiring 3-Day walkers. Lisa Weier spoke at our evening celebration gathering and really moved us with her story. If you didn’t get a chance to hear her speak, here is her story, in her own words.

I’ve been a supporter of Susan G. Komen for years and became even more involved when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 at the age of 57.

My mom was living in Las Vegas when she was diagnosed, but because of my deep respect and admiration for the medical community here in Chicago, I insisted that she come here for a second opinion. The doctors at UChicago confirmed her diagnosis and scheduled her mastectomy. I took it upon myself to coordinate her care and she stayed with me before and after her surgery.

After recovering from her surgery, my mom went back to Las Vegas for her chemo treatments. During that time, even though I wasn’t physically with her, I learned so much about breast cancer: how chemo is supposed to work, side effects of medication, and terms I never really wanted to know like neutropenic. As a testament to her determination, my mom finished her last chemo treatment on a Thursday, got on a plane on Friday, and that Saturday attended a black tie event that I had been working on for the American Cancer Society. We went together to my stylist beforehand to get all glammed up. I got my hair done; she got eyelashes put on and eyebrows penciled in. My mom looked stunning that evening and we had wonderful time.

After that, we planned to walk in the San Diego 3-Day in November 2008, to celebrate her 2-year survivor anniversary. Since there wasn’t a 3-Day in Chicago that year, nor one in Las Vegas, we figured that we’d go to San Diego for the big 3-Day finale with the beautiful weather and stunning scenery. We completed our fundraising goals, created t-shirts and coordinated our gear. We were excited!

That June 2008, my dad suffered from a ruptured brain aneurysm leaving him comatose. Nine days later, we took him off life support and he passed away. He was the rock of our family and my mom and I were devastated.

As anyone who’s lost someone they love can tell you, grief is profoundly exhausting. My mom and I weren’t sure if we would have the energy to actually walk 60 miles that November in the 3-Day. But we decided that my dad would want us to walk and so we did.

Since my mom was incredibly creative, she could sew, knit, crochet, pretty much do anything (I luckily inherited a small portion of talent), we decided that we needed to make it our goal to win the tent decorating contest at the 3-Day. We asked friends to give us names of people they knew who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and we put them on ribbons which encircled our tent. We used small twinkling lights, glow in the dark stars and pink carnations (my mom’s favorite). We won! That ribbon is one of my most treasured possessions because of everything that went into it.

The time we spent time together on the 3-Day was incredible, but I had no idea just how important those memories would become until 2 months later when my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This meant that while she had easily and happily walked 60 miles, her body was betraying her the entire time. For those of you who have been diagnosed when you feel completely fine, it is unnerving to know that your body is doing something unbeknownst to you and completely out of your control.

I was sitting by her bedside one night at my home where I was caring for her, when I told her that one day I thought I’d start a foundation and do something “more,” whatever that was. And she looked at me, and said, “I’ll be right there watching over you when you do.” That was the first time she even hinted that she knew it was her time to go. Then I asked her if she would do me a favor: “When you see dad, can you give him a hug for me?” Her eyes became really bright blue and she had this great big smile and nodded and said “Of course.”

Just six months after our 3-Day adventure and only 11 months after having lost my dad, I lost her, too.

I am eternally grateful for the time we spent together and all that she taught me about being brave and strong (as an aside, I personally hate that word “strong” because it just means you’ve just been through a bunch of crap that nobody would want to go through).

That next June, just after a year from losing my mom, when I was going through a divorce, working and raising my two boys who were 6 and 3, I was downtown at Northwestern for my mammogram. I was 37.

I discovered it is never a good sign when everyone in a doctor’s office, including those who arrived long after you did, go home and you are still there reading some “Us” magazine from 1988 waiting for someone to talk to you about your test results. So, I wasn’t surprised when the radiologist called me back to show me my images and said that it looked like I had breast cancer. I just sat there while the nurse who was seated next to me waited for me to fall apart. But you see, I didn’t. That’s how I knew my Mom was right there with me. And because I had been through her journey, I knew what was coming and just said, “Ok, what’s next?”

Two months later I had my mastectomy at Northwestern. And not only was my mom there with me that day too, but I had a waiting room full of beautiful friends who were, and still are, my biggest cheerleaders and advocates. My surgeon said that he felt like he was addressing a crowd when he came out to report on how things went. Like many of you, I often have a hard time accepting help because, of course, I can do everything myself. Except that I can’t and we aren’t meant to. Learning to accept help, love and support from those amazing friends is the gift breast cancer gave me. And I’m beyond grateful.

Three weeks ago, on August 23, I celebrated my 10-year survivor anniversary!

I decided last year that to celebrate this milestone I’d have a big party, check a few things off my bucket list and walk in the 3-Day since it was back in Chicago. Perfect! I wanted to walk in memory of my mom, in honor of a dear friend of mine who is also a survivor and in joy for all the blessings in my life. My friends were planning to have a cheering station and I was planning to collect stickers and buttons on my lanyard that those of you that have walked in the 3-Day know are small tokens of encouragement that you pick up along the journey.

But as we all know and have certainly been reminded of this year, life is uncertain and unpredictable. So instead of any of those things, I spent my 10-year anniversary going to brunch and watching a movie with my boys. Now that might not seem like such a big accomplishment. But my boys are now 13 and 16 and for those of you with teenage boys, you know how “easy” it is to convince them to spend time hanging out with their mom. The day was uneventful and quiet and ordinary which made it extraordinary and the perfect celebration.

I’m looking forward to celebrating my 11-year anniversary by walking in Chicago’s 3-Day next year and hope to see all of you there!

We thank Lisa for being so brave and sharing the story of her emotional family journey at the Chicago kick-off and again here for you all to read. We can’t wait to welcome you to the 2021 Chicago 3-Day next October!

To hear more inspiring stories like this, you have two more chances by attending our kick-off activities. Our next virtual kick-off is on November 7th. RSVP today.