Portraits of Breast Cancer
Carla Copeland, 44Long Beach, California
Breast cancer totally surprised me. I don’t have a family history, but one day in 2002 I was in the shower and I felt a lump. I was 37 at the time. The doctor didn’t think it felt like cancer and said I was so young I shouldn’t worry about it. But he told me to get a mammogram and an ultrasound just to make sure. I put that off for a few weeks, but when I finally got the tests, they knew immediately after the ultrasound that it was cancer. The supervising doctor said she had seen thousands of cases and was sure about it.
They rushed a biopsy and set me up with an oncologist; I was diagnosed with HER2-positive stage 2 cancer. Stage 2 is considered middle-of-the-road, but the type of tumor I had is very aggressive. When you hear something like that, you’re not even thinking straight: I was supposed to go on a cruise through western Europe the following week with my family, and I remember thinking, Can I still go on my cruise?
The doctor let me go, and I made myself enjoy that time with my family. Because when I got back home, it was right into treatment. I had surgery to remove the lump and 10 lymph nodes, one of which was cancerous. Three weeks later, I started chemo and Herceptin treatment and had seven weeks of radiation. I’m very lucky that I got into a yearlong trial study of Herceptin, which had been used for metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer, to see how it would work for earlier stages of the disease.
Because of the chemo, I lost all my hair, and I did the wig, the hats, the scarves. I actually gained weight. You hear about cancer patients losing weight, but with the steroids I took to better tolerate the chemo, I became bloated and moonfaced. What kept me positive was sticking to my daily routines―going to my job in telecommunications, walking my new dog, having dinner with friends and family, seeing local bands, and having the occasional beer or glass of wine ( just one).
And then I discovered something new: Chinese dragon-boat racing. There was a woman I saw in the chemo room―she had a bubbly personality and these amazing biceps. Her name is T. K. (short for Takako Kimura), and when we started talking, she told me about her involvement in the Los Angeles Pink Dragons, which is a dragon-boating team for breast cancer survivors. I had never really been athletic. Still, I went out to try it, and I met such amazing, positive women―mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and one in her mid-80s. Paddling in sync with them helped me regain confidence in my body. I couldn’t believe how hard it was, but I wanted to keep doing it. That’s how I found my true love, outrigger ocean canoeing, which I do three days a week. I’m in better shape now than I was before cancer.
My oncologist followed me very closely, and two years ago he told me I was cured―he didn’t even use the word remission. He has never seen my type of cancer recur after five years and said that when you get beyond that point, you’re a pioneer.
It’s funny, because now when I consider my cancer, I realize that if I hadn’t gone through it, my life wouldn’t have opened up the way it has. When I think of all I’ve achieved, I look at cancer like, “You didn’t get me. See what I’m doing now?”