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Tragedy to Triumph: “I was 32 Years Old When I Found a Lump in My Breast”

I have known Erika Giffing for nearly seven years now – she is my friend Jessica’s older sister. Proud to consider her one of my friends as well, I am honored to give readers a personal account of her triumph over one of the most devastating diseases among women. Erika is not only a breast cancer survivor; she is a breast cancer survivor who wouldn’t allow her spirit to become shattered in the face of tragedy. Yes, this is a story of triumph. 

Upon meeting this dark-haired beauty back in 2005, I remember immediately feeling at ease in her presence. From the way her shoulders shake when she laughs to her tell-it-like-it-is conversations, she never fails to capture a person’s attention and command respect of an entire crowd. To know Erika is to love her.

So when I found out that the individual who I had known to be full of humor as well as humility, was diagnosed with breast cancer at only 32 years old, I was heartbroken.

I initially learned about her diagnosis through Facebook. Her openness and honesty was amazing, so I of course kept up with status updates regarding her feelings and progress of treatment on a regular basis. Just as I sadly viewed pictures of her gradually losing her hair, I smiled at the photos of her as a confident and bald woman. (Erika also posted images of herself without a wig.) By chronicling this time of her life on Facebook, it was clear to me that Erika’s decision to share her experience on a social networking site was not a “woe is me” cry.  While many people may shy away from doing this in order to maintain a sense of privacy, Erika was bringing people inside her world. By exposing her experience as a breast cancer patient, she was contributing to the importance of making people aware of this disease. In her own special efforts, she was letting people know that yes, it can happen to you too.

Treating a Tragic Discovery

“I found the lump myself. I always gave myself self-breast exams even if I was at a low risk,” Erika says, acknowledging that she is the first person in her family to have breast cancer. “I will never forget it.  I cried and thought about my very young children and husband.  I said ‘I don’t want to die. My kids need me.’  Then I wiped my tears and said, ‘Okay what do I need to do?’”

Because Erika’s cancer was so aggressive, chemotherapy was highly recommended – right away, in fact. She was clinically diagnosed at Stage IIA on December 18, 2009 and underwent her first round of treatment on January 5, 2010. While Erika says that “chemo itself was not too bad,” the effect it took on her body in the beginning was dangerous. In addition to feeling extremely tired, losing her hair, and feeling sick, Erika’s appendix ruptured after her first round of chemo. Although this is said to be a coincidence, it posed a fatal risk to her health. “Because my immune system was compromised, this caused a world of trouble for me.  It nearly took my life.  I had to be rushed into emergency surgery.  Since I was a chemo patient it caused infection after infection, and I lived in the hospital for almost three months. Once I healed up from all that, I started treatment again and did fine.”

Erika underwent six rounds of chemo treatment in total.

Adjusting to Life with Breast Cancer

From being able to run six miles nearly every day to needing help walking to the bathroom, Erika’s energy level was nearly non-existent during her chemo treatment. “All the time I spent in a hospital bed was torture for me,” she says. “I really missed running.”

But even during this period of helplessness, Erika’s outlook on life was positive and began inspiring those around her to have faith in her journey as well. “I gained a new appreciation for life,” she says “I fell in even more love with my husband – he really stepped up and was my rock.  I learned to make the most of every day.”

During this time, Erika also had to deal with a major devastation in her family: “I lost my daddy during my fight. But that only added to the thought of enjoying life to the fullest because you never know.

“I found out the hard way how strong I really am.  I know people say they love their husband and kids so much and they would die for them.  I can say I love them so much I live for them.  When I was told I may not make it and it was up to me to fight or die, it never even crossed my mind to die.  I had too much to live for.”

From Breast Removal to Breast Reconstruction

“I could not be officially diagnosed [when I was clinically diagnosed at Stage IIA] because they had not tested the lymph nodes or extracted the tumor until after two rounds of chemo,” she explains. “By then the tumor had shrunken – from 7 cm to 2cm. So there was no way of knowing if the cancer had spread past my breast.  If it did, odds are the chemo got it.”

With her newfound appreciation and attitude towards life, she decided to prevent this from ever happening again. After much consideration, this 33 year-old chose to undergo a double mastectomy – surgical removal of both breasts. (Erika had both breasts removed after the second round of chemo, and received her last sets of treatment after the double mastectomy.)

“My doctor, Preston Gable, M.D., F.A.C.P., was very informative and helpful with this.  Considering I was only 32 then, I didn’t smoke, was very fit, and breastfed both my kids and still got invasive breast cancer, I made the informed decision to have them both removed. I don’t ever want to go through this again, EVER!”

Erika also made the decision to undergo breast reconstruction with silicone implants in order to reclaim her feminine shape and sense of confidence. Currently, she is still in the stretching-of-the-skin process of breast reconstruction, which is known as “tissue expansion.” Some post-mastectomy patients have enough muscle left over to create a pocket for the implant, but according to Erika, “When you have a total mastectomy everything is taken, even the muscle.” Her left breast – the side that had cancer and received radiation – had no tissue or muscle left. The right breast, although not in the same condition as the left breast, was also lacking in tissue and muscle.

Because Erika needed more muscle in the breast region to hold the expanders and eventually the implants in place, she underwent a surgical preparation step in the overall reconstructive procedure. Prior to silicone balloon expanders being inserted in the muscle, which are gradually filled with salt water over time in order for the skin to stretch, grow, and prepare for implant insertion, Erika says “We borrowed from the ‘Lat flap’[Latissimus Dorsi Muscle Flap].” The Latissimus Dorsi is a tissue flap procedure that entails the use of muscle and skin from the patient’s upper back, which will help to create new breasts mounds. “The muscle was taken from my bra line,” she says. “This procedure is said to reduce the risk of capsular contracture.”

“The tissue expansion process can last anywhere from one month to even four months.  It really all depends on how big you want your ta-tas to be.  It looks like I will be getting my new breasts in late December,” says Erika, who is looking forward to becoming a size 32D. “Merry Christmas to me!” 

She will not have nipples grafted until months later, because she needs her implant insertion procedure to be healed. “Then finally I get the icing (tattooed) on my cakes after my nipples are healed up,” Erika says. Attesting to her confidence of the medical field, this breast cancer survivor proudly admits:  “With all the wonders of reconstruction I will soon be better than ever.”

Erika Receives a Second Chance

“Self-breast exams save lives, and I am thankful for a second chance,” Erika confirms. “I didn’t choose cancer, it chose me…and I chose to fight.  I thank God for all the research and modern medicine.  It saved my life.”

With a loving, supportive family by her side, this is one breast cancer survivor who didn’t give up – who wouldn’t even consider that as an option. “I loved how my sister Jettie [Jessica] wouldn’t treat me like I was sick. It really brought me down when people would treat me like I was dying. Plus, how much my parents and Jettie helped me with my kids.  They kept my spirits up, and all would tell me how pretty I looked even if I was bald and super skinny. I have to say I was one sexy bald chick!” says Erika, proving her comedic nature is still intact.

Never wanting her children to feel mommy’s pain, Erika stayed strong for her son and daughter. “If I looked scared then they would feel it.  So I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.  I just had to put my big girl panties on, and deal with it,” she says.

Keeping active in the breast cancer awareness community, Erika participates in the “Revlon Run/Walk for Women’s Cancer” every year, as well as the “Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Run/Walk” every November. This almost 34-year old especially enjoys speaking with other breast cancer patients, answering as many questions as she can about the process, proudly stating: “It makes me feel good to turn my tragic experience into a positive impact for others.”

By Elana Pruitt

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