When Meaghan Campbell found a lump in her breast, she thought there was no way it could be cancer. She was only 32, with no breast cancer in her family, and her life was on a positive trajectory–she had recently gotten married, bought a house, and loved her job as a program officer in ocean conservation.
The morning her biopsy results were due, her husband, who she describes as a stoic Irish Catholic, said he had a good feeling that everything was going to be fine.
But she felt suspicious, as her mammogram and ultrasound technician told her stories about the wonders of modern day reconstruction surgery, and the doctor after one glance at the images, provided Meaghan with her cell phone number.
The biopsy confirmed her fears: she had breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and the center of her chest.
She immediately went to see an oncologist—and had to make some big decisions. Chemotherapy or surgery first? Lumpectomy or mastectomy? Did she and her husband, the newlyweds who had originally planned on not having kids, ever want to be parents?
They ultimately decided to harvest her eggs before she started chemotherapy one month later, as an insurance policy in case the chemotherapy permanently shut down her ovaries and took the biological children option away.
One of Meaghan’s four intravenous chemo drugs was Adriamycin, also known as the Red Devil. Standard side effects include: pain where the medication is given, nausea/vomiting, low blood counts, mouth sores, hair loss, extreme fatigue and more.
“In the middle of Adriamycin when I was incredibly sick, I said to my oncologist, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t finish these last 3 chemos.’ None of the advanced nausea meds were working, and I could barely see straight. She gave me a pep talk and said, ‘I want you to be a grandma and live a long life. I think this will put the exclamation point on your treatmesick2nt.’”
In addition to chemo, Meaghan had a single mastectomy and five weeks of daily radiation.
A year later in the reconstruction process, “I had surgery to get a silicone implant. Seven weeks post-op, the incision split open, and I went into the hospital with an intense infection. They removed the implant and did another surgery in which they took part of my latissimus back muscle to create healthy tissue in my breast.”
Radiation had thinned her skin so much that the surgical incisions wouldn’t seal, which led to her surgical complications, a very common occurrence for breast cancer patients. She has one more surgery this February to swap a tissue expander or placeholder in her chest for another silicone implant.
However, one of her worst medical experiences happened when her doctor directed her to have a core biopsy, taking tissue samples instead of just a few cells, to determine whether or not she had any residual cancer in her breast after chemo and was eligible for a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.
“Basically, I’m lying on my stomach on an elevated table under compression, or in a mammogram machine. The doctors stick a large needle deep into my breast to take a tissue sample.
My complete breast was purple and eventually black following the procedure.” The results indicated, in the end, she needed a mastectomy.
Meaghan felt guilty about her cancer in many ways, but particularly around her husband. She told him that it wasn’t what he had signed up for. But, cancer had been a part of his life—both his parents had gone through cancer and his best friend died of leukemia. His response: “This isn’t what you signed up for either.”
During her treatment, the couple didn’t argue about laundry or cleaning the cat litter. Partly because so many friends and family stepped up to help with those things. But mostly, the day to day tasks became completely irrelevant. Focusing on living and loved ones was core.
In November 2013, she had a PET scan, or imaging test, which showed no evidence of cancer.
However, her treatment doesn’t stop. She will be on the hormone therapy, Zoladex, for another 2 years and the estrogen blocker Tamoxifen for 9-to-14 years.
She still has symptoms from her treatment that include chemo brain, hot flashes, and low energy levels, and she’s prone to infections and colds, beyond range of motion limitations in her shoulder.toughmudder
But now she’s working to create a shift in the breast cancer movement so that other women don’t have to face the same breast cancer diagnosis.
“I’m looking to reclaim the pink ribbon.” she said. “We’re aware that breast cancer exists. Now, how can we use that awareness and turn that into action, a cure, and complete eradication of the disease? It’s one thing to be focused on researching for a cure to help all those people who are living with cancer, but it’s another to do something to prevent the disease in the first place. We shouldn’t settle for less. Our daughters and granddaughters are the ones we have to care about.” Meaghan thinks carcinogens need to be eliminated from products, and we need a higher bar of FDA approval and testing of chemicals and compounds.
“The cancer advocate community, especially the young adult community, is growing in strength and sophistication,” she said. People are paying attention.
“If there’s one good thing coming out of me getting breast cancer, it’s that I’m committed to solving these issues. And, I have a big network of friends and family looking to support me in tangible ways and also make changes in their own lives. It gives me hope and conviction that we’re at a turning point.