Before I dive into this post, let me explain the “In Her Words” series. As we all know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Like many of you (I’m sure) there are many women in my life that have been affected by breast cancer. I felt that it was important to give them a platform to share their experiences, emotions, and advice. I have given these women the same set of questions and each post gives them an opportunity to speak from the heart. So first, I’d like to introduce to you my friend, classmate, and my sister by love, not blood. (I’d also like to mention that she is the Green Party candidate for County Commissioner in Travis County!) The absolutely incredible….Ashely “Flashe” Gordon.
- Take us to the moment that you were told of your diagnosis. What were your first thoughts?
Ashe: “I knew it.” That was my first thought. I knew the day in April when I sat outside my apartment with my phone researching the symptoms. I had a lump and nipple discharge. With the history of cancer in my family, I knew. I had to stay hopeful for my mom’s sake. I wasn’t shocked though. Dismayed, but not shocked.
- What treatment(s) did you undergo (radiation, surgery, chemo, etc)
Ashe: All of the above. I had a really aggressive cancer. When I was diagnosed in June 2014 I was Stage 1, an invasive ductal carcinoma. By the time I had surgery the next month, new malignant cells had started growing in the lymph nodes under my right arm. This bumped me up to Stage 2. The new growth wasn’t attached to the original lump. That’s how they knew this was a huge problem. Plus they found out it was genetic- I’m BRCA1+ positive. That means everything had to go or I’d get cancer again. I had a bilateral mastectomy in July, started chemo in August, and then radiation in February 2015. I still take a hormone blocker called Tamoxifen. I have to take it for 5 years. I’m still at risk for ovarian cancer because of the gene so I’m under surveillance.
- Were there any organizations that provided you some type of assistance (financial, emotional support, etc)?
Ashe: Not really. Everyone wanted your tax return and I just didn’t have the energy to do all of the paperwork. My family lived far away so for the most part I had to handle all of the legalities. That’s difficult, having to go through treatment AND deal with paperwork. The Breast Cancer Resource Center was a great resource. Runy brought me a blanket and support pillows after surgery. Still have them. A patient advocate at Austin Cancer Center helped me apply for a hardship when I stopped having money to pay my copays. Other than that, I either did it on my own or with an intimate group of family members and friends. I didn’t have a lot of support going through it all, to be honest.
- What would you say helped you get through your treatment process?
Ashe: Painting. Ironically, I started going out to paint with my ex-fiance’s best friend. He was an artist and he taught me some basic painting skills. Then I became his art patron, helping him sell art and getting him into shows. I felt like I still had a purpose when I did that. It was the only thing that really kept me sane, having to deal with treatment. poverty, lack of support, and being cheated on and left by my fiance. I tried a support group, but none of the women understood my circumstances. All of them were White, married, and had children. This journey is different for women of color, for people with single income households, and women still trying to have kids. I quit the group. I didn’t try again until June 2015, after treatment was over. So, painting saved my sanity. Still does.
The Open Space: I’d like for you to take this opportunity to say whatever it is you would like to say about your experience. It could be advice to someone that was just diagnosed, it could be to someone that wants to support but isn’t sure how, or even a message to your loved ones. Use this space however you choose.
Ashe: GO GET CHECKED. Find out if you have any genetic predisposition. I had no idea I was BRCA1+. The genetic test is a saliva swab. The mammogram is only a little uncomfortable. Don’t wait until you think something’s wrong. It may be too late.
Support specific patients and survivors. I say survivors too because people think once you are done with treatment, it’s over. It’s not. It changes your life. You never get your life back. Currently, I’m disabled. I have joint damage and possibly osteoporosis from treatment. One of my survivor sisters has had 2 foot surgeries and is scheduled for a hip replacement. We need help.
Don’t go run some marathon or buy bracelets or even give to organizations like Susan G. Komen thinking you are supporting us. You aren’t. We never see the money. They rarely provide services. LiveStrong is the only one I know that’s national that has any type of support programs. Give your time and money to local patients and survivors. If there is a local organization, talk to them and see how they directly help patients and survivors.
Lastly, “think before you pink”! Breast cancer isn’t pretty. It isn’t Nalgenes and pink socks and cool “breast cancer” boots. That stuff is offensive. It makes people think it isn’t that bad. It waters down our struggle. I personally have the tattoo of a pink ribbon with the word ‘Guerrera’ (warrior in Spanish). I chose to get the ribbon with this word to let people know it’s a war. I walk with a cane at age 32. My hands are bandaged right now because of the joint damage. Some days I can’t get out of bed. Sometimes my legs pop in the socket and I think they’re broken. It’s a pain most people never experience. When you see us smiling, it means that we are determined, not happy. We’re still here to fight another day. That’s what breast cancer looks like. If you care, you will help us shut down these organizations and business making a profit off of our pain.