These Are My People
By Pat Battaglia
Andie T. had a sneaking suspicion something wasn’t right. It was March of 2018, and she had detected a thickening in her breast; her doctor suggested diagnostic imaging. So, despite normal mammogram results four months previously, she found herself undergoing another mammogram, as well as an ultrasound and needle biopsy. It was a Friday morning and, with her imaging completed, Andie and her family headed out of town to celebrate her stepson’s birthday. She was glad for the distraction.
Andie, whose given name is Andrea but prefers her informal moniker, was at work the following Monday afternoon when her radiologist called with the biopsy results. An Orthodontic Dental Assistant, Andie quickly slipped into the office of her employer, whose wife was a twenty-two-year survivor of breast cancer. “I knew he would understand,” she shared when we met to talk about her breast cancer experience. “And he just sort of leaned back in his chair, trying to digest everything I was telling him.”
Grateful for the sympathetic ear of her boss, Andie then broke the news to her co-workers, who sensed her distress. “The three of them just sort of collapsed into a pile and cried,” she recalled. “And then I just had to pull it together because I had to tell my husband. He was my husband of just a little over three months at that time. And then I had to tell my children. I had to hold it together.”
Andie’s husband, David, is a combat veteran living with PTSD who was honorably discharged in 2016. “This is the last thing he needed because he’d only been out [of the service] for not quite eighteen months at that point.” While David had never been directly affected by cancer until now, Andie’s daughter Teagan and son Darroch were on more familiar terms with the disease. Having been diagnosed with thyroid cancer shortly after her daughter’s birth, Andie’s personal approach to direct, honest communication led her to openly discuss this with her children from an early age. “For the kids, cancer was not a word that was whispered in our household,” she explained. “It was in their vocabulary, because the last thing I wanted was for them to grow up and be too sheltered, if that makes sense.”
Fostering the inner resources of her children served them well when, at ages seven and eleven, Andie walked away from an abusive marriage, loaded up her truck and a U-haul trailer, and drove from their residence in Washington State to her former home of Rochester, NY. With her guidance and encouragement, Teagan and Darroch adjusted and began to thrive in their new-to-them surroundings. And, as children do, they grew quickly.
Teagan was preparing to graduate from college with a degree in biology when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Andie, concerned about being able to attend her daughter’s graduation and hoping to use the “bucket list” concert tickets David had purchased to see Dave Matthews, decided to schedule her surgery in late May. “It sounds superficial,” she said, but participating fully in meaningful family moments was – and continues to be – a strong motivator for Andie.
On May 25, 2018, Andie underwent a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) with immediate reconstruction. “I chose to do a bilateral [procedure] because I was adopted at birth and did not have access to my medical records,” she noted.
With surgery behind her, Andie consulted a medical oncologist. “That’s when I got my oncotype score and a lot of other information, and I realized chemo would now be my vocabulary.” The OncotypeDX test is a genetic assay done on certain subtypes of breast tumors to calculate an individual’s risk of recurrence. In Andie’s case, that risk was enough to warrant chemotherapy.
“That was difficult,” she acknowledged. “But, like the person I am, I took the bull by the horns. I went ahead and had my head shaved the day before my first infusion. And I continued to try and take control of everything I could because it felt like everything was so out of control.”
A breast cancer diagnosis affects the entire family, and Andie’s family rose to the occasion. “I am absolutely amazed how the four of us have really closed ranks and circled the wagons,” she said softly, through grateful tears. “I never thought I could be any closer to my husband than I was before breast cancer.” Even in her bruised post-surgery state, “…he still looked at me and told me I was the most beautiful woman he ever knew and how in love he was with me. I would joke, ‘The 90-day warranty has expired. I don’t think you can get your money back.’ And he said ‘I took my vows very seriously.’”
Teagan graduated with her proud mom in attendance, and soon landed her dream job with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Poland, NY. Her new employer allowed her to delay starting work so she could stay home and help as her mother recuperated from surgery. Darroch, a high school junior, ensured that his mother was as comfortable as possible and didn’t have to lift or carry anything during her surgical recovery, and throughout chemotherapy as well. He continues his caring role to this day.
Her diagnosis and treatment motivated Andie to search for – and find – her biological family. Her birth mother does not wish to be in contact; fortunately Andie learned there is no history of breast cancer on her side of the family, although she also had thyroid cancer. Her biological father has forged a special bond with Andie that began with emails and phone calls, and was cemented last autumn when they met in person for the first time. His sister, Andie’s aunt, had the same subtype of breast cancer as Andie. So, even though genetic testing shortly after her diagnosis showed no known genetic link, Andie is certain of a connection. “There has to be some correlation,” she said. “Maybe they just can’t test for it yet.”
Coping with the aftermath of a breast cancer diagnosis can be a challenge. “I struggle with it,” Andie admitted. In addition to the emotional toll her diagnosis and treatment have taken, she willingly shouldered the financial burden when she chose a specialist in post-mastectomy reconstruction instead of the general plastic surgeon covered by her insurance policy, even though it meant paying out of pocket. “I’m in debt,” she shared. “But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and I just keep plugging away at it.”
Fortunately, there have also been unexpected gifts along the way. Andie noted the growth she has witnessed in Teagan and Darroch. “It’s definitely empowered my children to be more independent in a positive way, and maybe view things differently now that something has hit so close to home. They’re at an age when they can truly sink their teeth into it and understand it; [they’ve developed] a wise-beyond-their-years perspective on things.”
Andie’s authentic and straightforward style extends to her social media presence, where she candidly shared many details during her surgery and treatment, including the not-so-pretty ones. And people responded favorably. “I had a girlfriend who was recently diagnosed, and she said my pictures helped prepare her mentally for what she was facing,” Andie noted. “And then a couple gals at Brown Bag asked if they could share the pictures with their husbands. And I said, ‘Absolutely!’ Being able to share my story with other people has been a positive. If I have to go through this, and I can help someone else, then it wasn’t for naught.”
When asked what she might say to someone newly diagnosed, Andie responded without hesitation: “Breathe. Just breathe. Trust your instincts. If you think something isn’t right or doesn’t sound right, ask questions. And keep asking questions until you get the answers you need. They may not be the answers you want, but they’re the answers you need to quell your fears. But most importantly, just breathe.”
We consider ourselves fortunate that Andie turned to the Coalition. We first met her when preparations for our 2018 Pink Ribbon Walk and Run were in full swing. Volunteers were taking registrations and handing out t-shirts to scores of participants who continually entered and left; the door was open, smiles abounded, and in walked Andie and Darroch. We met with them, scheduled a BC101 session and, on their way out, they gamely posed for a photo with the winner of our “One Lucky Guy” drawing. Andie soon became a beloved regular at our Brown Bag table and is now a trained PALS mentor. Still, on that high-energy day, we couldn’t help wondering what sort of impression we made. We needn’t have worried. As Andie and I laughed about that day, she recalled thinking, “These are my people!”
And Andie is one of our people. For that, we’re grateful.