Meet Melissa: Breast Cancer Survivor Defining Positivity!

If you’re reading this, you probably personally know someone or know of someone (male or female) who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, is currently battling this type of cancer, or is a survivor.  According to The American Cancer Society, in 2015  there will be approximately 231,840 newly diagnosed cases of invasive breast cancer and approximately 60,290 newly diagnosed cases of non-invasive breast cancer in women.  Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women and is second only to lung cancer when it comes to cancer death in women.  According to Breastcancer.org, 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.  For men, 1 in 1,000.  These are just a few of the statistics.  While statistics matter, what matters most and what’s real to each of us is “the face” associated with these numbers.  For me, “the face” of breast cancer represents family members and friends near and far, old and new.

The goal of Run For Your Sole is to inspire others one step at a time, so for this week’s mid-week motivation, allow me to introduce Melissa!

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Melissa is yet another fantastic member of the Greater Manchester New Hampshire Moms Run This Town (GMMRTT) running club.  She is a 44 year old wife and Mom of a beautiful eleven year old daughter.  Melissa currently works full time as the Library and Information Specialist as well as the running club manager at Goffstown High School.  She is an advocate for using cultural and informational institutions to build community as she discusses via her Twitter page(@archivesinfo) and her blog (archivesinfo.blogspot.com)  Melissa is a kind-hearted, fun-loving, and think-outside-the-box type of person.  She is a long-time runner, lover of history, and comes from a family full of strong, empowering women.   Melissa is also a Celiac Disease fighter and a breast cancer survivor.

After battling infertility for three years, Melissa was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2003.  This diagnosis was life altering as it enabled her to make changes in her diet which ultimately led to the end of her struggle with infertility.  “As soon as I eliminated gluten from my diet, I felt like a different/better person.  Best of all, I was able to have my beautiful daughter once I stopped eating the food that was poisoning me.”

Eight years after being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, at the age of 40, Melissa was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), and early stage of breast cancer.  According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, DCIS  is “…a non-invasive cancer where abnormal cells have been found in the lining of the breast milk duct. The atypical cells have not spread outside of the ducts into the surrounding breast tissue…”  While this type of breast cancer is an early stage form, if left unfound or untreated, it can spread and progress.

While this diagnosis was life-changing, in typical fashion for Melissa, she did not allow her diagnosis to define her or alter her positive outlook on life.  “I believe that my struggle with Celiac and my youth of intense (running) competition enabled me to deal with my diagnosis in a positive way.  After digesting the devastating news, I quickly called up my “coaches”.  My sister is an MD and she was my first contact.  I also called on the naturopath I had been seeing since my Celiac diagnosis a decade earlier, and a woman I see for Reiki.  I have seen counselors off and on in my life too and so I got in touch with one to help me with the anxiety I was feeling. I had a couple of months between the diagnosis and the surgery I settled on as my treatment after consultation with numerous doctors.  I used that time to “train”.  I worked with my support team, did yoga on my own every morning, and ran/walked at night.  I began a sit-up regiment to strengthen my core, believing that I would lose a lot of strength there post-mastectomy.  I listened to calming tapes to sleep…”

Melissa had her three first surgeries in August of 2011 to include a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts), double mastectomy reconstruction (reconstruction of both breasts), and an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).  These were three separate surgeries conducted by three separate surgeons over many hours.  This approach was the suggested treatment based on Melissa’s family history as well as genetics.  “I was optimistic beforehand, but obviously very nervous.  Doctors allowed me to listen to my calming audio tapes as they put me under.  When I awoke, I was extremely happy.  It was over!  All I wanted to do was move!  As soon as I was back in the recovery ward and able to get up, I began trudging around the hospital, doing laps around the hallways.  My nurses laughed at me, but were pleased. I guess that my desire to move was unusual, but I feel in control when I can move.  I think that is part of being a runner.”

For Melissa, the hardest part of her breast cancer experience was breast reconstruction.  “The doctors placed inflatable temporary “breasts” under my skin and slowly blew them up and stretched me until they could place permanent implants in another surgery that November.  It was extremely uncomfortable and difficult to move.  Getting those out was like regaining my life and putting the worst of my cancer experience behind me.”

While reading one of Melissa’s posts on our GMMRTT Facebook site recently, I learned that after going through breast cancer and all that comes with it, there are certain things one needs to consider when it comes to activities like running.  This caught my attention.  As a Registered Nurse, I’m always curious and this was a topic I didn’t know much about before meeting Melissa.  I simply had never put the time in to look into things that survivors are faced with.  It seems like we all hear about what individuals face when diagnosed with cancer, the treatment options, etc…but there isn’t much talk about what goes on after treatment, after survival, when life continues to be celebrated and lived.

“Every day is one step at a time.  Because of the cancer surgery, I have special stretches that I need to do so the scar tissue remains pliable.  I also often get pain in my neck.  It took me a long time to realize that the neck pain was actually coming from my chest and that I need to ice the front side of me to make it go away.  I do not have sensation in most of my chest due to the surgery.  I am a very busy person and I do not like to think that I have any physical limitations, but I have to admit that I do now. (For one, I need to let my husband carry heavy things for me. I would not have stood for this pre-surgery!)  I can’t do pushups or sit-ups anymore.  I need to be careful of puncture or too much pressure on the side of my body where I had lymph nodes removed, due to the risk of developing lymphedema.  I’d like to do a mud run, but I need to be careful of hurting my chest or side while navigating obstacles…additionally…surgical menopause has brought other challenges.  I worry about osteoporosis due to a lack of estrogen.  Fortunately, weight-bearing exercises like running actually help with that.  On the negative side, keeping weight off is more than just going out and running a few extra miles now.”

Additionally, Melissa faces challenges when it comes to her Celiac Disease.  “I can’t just grab something on the go or pick up a pack of protein at Runner’s Alley to try.  I need to carefully plan where and when I eat.  Also, when I consider certain events, I have other concerns.  For example, “The Color Run” sounded like so much fun this past month, but I was afraid that there could be wheat in the colors and I would inhale it.  Despite all of this, managing a gluten-free diet is much easier now than when I was first diagnosed.”

Melissa told me that she is inspired by the past; by those that came before us.  “My sister and I were once threatened by race officials for considering entering a track meet steeplechase.  They only had the event for boys and said our team would be disqualified if us girls tried to start in the race.  I think about what women in history went through for us all to be able to do the things we do.”

Additionally, a huge source of inspiration in Melissa’s life comes from her own family, like her paternal grandmother who, after her own mastectomy, would go to hospitals to show off her scars.  “She would tell women going in for surgery that they could kick cancer…that she made it and so could they.”

Finally, Melissa is inspired by her daughter.  “Every day she reminds me of the beauty of life and I want to help her build a happy life for herself.  I hope that I can set an example for her, encourage her to be the best she can be, and make her life path as smooth as possible.  Though I have always been a very self-motivated person, having a young lady who looks up to me directly is very profound and has changed the way I think about the things I do.  In fact, I just got accepted to Plymouth State to get a post-master’s degree in education. I hope that my daughter sees me and realizes that life-long learning and life-long care for your physical self go hand-in-hand.”

Melissa in pigeon pose practicing yoga with her daughter

Melissa in pigeon pose practicing yoga with her daughter

With Melissa’s daughter being eleven years old now, it has become easier for Melissa to fit her workouts in.  Her family is understanding of the fact that she needs some “me” time and so she just goes.  While she began running at age eleven, has raced every distance from 200 meters to a full marathon, and hasn’t stopped running since, she says that she never plans to train for running again.  Melissa goes out to run when she feels like it and goes for as long as her heart desires at whatever pace she pleases.  Now that is true love for the sport!

Melissa before a recent run

Melissa before a recent run

Melissa thinks outside of the traditional sense of “workout” when it comes time to get a sweat on.  As the running club manager at Gofftstown High School, her goal is to “…make running a fun and positive experience for as many teens as possible.  We are currently thinking about having an ultimate Frisbee game.  I tell the kids that there is more than one way to get your run in!  I aim to incorporate as many fun challenges for us as a group as possible.”

If you are just getting started with working out and/or running, Melissa’s advice is to be kind to yourself.  “You will have good days and bad days.  Just do what you can do and have fun with it.  Don’t ever let it be a chore.”

While Melissa has a lot more to consider than many of us before heading out for a run,  registering for an event, or trying a new workout, she makes no excuses.  She lives every day to its fullest and does not let any challenge stand in her way.  She defines perseverance and positivity.  She is living proof that obstacles are meant to be overcome and that a positive attitude is more than half the battle.   Melissa is a survivor showing us all how to get it done!

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2 thoughts on “Meet Melissa: Breast Cancer Survivor Defining Positivity!

    • heathersweeney1979 says:

      Thanks for commenting! I couldn’t agree more. I wanted to raise awareness because I too had no idea. I hope others going through a similar scenario benefit and gain inspiration from people like Melissa!

      Like

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