The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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Breast Cancer

October 17, 2012

Survivor turns to inner strength

As a makeup artist and beautician, Melissa Lovejoy of Indiana enjoys helping women look their best.

But when breast cancer and its subsequent treatments left her bald, she didn’t much care.

“It didn’t actually bother me,” she said. “I knew it was temporary and I knew it would grow back.”

She covered her pate with hats and scarves and “for the most part, people could not tell what I was going through,” she said.

Still, the 38-year-old mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 19, didn’t exactly sail through chemotherapy.

“There were some unexpected things,” she said. “People were very vague on the details (about side effects). I knew kind of what to expect, but there were some surprises.”

Lovejoy said for her the hardest part of the treatments was losing her sense of taste.

“Everything you put in your mouth tasted like fuzzy carpet,” she recalled. “It was such a mind game. You were so hungry. But some things would taste almost like you were chewing cardboard.”

She also had issues with heartburn, diminished hearing, blurry vision and trouble concentrating.

“My mind was in a fog,” she said. 

“I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t watch a television program. I couldn’t read a book.”

Lovejoy said her biggest fear was of being sick in the stomach and was grateful that it didn’t really happen, but she said chemotherapy was very difficult

– especially toward the end of the cumulative treatments.

“By the fourth treatment, I started to get muscle fatigue,” she said. “I felt like an 80-year-old woman with arthritis. And by the fifth treatment, I was wiped out. I probably slept 18 hours a day.”

Lovejoy credites her resiliency with helping her endure her battle with cancer.

“I’m a pretty strong person,” she said. “You push through it.”

Lovejoy’s ordeal started in October 2010 when she found a lump – about the size of a pea – just under the surface of her breast.

“At that point I knew something was probably wrong,” she said. But she wanted to wait a bit to see if the lump would go away on its own.

By January, she saw a doctor. The lump hadn’t grown, but it hadn’t gone away either.

The doctor found another suspicious spot – just below the first lump – and sent his patient to Women’s Imaging Center in Indiana for an ultrasound and mammogram.

Both spots were biopsied and were found to be cancerous – invasive ductal carcinoma.

The diagnosis was staggering.

“My entire life went into a big tailspin,” she said. “Within a week I saw my medical oncologist. I met with my radiation oncologist. I met with two surgeons.”

She learned that her cancer was triple positive, meaning it was positive for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2. The cancer cells in her body were making too much of the HER2/neu protein. The cancer is much more aggressive and faster growing, Lovejoy was told.

“Twenty years ago if someone was diagnosed with HER2/neu, they were given a very poor prognosis,” she said.

“There was nothing to stop it.”

But Lovejoy was given a drug called herceptin in addition to her chemotherapy. “That drug has saved a lot of lives,” she said.

She was told she would need a mastectomy. “I didn’t have an option,” she said.

“My attitude was just deal with it and do what I needed to do to get rid of the cancer ... To get my life back on track.”

She made the decision to have reconstruction surgery done at the same time and opted for a tissue transplant as opposed to an implant.

“They took tissue from the abdominal area,” Lovejoy explained. “I don’t have to worry about having to have it redone. The breast will actually change with your body as it changes.

“I am very happy with the results. Plus I got a mini tummy tuck.”

The surgery was done in April.

“It went really well,” she said. “I had it on Monday and by Wednesday, I was climbing stairs. In five days I was home.”

Of the 18 lymph nodes that were removed, two were involved.

Doctors wanted to treat the cancer aggressively due to the type and Lovejoy’s age.

Two weeks later, they implanted a medical port to allow easier access to her veins for chemotherapy.

“That surgery was actually more difficult to come out of than the other one,” Lovejoy said. “It was kind of a low moment for me. I wasn’t feeling well and I had chemo looming.

“I was always a healthy person. But I ended up with cancer. I had genetic testing done and I do not carry either of the mutant genes. It’s just one of those crazy things. Where did I get this? No one can tell me.”

But Lovejoy remained positive. “I knew what I needed to do and I was on a mission. It never was ‘Why me?’ It was more like, ‘Why now?’ It set me back.”

Radiation followed chemotherapy and additional reconstruction after that.

“If scars tell a story, I am working on a full-length novel,” Lovejoy said with a laugh.

She believes laughter and the support of family and friends helped her get through tough times.

“You don’t need a lot of people. You just need a few good ones.”

It was one of the lessons cancer taught her, Lovejoy said.

“I was never one to bother other people, but I realized that I am going to need others (to get through this).

“Cancer does change you,” she said.

“It has changed my life for the better. It changes the way you think about things. The way you see things. You think about what is really important. There is no room for the trivial. Some things just don’t matter. Not in the grand scheme of things.

“I think I’ve grown from cancer.”

Lovejoy does not like the word remission. “I choose to look at it as I am cancer free,” she said. “Cancer coming back is not something that I actually think about.”

She has big plans for the future. She works part time at Indiana Hair Designers and also works at Diamond Pharmacy Inc. in Indiana. She also recently started a home-based business selling all-natural herbal bath infusions and massage oils that she creates. Eventually she hopes to create a skin-care line.

“I feel great. I probably feel better now that I have in years.”

 

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