HOCC: “It doesn’t make sense that I got this cancer…”

Humans of Calvert County, Sarah Merranko & Anita Santoyo

“I was born and raised in Calvert. I met my husband who is active duty military, and have now been a military spouse for 8 years. We moved to Panama City, Florida in 2012, and we just located back here in December of 2017. We relocated back here because of our daughter and a program called EFMP, Exceptional Family Members Program which allows us to be placed in an area that has a specialist our current area we were stationed in didn’t have one. It could have been anywhere in the United States, and we got orders for back here for some reason. When I found I had breast cancer three months after we moved, I knew why God had put us here.

I found the lump at the end of February. I had a little bit of a pain in my chest, and when I touched the spot, there was a lump the size of a pea. I checked the other side and there wasn’t anything there. I made an appointment with my GYN and she told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re young. I’m sure it’s just a cyst.’ I looked at her and asked if she thought it could be cancer, and she said, ‘No, cancer doesn’t hurt.’ I was 32, I don’t smoke or drink, and I don’t have a family history of breast cancer. But something inside of me told me this was cancer. But I was very much in shock and denial when they called me. I was very angry, and I cried a lot at the beginning. But then I got to a point I knew I needed to move forward.

After my pathology report came back, I was diagnosed at 2B, and my tumor was 4.4 cm when they took it out. Because I was diagnosed at a grade 3, which is the highest grade, they recommended chemo and radiation even though they got clear margins when they removed the tumor because it was the most aggressive. I did four rounds of chemo, and then 6 weeks of radiation. My last treatment was on October 30. My cancer was estrogen based so I will need to be on a hormone blocker for the next 10 years.

My radiologist oncologist, Dr. Kathleen Settle in Charlotte Hall and her team were amazing. At the end of my treatment, she hugged me and said, ‘You did this, Amanda! You did this.’ It made me feel so proud. She was right, I did do this, and it wasn’t easy I really loved her team and thought of them as my family for those six weeks. At the end of my last treatment, I cried, because they had become such a big part of my life for the past six weeks. Most places have a bell to ring when you finish your treatments, but they didn’t. I advocated for them to get a bell because I think it’s such as important step. A week before I was done with treatments, one of the techs told me, ‘I got that bell for you.’ It made me feel amazing that I was able to advocate for something that all future patients will now get to participate in at the end of their treatments. The day I rang my bell, I witnessed someone else ringing it too.

When I was going through all of it, I didn’t tell our daughter, who is 7, until I was about to start chemo. At that point, I told her that I would be losing my hair because I had cancer and I would be going through chemo. She broke down crying, and that was so hard for me to see. But through it all, she was my biggest supporter and my caregiver this summer. She would bring me a heating pad when my bones hurt, water and ginger ale to drink, and she would lay in the bed with me to keep me company. She was ‘my person’, and I was so thankful I had her through all of this.

The week I knew I would start losing my hair, I went to have my hair cut really short and she actually helped the hairdresser cut my hair. After I saw my short hair, I started crying and my daughter said, ‘Don’t cry mama, you look like Pink!’ It was just one more thing she helped me accept. Shortly after I ended-up shaving my head, and she came to me and asked to have her long hair cut too. I asked her several times if she was sure about it, and she said, ‘Yes mama, I want to look like you!’ We just had it cut into a bob, but I think if I would have let her, she would have shaved it all off too.

I know that if I hadn’t pushed, hadn’t advocated for myself, I might not still be here. You are your own biggest advocate and you need to listen to your body. It doesn’t make sense that I got this cancer and at such a young age, but I see the world much differently now. I still have my bad days where I worry and I feel anxious, but I talk about those feelings with my family, and then I can move on. I really try to cherish my time with my family and my friends, and the little things in life because I am so grateful and thankful to have these moments.”