Feature Fighter: Junice Santos
As you know October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The name itself encompasses a host of categories, some of which include, research, activism and fundraising. For those of us who are survivors, October sometimes means taking a hard look at where you've been and acknowledging what the future holds.
I had the pleasure of speaking with an extraordinary young woman, who exemplifies the power of trusting your inner voice, Ms. Junice Santos. At just 32, this Harlem, NYC native successfully completed targeted treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer in September 2016 (cue the applause 👏🏾).
Junice and I originally crossed paths at a survivors Beauty Bash hosted by Pampered & Pink in the summer of 2016. It was like two ships in port, briefly stopping for fuel and supplies (enjoying the food, healthy drinks, swag bags, entertainment & comradarie of your fellow peers), with each of us returning to our respective lives.
What I do remember about that encounter was the feelings of remembrance Junice evoked within me when I glanced at her. I observed bright smiles and laughter fill the room, as she gamely participated in the makeup tutorials. Bald with just a hint of shadowy, dark hair sprouting up, Junice exuded a genuine sense happiness in its purest form, and it was enjoyable contagious. I could not help but grin, smile and think how, not that long ago (even though it felt like it) I was walking a similar path and facing it with a good amount of grace, dignity and most of all laughter. I quietly cheered from within, watching Junice's familiar combination of fragility and fight shine thru like a beacon of hope, spreading warmth throughout the room. I thought to myself "There before the grace of God go I".
As it turns out, events that brought Junice to the Beauty Bash were not funny at all. A beautifully bright, introspective and brazenly honest young woman, Junice was unselfish enough to share her story in the hopes that it will inspire, motivate and educate another young person to "trust their gut" and possible save a life.
Junice takes me back several years before her breast cancer diagnosis, to age 25, when we are all supposed to be in the prime of our lives and setting up the future. The deadly disease known as cancer had taken a strong hold on her family (Junice's maternal grandmother had fought and survived breast cancer, but an aunt, who was a heavy smoker, and stopped chemotherapy treatments succumbed to cancer at the age of 46), and had left Junice quite aware of the importance of early diagnosis.
After a routine self exam and subsequent confirmation from a doctor, Junice was treated for a benign breast issue. From that point on, Junice was on high alert and played a heart wrenching waiting game, "When would cancer appear on the horizon?" Surprised by Junice's brutal honesty I marveled at the fact that she knew, it would be just a matter of time, before she would face the ultimate game changer in her young life.
Fast forward to March 2015 and once again after a morning routine self exam, Junice discovered a small spot of blood on a white t shirt she was wearing. Concerned Junice wrapped a band aid around her nipple and proceeded to move along with her day, eventually returning that night to remove the band aid and discover it marked with the tell tale signs of bleeding.
Junice immediately went to the doctor, and because of having very dense breast tissue, underwent a series of tests that included a Mammogram, Ultrasound and MRI. The diagnosis at the time was just fatty breast tissue, nothing else. Perturbed, Junice questioned if the results were accurate and was pacified with the "Your young, and healthy" speech that sometimes shackles young women when trying to access quality health care in this country.
Junice moved forward and continued to live her life when tragedy struck and her sister and only sibling died suddenly in her sleep in 2015. Sidetracked with dealing with her own grief and caring for her sisters offspring, Junice harbored some anxiety about the changing symmetrical look of her left breast. "I could clearly feel and see that something was going on, and knew that despite being told that I was okay, something was definitely wrong."
It's now December 2015 and Junice had the same tests that she underwent in March repeated, (by a different doctor) and again she waited. Driven by the need to suppress what her "gut" had been quietly telling her for months, Junice convinced herself that yes, maybe it was all some explainable coincidence and nothing was wrong. I asked Junice what her motivation was around that thought process and she simply said "Normally if something is wrong you get the call in one or two days, it had been some time and I had not received word."
It turns out that the doctor, wanted Junice to enjoy the holiday season. Determined, Junice pressed on and convinced the doctor to see her on New Years Eve and then it happened. After years of self exams, experiencing a battery of test the doctor finally broke the news, Junice had breast cancer. Shocked and heartbroken that the she had finally convinced herself that nothing was wrong, Junice was dealing with her worst fear, breast cancer and would she survive.
Junice's biopsy determined that she had two kinds of cancer in her left breast. They were:
- DCIS- Ductual Carcinoma in situ, is the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast.
- Papillary Intraductal Carcinoma- in these cases most tumors are diagnosed in "older" women who have gone thru menopause. Rare, this type of breast cancer makes up 1% to 2% of invasive breast cancers.
In addition it was determined that one of Junice's tumors was 8 centimeters, the size of a small lemon and she had multiple areas of carcinoma. It was advised that she would have to undergo a mastectomy of the left breast, but before doing so she would have to undergo chemotherapy. Neoadjuvant therapy is given as a first step, in hopes of shrinking the tumor.
Deciding that she was going to fight, Junice chose the longer regime of chemotherapy ACT (Adriamycin, Cytoxan & Taxol) which is usually takes four months. Suffering thru the usual side effects of hair loss, discolored weakened nail beds, black tongue, neuropathy (needle feelings & loss of sensation & hands & feet) Junice soldiered on.
Finishing chemo in May 2016 (and dealing with the news that although chemo shrank some of the tumors Junice did not have a PCR - pathologIcal complete response, which is the absence of residual invasive disease after chemo) Junice underwent a Mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction in June 2016.
Lastly, Junice began radiation therapy on August 10, 2016 and reached the finish line on Sept 19th 2016. She now has to complete her breast reconstruction, and is still gainfully employed as a nanny. I wondered what jewels of advice she would give young women under 40 and just as importantly women under 30 who may feel that somethings wrong, and because their young, might not take action. Without missing a beat Junice had some serious words of advice for the young generation:
- "Trust Your Instincts". - "If you feel that something is wrong, don't let anyone convince you not to seek the truth." "I was told I was young, healthy, when in fact I had cancer and it grew, between the time I was originally told I was ok and me going back to get re tested several months later." "My instinct that something was wrong, saved my life!"
- "When it comes to your medical history, keep it 💯!" "Stop lying to doctors and telling them half truths." "In order for a doctor to know what test to run and to help, you can't leave out information, because your embarrassed, like bleeding from your nipples or somewhere else."
- "Become knowlegable about what you've been diagnosed with." "Read". "For those diagnosed with breast cancer I recommend Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book."
- Finally Junice suggests seeking help when managing a diagnosis, whether thru a therapist or support group. Although Junice did not seek help right away she acknowledged that it was necessary. She sought the help of a therapist in July. Like most women going thru breast cancer, myself included you usually suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).
And in regards to the dating scene:
- "I'm very honest & on the first date I let them know exactly what their dealing with!" "They need to understand from the jump, is this something they can deal with & if not I'm ok with that, but I discuss it upfront on date #1"
So what does the future hold for this beautiful Dominican soul? Raising awareness & funds for breast cancer (I'll update this post to provide link). Furthering her education and becoming a patient advocate & finally confronting and finding a solution to the issue of how patients are told they have cancer & what happens during that process. Junice and I both agree that process can be greatly improved.
I will be patiently watch Junice as she uses her experience with breast cancer to motivate and inspire other young women to take charge of their health and listen ever so closely to their inner voices.
**For more information on how you can support Junice's Avon 39 Walk Fund and learn more about her, please feel free to click on the link below. Edit=*note there's a picture of Junice's team name & donate info at the bottom of this post !!!!!