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Sandra Clay: “What Opportunities Can I Make Because I Have Cancer?”

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After having two kids of her own, Sandra Clay knows firsthand that it takes a village to raise a child. But she never expected this concept to push into her battle with breast cancer.

“It does take a village. When I look at my friends, they provide different types of support for me,” Sandra advised. “I’ve always had close friends, but now I have a lot of people to rely on for different types of support, which is a huge factor in having a successful treatment.”

Of course, a legion of healthcare professionals guided her on her journey, but she discovered some of them had a direct connection. The surgeon performing her mastectomy lived near her Overland Park, Kansas, home. Her breast reconstruction surgeon had been a classmate at Blue Valley Middle School. Her village was growing, and her cancer would demand ongoing support.

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It is estimated that one in eight women, or approximately 12 percent, will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Sandra’s was identified in May 2017.

“I found the lump, about the size of a quarter, even though my mammograms for the last four to five years showed nothing abnormal. I went by myself to the doctor and the breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed. I was shocked and called my husband from the parking lot to give him the news. I didn’t know anything about breast cancer,” she remembered. “It was a Friday morning when I found out, and in the afternoon, I was scheduling with an oncologist. At that point, I hadn’t processed this news. It was a whirlwind especially when you know nothing about it.”

After the diagnosis was confirmed, Sandra shared the news with her children and looked to her husband for comfort during her ordeal. “My husband was a silent supporter, and I’ve learned that many husbands take on that role,” she noted. “Families go through different situations and how they deal with tragedy, but we’d never had such a huge issue. This was the first time that we had something to go so wrong.”

For daughter Whitney, then 13, and son Sam, who was 11, the response to her news was mixed. “We didn’t tell them until we knew for sure and my parents were here for support. I told them I had cancer and would go through surgery,” she recalled. “My daughter cried but my son was stoic and unemotional. I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve, and my kids are like that, too, but I did cry when I told them.”

Treatments and Changes
About a month after the diagnosis, Sandra’s single mastectomy occurred in June 2017. She decided to forgo chemotherapy, and radiation began in November 2017, requiring 28 treatments over six weeks, with no break over the Thanksgiving holiday. Her breast reconstructive surgery took place in June 2018.

At the same time, she made huge changes to the way she was living her life. Breast cancer had never surfaced in her family; she was the first to be diagnosed. Figuring the culprit must be the environment, she made massive changes to her lifestyle to deal with the “why.” “I had found a lot of the products I was using weren’t conducive to clean living, such as my makeup, detergent, soap and more. I found alternatives that wouldn’t put estrogen in my diet. I switched to a vegan diet. Anything I could control, I did,” she revealed. “I still don’t know why I got cancer. It could have been overlooked by a radiologist from past mammograms. It’s the unknown for me.”

After nearly two years of improvements, her healing was derailed with horrific news. In March 2020, she discovered a second lump and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, meaning it’s spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body.

“It was small—about half the size of an eraser head. I noticed it by my collar bone and asked my oncologist to look into it. It was biopsied, and she told me, ‘It’s breast cancer and it’s the same that you had before. It will change your treatment going forward,’” she recalled. “I remembered thinking, here we go again. It was such a sickening feeling. I thought I had made all of these efforts to change and I am right back in it. That feeling lasted about a day, and now it was what are we going to do to move forward.”

Her diagnosis came before the pandemic limited medical visits to only the patient, so her husband was with her for the news. “After meeting with the oncologist, we went to Costco to distract ourselves and bought things. We didn’t even know what we were buying,” she shared. “Now, we’re coping better because we’ve gone through it before. Even as devastating as the news is, you do bear it and adapt to it. Yes, the day you get the new information, it’s the worst day, but it does get better. I feel this was the bottom, and we’re working our way back and learning to cope with it.”

To combat this latest round of cancer, she began treatment with oral chemo pills. She takes monthly shots to put her in menopause and another monthly shot to regenerate bone cell growth. Each day she takes an estrogen blocker pill and an antidepressant to help with the symptoms of menopause.

Treating the Mind and Soul
Although it wasn’t part of the oncologist’s regimen, a suggestion from her daughter gave her a tremendous boost in spirit. After 15 years as a stay-at-home mom, Whitney proposed her mother work outside the home. Sandra was somewhat leery of the idea, but she decided to give it a try. She knew she needed to get her mind focused on something else.

“I started working at Lululemon in Leawood, two years after my initial diagnosis and treatment because I needed something to distract me from what I had just been through. My kids were on the same schedule; my son was in middle school. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my time?’ I didn’t want to spend it worrying about my health and future,” she commented. “It’s turned out to be great; there’s no better place to work. For many families, if Mom is doing okay, we’re all okay, but if Mom goes down, we all go down. I knew I had to keep myself well and busy. This works for me, and we’re all doing okay because of it.”

She branched out even further in 2018 and became a Bra Couture volunteer. Bra Couture KC provides life-empowering services to uninsured and underinsured individuals in the KC-metro who have been touched by all cancers. Bra Couture KC’s annual event is an auction showcasing work-of-art bras modeled by breast cancer survivors to celebrate their triumph over cancer. “A girlfriend has been a stylist for years to pull together outfits for Bra Couture. She nominated me to be a model, and they reached out. I didn’t know anything about it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it,” she noted. “But I had experienced so much negative with my cancer that I thought this might be a positive, just to be around others with breast cancer and see how well they’re doing. It’s a really neat environment and so supportive of people like me.”

While tragic events wrench apart some families, Sandra notes her cancer has strengthened the bond with her siblings. Her brother, who lives out of town, made a point of flying in for appointments after her first diagnosis and relentlessly researched treatments, clinical trials and cancer hospitals. She’s come to heavily rely on her sister, Elena Thompson of Olathe, Kansas, to help navigate the crushing burden of mind-numbing medical details. Before the pandemic, Elena would accompany Sandra to her physicians’ visits, acting as scribe, analyst and confidant. 

“After you’ve been diagnosed, there are so many doctors’ appointments; it becomes a part-time job. You’re so emotional and it’s hard to remember what they say,” Sandra recalled. “But Elena would take notes, ask questions, repeat what the doctor said and go over it with me later. She’s the second person I call whenever I get good or bad news about my cancer.”

Positive about the Unknowns
Her outlook on life remains optimistic even with all of the unknowns. She hasn’t inquired about her prognosis, preferring to take each day at a time. “I’ve never asked that question. I know it’s an uncertain future, but I don’t want to be told that this is the timeline that we give or traditionally patients have this much time left,” she said. “I’m on a new medication that’s cleared out the nodes; it’s working. Maybe the changes I’ve made in my lifestyle are the right ones. And treatment advances are always happening.”

After years of dealing with her breast cancer, Sandra reflects on the experience as one she might have done a bit differently, perhaps searched for more resources such as survivors to give her counsel and comfort on the journey. For any woman experiencing health issues, she offers this advice. “You are going to be your best advocate for things. The doctor may not think something is wrong so you must get something checked. I found both of my lumps both times,” she stated. “Be aware of your body and don’t wait. Go to your appointments. Get your mammograms. If my mammogram had caught my lump sooner, I might not be in this stage. When I look back, I do feel like other symptoms were there. Cancer may not make you feel different, but it is growing in you.”

It’s said the only thing in life you can command is your reaction to it, and that’s especially true for Sandra and her battle with breast cancer. Her journey has been filled with many ups and downs, the highest of peaks and the lowest of valleys, yet she is determined to manage her life with positivity, coupled with the support of her village.

“I’ve learned to control what you can control because you can’t control everything. I have never had a day where I’ve been angry that I have breast cancer. I don’t look at it as what has cancer taken from me, but what opportunities can I make because I have cancer,” she remarked. “I don’t want to be in large groups of people during the pandemic, so I spend more time with my children. I can’t go to the gym, so I have more time to spend walking with friends. What opportunities can you make of it even though it’s a crummy situation? There is good to be found, but you have to figure out how to do that.”