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Name: Tonya Priestley

Diagnosed At Age: 38

Status: Remission

Bio: On my 38th birthday, I gifted myself to a mammogram after I saw a very close friend of mine struggle with very aggressive breast cancer. I had no signs or symptoms, no family history, and no doctor’s referral, but I decided to move forward with a screening. After a mammogram and a needle biopsy of some calcifications, my primary physician misread my results and told me that I did not need to worry because I did not have breast cancer, I just had some atypical cells.

The words atypical cells didn’t settle well with me. I requested a copy of my results and called the mammogram center and asked a nurse to pull up my report to get her opinion. The nurse told me that I needed to see a surgeon.

The surgeon conducted a lumpectomy, which was a short surgery but a painful recovery process – physically and emotionally. I woke up cold and was given pain medication, some kind of narcotic, and immediately threw up. I felt awful. Then I got the news from the surgeon: the lumpectomy confirmed that I had breast cancer.

The next step was to have a bilateral mastectomy. The mastectomy was scheduled for December 23, 2010. With two young girls, I was determined to be home in time for Christmas, but because of my experience after the lumpectomy I was fearful that I would be in pain or groggy from the narcotics.

The day I was diagnosed I remember looking at my stack of business cards and on top of the stack was a card for a woman named Suzie that I had recently met. I remembered having a conversation with her about managing pain for a mastectomy. I called Suzie for her advice and learned that there were alternatives to narcotics available that I could ask my doctor about. My surgeon was able to use a non-narcotic pain relief pump that delivered a local anesthetic through a catheter. With the pump, I was able to reduce the amount of narcotics I needed and I was in control of the pain pump providing me medicine right to the site. I felt so good I was able to leave the hospital the day after surgery and be home in time for Christmas Eve.

My reaction when I was first diagnosed: I felt undeniable relief and gratitude that fate allowed me to get checked out so early. I was also grateful that I didn’t listen to my doctor and that I went beyond her to get another opinion.

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How I’m feeling now: Today I feel grateful and happy to have gone through my experience with cancer. I’m a much stronger person today than what I was before I was diagnosed.

My inspirations: Having breast cancer has made me want to share what I’ve learned with everyone. I want to make a difference in other women’s lives. My dream would be to win the lottery so I could start an organization focused on education and prevention. For example, most women don’t know there are different types of estrogen in our bodies, both good and bad, that can be checked in a blood or saliva test. High levels of “bad” estrogen, which can come from either hormones or environmental toxins, can lead to breast cancer. Screening like you screen for cholesterol can help prevent disease.

My support system: I found a great young survivors group out of Portland where all of the women were 40 years old or younger and that was really life-changing for me. I would have never gone, but when someone told me about it and finally got me there, I realized how fabulous it was. Women of a like age were sharing their struggles and making suggestions on how to deal with cancer.

I’m proud of: I’m most proud of standing up for myself and being my own advocate. If I hadn’t, I would still be walking around with breast cancer.

I’m afraid of: Cancer taking either myself, a family member, or friend of mine.

Tonya and daughters Feb 2010

I’ve learned: I’ve learned that Western medicine is far from perfect and women should see a naturopathic physician along with a physician who practices Western medicine, because together you have a better chance of fighting this disease. I also learned about some great resources along the way that helped me with my physical and emotional recovery.

My advice to new patients: Be your own advocate and don’t be afraid to question your doctor. Talk to more than one doctor and be vocal about discussing options for your treatment and recovery. In my case, managing pain after my operation was incredibly important as I wanted to be present with my family during the holidays. By looking into alternatives to narcotics for pain relief, I learned about the ON-Q pain relief pump and it made a tremendous difference in how I felt after surgery. I hope others facing cancer will trust their instincts and take charge of their own health.

To see more of our 31 Survivors in 31 Days stories, click here!