You can choose to give up during the fight, or you can risk it all to win the battle. --Treka L. House
We live in a world where we feel like certain things happen to certain people, of certain ages, of a certain gender and with a certain color. I won't call it ignorance, I'll just call it the absence of knowledge, much of which can't be helped. I am not giving anyone excuses, I'm merely stating facts. I am of a place where much is avoided, so much is unknown. However, awareness is a necessity, no matter the subject. I wanted to bring awareness amongst young women, and without hesitation, my sorority sister opened up her life to do just that.
Bring your nosey behind on over here and take a sneak peek into what beautiful survival looks like. I'm not saying that this sister never cried, got scared or wanted to give up; I'm just saying that her social media has uplifted every follower and friend. She taught me just by watching through the peephole of her journey, that even though life can get tough and unexpected mountains will grow in your way; it does not have to determine when the journey ends.
1. Give us a brief background on who you are, what you do, where you’re from, etc.
I am LaShonda Vasser. I’m the daughter of Kathleen Vasser-Holman and the late Clinton Vasser. I was born and raised in Greenwood, MS, but now residing in Memphis, TN. I received a bachelor’s degree from Alcorn State University and a master’s degree from Union University. I’m a 2nd grade teacher with Shelby County Schools. I’m a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
2. So recently, you came out of remission from breast cancer. Tell me about when you first found out. What were the symptoms? What were you at in your life when you found out? How old were you? What emotional state were you in when you were diagnosed?
I’m a two time breast cancer survivor. I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 on my 30th birthday, and again in November of 2016. I was teaching in Holly Springs, MS when I was first diagnosed. I was always administering self-exams, but this particular day I felt something different in my right breast. It felt like a little sweet pea. I continued to rub and rub and rub, trying to convince myself that I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t say anything to anyone until I went to work the next morning. With only a few days left in the school year, I walked into Nurse Adams’ office, closed the door behind me, and pulled my breast out. She looked at me in confusion, so I explained to her that I felt something and I was afraid. She remained calm and proceeded to manually exam my breast. She also felt what I had been feeling all night and that morning. She asked when I was expecting my cycle and I let her know that it would be coming within the next few days. She suggested that I wait until it was over and examine my breast again, since our bodies go through so many changes during the time of the month. A few days passed and I still felt the small knot. I finally built up the nerve to tell my mom that I felt something in my breast and that I had the school nurse to feel it as well. My mom remained calm and suggested that I schedule an appointment to see a doctor, and so I did.
As I sat and waited to see the gynecologist, that was probably the most nervous I’ve even been. I was called to the back and asked to undress from the waist up. The doctor came in and began to examine my breast. He kept feeling and pushing and poking and could not feel anything. I literally took his hand and placed his finger on the exact spot that I felt. He indeed felt the tiny knot, but was amazed because my breasts were so big and the knot felt really small. He then scheduled for me to see a breast specialist. Within a few days, I was getting my first mammogram at the age of 29. After getting my breast flattened like a pancake, I was told to wait while the doctor reviewed the images. What I’d been feeling was also spotted on the mammogram, along with multiple calcifications. The doctor then scheduled an appointment for a biopsy.
The biopsy was extremely painful. I laid on a table with my breast hanging through a hole. I was given numbing medicine before the needles began piercing through my breast. The doctor had to get samples from every calcification that appeared on the images as well as the mass. I just laid there and cried silently until it was over. The doctor and the nurse consoled me, and gave me encouraging words. I was informed that I would be contacted once the results were back. I got dressed and went home. Waiting on the results seemed like forever. On the morning of July 8, 2010, I was laying on the couch when the phone rang. I answered and received the words that I was dreading to hear, “Ms. Vasser, I’m sorry but you have cancer.” My initial reaction was shock. I didn’t really know how to feel as the doctor was relaying the information to me. After a moment of silence, I asked if he would contact my parents. I didn’t know how to relay the information to them as detailed as he did. After confirming that I did indeed have cancer, I was scheduled to have a lumpectomy two weeks later. A lumpectomy is where the surgeon removes the tumor as well as the area around the mass. Two weeks after surgery and recovery, I walked across the stage at Union University to receive my Master of Education. Throughout this journey, I managed to complete my studies and graduate with my cohort. You can’t tell me that God isn’t an awesome God.
3. What were the treatments and why those particular methods? How did the treatment leave you feeling, and how did you manage?
During the first diagnosis, I was teaching kindergarten. Those kids came with all kinds of colds and germs and there I was receiving 6 rounds of chemo and 21 rounds of radiation and NEVER got sick. I was told that I would feel really tired and that I would have to make myself eat. However, I went to work daily and actually gained 60 pounds because of the steroids. There were 2 times that I did feel tired, but not to the point where I couldn’t maintain.
After the second diagnosis, surgery, and recovery, I received no radiation but 16 rounds of chemo. 4 of those rounds were intense chemotherapy. Those were the most tired and weakest moments that I've ever felt in my life. I lost my hair both times but the treatments were so strong, the second time, that I lost my hair immediately after the first round. Then I began to wear cute and stylish wigs. My 2nd graders began questioning why I changed my hair and I told them. I explained to them what I was going through and showed a video where my hair and was coming out while I combed it. Many of the students cried and they all hugged me. Then we all cried.
My breast were being expanded during this time. But because the chemo was so intense and my white and red blood cells were dropping, the surgeon held off on the tissue expansion until chemo was complete.
I built up the nerve to return to work with no wig. The faculty and staff greeted me with smiles, but the students outside of my class were confused and had many questions and comments. Some of the comments were rude, but I didn't get upset because they were children who simply didn't know or understand. One day, two of my girls overheard a few 5th graders saying rude things about me and asked if they could go and talk with their class. I said smiled and said yes. My two angels held hands, walked down the hallway, and returned smiling in about 10 minutes. After school, the 5th grade teacher came to me and thanked me. She informed me that my students handled the situation well and thoroughly explained to the older kids what they're teacher was going through and why they shouldn't laugh or say mean things. My heart was happy because even though the comments didn't bother me, the students were being exposed to a real life situation. Those 5th graders even came to me the next day and apologized.
The school year ended, yet chemo did not. I still went every 3 weeks as scheduled, counting down to my last treatment. I celebrated my 37th birthday with family and friends on July 8; however, on July 14 I rang that bell like I've never rang it before. I completed treatment and was claiming the end of cancer.
4. Describe your support system and how it helped you through the first diagnosis.
My parents were my biggest supporters. During the first diagnosis, my parents were living in Greenwood, MS. They would drive to Memphis for every doctor’s appointment and then every 3 weeks to be at the chemo treatments with me. Unfortunately, Pops passed in 2014 after battling leukemia. My mom was still there with my after the second diagnosis for every appointment, surgery, recovery, you name it.
5. What positive influences helped you get through breast cancer the first time and did you use any of those inspirations this time around?
During the first diagnosis, I didn’t really know what to expect or what questions to ask. I just knew that I couldn’t give up. I didn’t reveal any of the details of cancer to any of my other family members or friends until I was in remission. However, during the second diagnosis, I felt more comfortable talking about my journey with cancer because I’d become more aware and knowledgeable of the disease. I’d also met other women who had similar stories as mine, who encouraged me to speak my truth and to share my story.
6. Did you experience any other obstacles during this time?
After the first diagnosis, surgery, and treatments, I took Tamoxifen for 5 years. During that time, I was told to avoid getting pregnant because the medicine would cause birth defects. I then met a man, we dated, and later got married. During the marriage, we were careful not to get pregnant because of the medicine; yet, we did begin talking about having a family. However, the marriage began to turn for the worse shortly after the completion of the medicine. Eventually, I filed for divorce because my marriage was failing, only to be diagnosed for the second time in November of 2016. I tried maintaining a calm spirit but I was facing cancer once again. During this time, I was told that because of the previous radiation treatment to my right breast, I would have to have a mastectomy. I thought about it long and hard, and I also consulted with my mom about what I should do. I decided to ask my doctor if I could have a double mastectomy, for the simple fact that the cancer returned in the same breast and in the exact spot. The doctor agreed that I made a great decision, so I had a double mastectomy with construction on December 2, 2016. Needless to say, the divorce was final on December 29, 2016. There I was dealing with cancer for a second time and a failed marriage all at once. Thank God I had the support of my family, friends, and sorors to help keep my mind at ease and my spirits lifted.
7. How did you discover that the cancer was back?
I discovered the cancer had returned after having an annual mammogram. I was originally scheduled to see the doctor and have a mammogram in October but for some reason, the mammogram was scheduled, but not the doctor’s visit. I couldn’t have one without the other so I had to reschedule. As I think back, that was nothing but God’s grace and mercy that kept me. If I’d gone in October, the mass probably wouldn’t have shown up on the mammogram, because of how small it was and I would’ve gone maybe another year with that tumor growing inside of me without knowing. I truly believe that God stepped in and caused a distraction with that October appointment so that the tumor would be visible in November.
8. Tell us where did the return of the cancer put you emotionally?
When the cancer returned, I wasn’t too upset about it because I had faith that everything would be ok. God has worked on me and within me in a way that is unexplainable.
9. Are there any new drawbacks now?
There aren’t any drawbacks because I never questioned God. I believe there’s a reason for everything.
10. What are you doing differently this time around?
This time around, I’m more cautious of my food intake. I am striving to live a healthier and stress-free life. I am traveling more and living my life to the fullest.
11. What does your day consist of?
At this present time, my day consists of educating my students and having fun while doing it. I’m also active in my sorority and in the community.
12. What are your greatest fears with having breast cancer and how do you combat them?
It’s human nature to have fears, but I try not to worry about things that are out of my control. I continue to pray for my health and strength daily. I tell the Lord “Thank you!” every chance I get.
13. Who and/or has inspired you since your diagnosis and why?
I have met so many people who have inspired me throughout this journey. However, I feel that I have a special bond with the women that I have met who are fighting this beast right along with me. We share stories, laughs, tears, and encouraging words. We also pray for each other. Social media has been an awesome tool for me to be in contact with many of these individuals and I thank God for allowing us to come together.
14. Once this battle is won, what are your plans for your future?
After remission, my future plan is to adopt a child or children. I’ve always wanted to be a mother and I think adoption will be great at this point in my life.
15. What advice would you give to women your age about monitoring their breast and being tested?
I have communicated with women who admitted that they do not get mammograms because they are afraid of what the results may be. I encourage all women to be tested and to administer self-exams. It’s best to know and get treatment, if need be, than to not know and it be too late. Early detection is the best protection.
16. Do you have any suggested resources for women, but particularly women of color?
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women. I encourage women of color to become familiar with Sister’s Network, Inc. This is a national African American breast cancer survivor organization. It offers services to women of color, breast cancer facts, questions to ask your doctor, and other resources.
The doctors will tell you that certain cancers aren't common at certain ages. I will tell you what my aunt who passed of cancer told me, "PRESS THE ISSUE". Check your breast monthly, and know your family history. Many may not be familiar with he BRCA gene, but if you have had immediate family members diagnosed with prostate, ovarian and/or breast cancer, it would be wise to be tested. I pray that this post found you well and awakened a desire within you to see another day. Much love babies!!!