October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a part of our survivor series, we share the stories of women who have triumphed over their diagnosis and now live as a testimony and lighthouse for others. Dionne LaTouche initially felt “punished” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 26. But now two years later, this budding Youtube star, artist, and creative has found strength in documenting her journey.
As told to Keyaira Kelly
The day I was officially diagnosed with breast cancer, Wednesday, February 24th, 2016, wasn’t the toughest day. I had taken mental snapshots in my brain of what my images looked like when I went for my initial core needle biopsy back in November. I went online and found published studies that included various pictures of cancerous and noncancerous findings in the breast. I had a feeling that my lump was cancerous based on what I remember my imaging looking like. It was hard to hear the doctor confirm that it was indeed cancer, but I was already in problem solving mode. I called my sister, and my Dad to tell them them news. My sister (God bless her) spent the night with me that night because I just couldn’t sleep.
Thursday, February 25th, 2016 was the day that was really tough. I’m a teacher, and as a teacher you have to put your emotions on pause when it’s time to teach, especially when you work with the young ones. I had to go through a whole day of teaching, collaborative planning meetings and facilitate a technology training for parents later that night for our kids and parents. I was able to do it because I knew the next day, I’d be able to fall apart if I needed to. I went to the consultation with my dad and my older sister, who were my support system throughout the entire journey. During the initial diagnosis consultation with my oncologist and breast surgeon, they gave me details regarding the recommended treatment plan and were very optimistic about my prognosis. Their auspicious outlook gave me the initial courage to forge on. I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, which was estrogen and progesterone positive, as well as Her2Neu positive. This type of cancer is very aggressive, but thank God for targeted therapy and advancements in research and available medication.
My personal journey with breast cancer was preceeded by my own mother’s battle with the disease. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was about 40. She is the only person who has ever had breast cancer in my family, until me. She didn’t explicitly advise me to do anything because when she passed away in 2002, I was only 12 years old. Watching her journey, and reading the journals that she left behind from her experience, taught me to document everything. I knew from studying her journey that self-exams were very important, and I have been faithful with them since I was 12. I had a scare back in 2012 where I felt a lump in my right breast, but I did not have insurance at the time. In order to have certain tests done you have to have what is considered a “strong family history” which is 2 more more people who have had cancer. I was unable to receive screening services because I did not have a “strong family history.” Thank God it turned out to be nothing, but I didn’t know this until years later when I was diagnosed with cancer in the other breast.
With the words of my mother close to my heart, I geared up to fight my own battle with the disease. After meeting with Dr. Bonnie Sun, my breast surgeon, and Dr. Carolyn Hendricks my oncologist, I felt that they were leading me in the right direction, so chemotherapy wasn’t a difficult decision. The plan was for me to have chemo, targeted therapy, radiation, surgery, and finally hormone therapy for 5 years. My first treatment plan included chemotherapy and targeted therapy. My drug cocktail was called TCHP. Each letter stands for a different drug. T and C were the chemotherapy drugs, and the H and P were the targeted therapy drugs. Although there were side effects for these drugs, people often don’t realize all the other drugs you take to make sure that your body can handle the chemo. Between the day before, day of, and the day after chemo, I had 18-20 different over the counter and prescription medications flowing through me. I didn’t know which side effects were being caused by which medicine. I think it’s important to note, that there are many treatments available for people who are diagnosed outside of chemo, and everyone’s body reacts differently to treatment.
The days leading up to my mastecotomy, I was depressed. After my third cycle of chemo, I was in a dark place. I was sad because I felt like it wasn’t fair. I had just turned 27, and it felt like I was being punished. I had no kids, no prospects, and I was going to have to remove my breasts. I loved my breast. I think they were my favorite body part, yet I felt like they had betrayed me. I had been preparing for a while before my surgery by getting a recliner, buying easy slip on pajamas, slippers, a breast pillow, and other things to make life easier when I came out of surgery. The day before my mastectomy, I went fishing with my dad. I later came home and cleaned my apartment with three of my homeboys came over to help me clean. They’ll tell you, I cried most of the afternoon and that evening. It wasn’t until a friend called me and prayed with and for me, that I literally began to feel peace. I spent the rest of the evening having a random deep conversation with they guys and I was fine.
When I saw my scars for the first time it was like a weird out of body experience. I document everything so I just started taking pictures. I’m a little different than most people and at this point I was just interested in the scientific aspect of everything. I think this was my way of “mind-over-mattering” the situation. Before surgery Dr.Bonnie Sun, Dr. Sung Yoon and I discussed what pattern I wanted them to use, because I didn’t like the typical horizontal cut that most surgeons employed. Like I said earlier, I did a lot of research, and told her that I wanted the Wise Pattern which is the pattern that most surgeons use when doing a breast reduction. It was just weird that I no longer had nipples, as they were unable to save them, and I was essentially flat chested for the first time since I was 9. People often don’t realise that you lose most if not all sensation in your breasts after a mastectomy. I also lost feeling in my underarms. I have since regained some feeling in these areas but for the most part I still have no sensation.
Of course, in addition to the loss of breast tissue, when anyone thinks of chemo and cancer, hair loss immediately comes to mind. I was very proactive about making sure that I wasn’t essentially “caught off guard” when I did start losing my hair. I have a video on you YouTube channel all about how I prepped for it, how I wrapped my head, and both times that I shaved it off. I bought head wraps, wigs, and clippers, so I’d be ready when it was time to let it all go. I also went to Ulta and bought makeup that could help me with the transition when I had no eyebrows left. I’ve switched my hair up so much in the past that I knew that it was just hair and that it would grow back. The only thing that really made me nervous about being bald was that I have a dent in my head. I was nervous that the dent at the very top of my head would look crazy, but it didn’t. It was interesting to learn that I have freckles on my head. That was something that was new to me. Years later, my hair is back. It’s different, but its back! My hair growth is a daily reminder to me that God restores. Not only has He restored my hair, but he has restored my mind, my perspective on life, and my faith in Him.
Along with my faith, documenting my experiences through my Youtube channel has been really healing for me. I wanted to be a source of information for other young Black women with breast cancer who felt alone in their experiences. There were barriers specific to black women that made me want to share, so I could help others coming behind me. For example, the wigs that my insurance company covered were not like my hair texture. All the wigs that were for black women were horrible synthetic wigs that clearly looked like a bad wig. We can wear out hair straight if we wanted, but what about the our natural textures? The plethora of options for women who typically have a straighter texture made me upset. I wanted to show other Black women how to still be fly with or without with the wig options presented to us. This gave me something to do while I was at home going through treatment. I also wanted to continue what my mother did by journaling her journey for my sisters and I to see, but instead vlog my experience for the world.
I live by the mantra “survivor and so much more,” because there are many layers to my story beyond my diagnosis and treatment. To be only labeled a survivor gives people who don’t know your journey a one word synopsis of the type of person you are. I am strong, mentally and physically. I am resilient. I am creative. I am resourceful. I am a leader. I am adaptive. I am faithful. I am vigilant. I could go on and on. While I embody all these different characteristics, I am also an passionate educator, an advocate, a student working towards my Masters in Instructional Design and Technology, a budding businesswoman, a creative, a singer, and arranger, an auntie, a sister, a daughter, a godmother, and a small scale YouTuber. I value life a different way now. Part of my walk includes me being a 29-year-old trying to navigate this temporary menopause that I’m in, dating, the random aches and pains, paranoia about recurrence and trying to make sure my eyebrows match from day to day.
For any woman who has just been diagnosed, I recommend that you pray, get counseling, make a plan, but be flexible. It’s important to also have a flexible spending account and short term disability insurance. Know your insurance plan, and if you don’t, print out a copy that you can refer to when needed. Remember there are TONS of resources to help you through this journey. Find a friend who you can relate to. I’ve gone through this journey at a very young age, and a part of my thank you to God is helping other women navigate this experience.
God delights in the details of our lives. I’ve seen His hand in this journey every step of the way. There’s nothing too hard for Him. I am His child, therefore I can do, and get through anything. You can too.