The Diagnosis that Changed Everything
By McKenzie Gallagher
Two days after Christmas in 2017, I got a call. To this day, I still get chills when I remember the moment my life changed forever—when my radiologist told me I had breast cancer. It’s permanently imprinted in my memory.
My diagnosis truly changed everything, and as I navigated it all, I faced things I never had before. My days filled with doctor visits and cancer treatment. My body ached and changed. My heart hurt.
But underneath the hard, scary, newness, I found it, and I held it tight: a sense of gratitude for the things in my life that were still so beautiful and good.
It was Dec., 27, 2017. I was just out of the shower, and I recognized the breast center’s number. I sat down on the bed, next to my loving husband, and we gripped each other’s hands so tight it almost hurt. I put my radiologist on speaker phone. Immediately, I could hear the shadow in his voice.
“McKenzie, unfortunately I do not have the news I was hoping for,” he said. “Your biopsy has confirmed that you have Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.”
I had been dealing with shooting pain in my right breast for about three weeks. After a visit with my obstetrician, we decided to move forward with a mammogram to “calm my fears.” To my surprise, we discovered two tumors in my breast. The biopsy confirmed that I had breast cancer, and those are the results I received on Dec. 27. A hormone analysis confirmed that I was triple negative.
In a matter of 10 days, I went from being told I had cancer, to being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, to immediately starting chemotherapy., I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.
I was thrust into a foreign world of doctors, specialists and terms I had never even heard of (and truthfully could barely pronounce). Quickly, doctor’s appointments and treatment consumed my life. I was terrified for what was to come and how I would tell the people closest to me.
I had never heard of “triple negative breast cancer.” Honestly, I had no clue how many different types of breast cancer there were before I dealt with it firsthand. But simply put, triple negative is cancer that does not have any hormone receptors. Sounds like a good thing, right?
As it turns out, being triple negative reduced my treatment options because doctors were unable to identify my cancer cells through targeted hormone therapy or drug therapy. It was also aggressive and more likely to reoccur in the first three years after initial diagnosis.
The way my awesome “nurse navigator” described this harsh diagnosis was this: When cancer cells have hormone receptors, doctors can act like “sharp shooters” and target and destroy those cells. But when you have no hormone receptors, doctors must “drop a bomb” to kill the cancer. After that simple but bone-chilling description (cue lots of tears on my part), I knew I was in for the fight of my life.
Family and farm
When I was diagnosed, my children were 2, 4, 6 and 9. The thought of not being around for them was crippling. My husband and I had also just started a business and successfully opened a winery, Rove Estate. It was our lifelong dream.
We were so busy as it was, just living our lives: Kids, extracurricular activities, running our farm and managing our new winery. It just seemed so unfair that I would have to deal with something as horrible as cancer. I was young, healthy and had no family history.
I remember crying in those early days, telling my husband, “I don’t have time to fight this! How in the world can our life go on without me healthy?!”
But somehow, it did. We were surrounded by family, friends and even complete strangers. People reached out to help with meals, kid transportation and prayers.
And I fought. I woke up every day with the intention to rid my body of this dangerous disease. First, I endured almost six months of intense chemotherapy. Then in July 2018, I had a radical double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. I broke out in shingles on my head from the stress and trauma three days after my surgery, and two weeks after that, I caught a post-surgical infection that left me hospitalized for a week.
All in all, I spent about a year of my life in active treatment. It was brutal, and every day was hard. I had no hair and no breasts. I felt powerless. But even through all that hardness, I truly found myself, stripped down and more vulnerable than I had ever been in my life.
When it came to cancer, I quickly realized that I could do all the right things, but I couldn’t control what was going to happen. I couldn’t control how my body would crumble under the chemotherapy treatment or the other challenges cancer brought me. No matter how busy I was with my “real life,” cancer didn’t care. When I realized this, all my to-do lists and priorities shifted. Instead of worrying about my business or the millions of other things out of my control, I focused on the small things.
Whether it was kissing my babies at night, sipping coffee with my husband before our kids woke up, or laughing with my sisters on the phone about something silly, for the first time in a very long time, I started to slow down long enough to have a meaningful conversation or share a moment with the people I loved. I found clarity.
I stopped working as much, and I realized that I only have so much to give to this world. Every ounce of energy I expended needed to go toward something meaningful to me.
As a business owner and mother to four children, I was innately a control freak. I always found a way to push through any obstacle life threw at me. I had to dig deep to find inner peace and strength.
I submerged myself into practicing mindfulness and prayer. Instead of focusing on the trauma I was experiencing or fearing my uncertain future, I taught myself to be present in the moment. To notice my thoughts of disappointment or fear, but not to let them take over my mind. To go to bed grateful for another day, and to wake up with purpose in each new one. To make it count.
As I focused on transforming my mindset, my health started to stabilize, too.
Celebrating this day
Today, less than two years since my fight began, I’m in remission. I feel very optimistic for my long-term prognosis. Of course, the fear is still there, but I have learned to work through those fears and not to let fear control me. I have the chance to be the best version of myself, and that chance is worth celebrating.
McKenzie Gallagher is from Traverse City. She and her husband, Creighton, are fifth generation cherry farmers and own Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery. She enjoys spending time near the water and the beauty of all things Northern Michigan with her four beautiful children, Layla, Scarlett, Brielle and Kylan (4, 6, 8, 11). Fresh food, fresh air and fresh thoughts are words she lives by!
This is our cover story this month.
To see the full issue of Grand Traverse Woman please go to: https://www.grandtraversewoman.com/sept-oct-2019-issue/