It was October of 2013, and Lauren Mandell was 29 years old. She felt a lump in her breast, about the size of a gumball. She went in to have it checked right away, and after doing an ultrasound, she was told it was likely fibrocystic changes and to come back in six months.
By March, the lump had grown to the size of a golf ball. She went back in to have it checked immediately, and got a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy. She told the doctors to call with results and to let her know over the phone either way. Three days later, she got the call.
“They said, ‘I know this isn't easy, but it's malignant.’ That's all I heard,” Lauren said. She then asked if there was anything she needed to do. The doctor said no, they'll call back with the appointment. "Then I got off the phone and just lost it.”
Lauren’s sister was with her when she found out. Lauren was still processing what she had heard, so her sister called the doctor back to ask additional questions over the speakerphone. Lauren’s diagnosis was stage three breast cancer with invasive ductal carcinoma in her lymph nodes.
“Then I had to call people and tell them,” Lauren said. “And that was probably one of the hardest things, just not knowing how they'd react and then reassuring them, ‘It's fine, I'm going to be fine.’ My whole family came over to my sister's that night and just was all there and rallied together, which was awesome.”
The appointments began, and Lauren’s sister and mom went to every single appointment with her.
“It was just like a whirlwind of emotions,” Lauren said. They brought a notebook to write down notes, ask questions. I asked what I thought I should ask, but I wasn't going to remember any of this stuff. I just wanted to know what's the plan, what I need to do to get through this.”
Lauren started six rounds of chemo every three weeks. “That was the worst, I would say.”
A few days after her second round of chemo, Lauren’s hair began to fall out. So, she cut it into a short, funky, pink style. Then she began getting a bald spot, and decided the next step was to shave it.
“I'm like, okay, it's time,” Lauren said. “Just the anticipation of that, I think it was the hardest, but after it, it was almost freeing.”
Lauren works as a radiologic technologist at The Ohio State University Medical Center and interacts with nearly everyone in the hospital. When she came into work during treatment, she was met with a wave of support.
“A bunch of people in the ER raised money and put a basket together,” she said. “My coworkers did the same thing. It was awesome. It was a huge support system, so that definitely helped. We had chemo parties — there were 15 people that came for my chemo every time.”
Lauren finished chemo in July. For her last chemo treatment, everyone dressed up in suits, ties and nice dresses.
In September, Lauren had surgery. She had a mastectomy on the cancer side and then went through 25 rounds of radiation, finishing two days before Christmas. The following August, she had a mastectomy on the other side, and underwent a latissimus dorsi flap surgery to remove tissue from her back to use on her left breast.
“In February of 2016, I got my implants, and then I had a revision done in July. So it was almost a two and a half year process, the whole thing,” Lauren said. “It was long, overall.”
Lauren had a complete response to chemo, which is the best you can hope for.
Lauren had an incredible support system throughout her diagnosis and treatment that continues to this day.
“I never felt alone and it was just good to know that if I needed someone, they were going to be there. They helped,” she said. “It just would brighten my day, or I would get random packages in the mail. But even just a simple card… it was a good feeling.”
At first, she felt alone because she didn’t know who she could talk to, or who could relate to what she was going through at her age. Then for her first chemo, she received a treatment bag from a girl who was diagnosed a month before her, and was around her age. Throughout her treatment, she was introduced to more and more women around her age that had been diagnosed.
“So from all of that, we formed a group,” she said. “There are 15 girls, we call each other the Breasties. We ranged from 24-35 year's old when we were diagnosed.”
The group has a group text that they would use nonstop when someone was going through treatment.
“That was super helpful because as much as your family and friends want to be there for you, no one can relate unless you're actually going through it,” Lauren said.
She is still a part of the Breasties group and continues to stay in touch and get together with the girls.
Lauren is paying it forward in other ways as well. She is part of the Nicole Wilcox Foundation, started and named in honor of a woman who passed away about 20 years ago from breast cancer. Nicole Wilcox’s husband, the founder of the foundation, reached out to Lauren and a few of the other women in the Breasties group when they were going through treatment. He treated them to dinner and gave them shopping gift cards, making a whole day about treating themselves.
Lauren now is active with the foundation, attending events, raising awareness for breast cancer, and making chemo bags for patients as they go through treatment. She writes letters of encouragement and meets with other women who are fighting.
“I feel that it's my way of giving back and helping,” she said. “Because I feel I can't thank everyone enough who was there for me and for everything they've done.”
The Importance of Being There
Lauren’s family continues to support her and others fighting breast cancer to this day. She lovingly mentions her brother, who wears the breast cancer support bracelets on both wrists, will deliver chemo baskets to patients, and wears a bright pink tutu for the Race for the Cure run every year in honor of Lauren.
Her mother, father and sister attended every single chemo treatment, and continuously encouraged her.
“I remember there was one time I was so sick and my mom said, ‘Let's just go outside. Let's just go on a walk,’” Lauren said. “And it was the shortest walk ever, but I got out to get fresh air and I said, ‘Oh, at least it was something,’ you know?”
Having that kind of encouragement was vital during her treatment, but to this day it continues. Lauren stresses that even those who haven’t gone through cancer and can’t necessarily relate can still be a huge support for those who are going through it. So how can people offer their support?
“Just be there for them,” she said. “It's not even about buying stuff for them. Just making them feel like they can call you if they need help — a lot of people won't necessarily reach out and ask for help.”
Also, treat them normal, she said. Go out of your way and help them by setting up a meal train or, if you’re close enough to them, offer to clean their apartment or walk their dog. But don’t treat them like they’re so sick that you have to be overly cautious or can’t invite them to anything.
“For me, that year when I went through chemo, I was in three weddings,” Lauren said. “By nature, I will live my life. I think that's very important to make sure you're doing that, although I do feel like your life kind of gets put on hold to a point.”
The After Effects
The fight is never really over, according to Lauren. Even after treatment is completed, there are always lasting physical and psychological effects.
“The post-treatment stuff is almost harder than going through treatment, because when you go through treatment there's a plan and you’re thinking okay, I’ll get through this,” she said. “And then after, there’s just the worry of it coming back. That's your biggest fear.”
Lauren has met people throughout her treatment and after whose cancer has come back, and they passed away.
“Then you have survivor’s guilt, and you can’t help but think ‘okay, when is it going to happen to me?” she said. “I think people just think you're just magically fine. Your hair's grown back. You look normal, you're living your life and they think you're just a-okay, and you’re not. I guess it can be frustrating to a point because there are so many side effects that you deal with afterward. It's like you're fine, but you're not totally fine.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but that doesn’t mean the fight ends after Halloween is over. Every single day of the year, breast cancer has an effect on fighters, survivors, families and friends. Showing support (in any way) can make all the difference for those whose lives have been forever changed. Visible signs of support can help raise awareness for cancers and other causes, encouraging education and action to identify and treat them.