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Catrina Marcell

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As told to Erica Rimlinger

When I got my Covid-19 vaccine, I was told I might have side effects after the shot. Everyone’s immune system is different, so the list of side effects was long. I’d heard people say they were tired afterward or their arm hurt, but I guessed which side effects I’d get: swollen lymph nodes. The lymph nodes under my arm have always served as the alarm bells when I’m about to get sick or am fighting something off.

Right on cue, that’s how my body reacted to the vaccine. I thought, “Great! The vaccine is activating my immune system. It’s working.”

I was told the nodes could remain swollen for six to eight weeks in reaction to the shot, and they did. But several more weeks passed, and they remained swollen. After three months I thought, “Hmmm.” My mind didn’t immediately go to a dark place or anything, but I thought it would be a good idea to have my doctor check this out.

It was May 2021. I’d had my full annual physical in January, and I was in great health — or so I thought. I took my health seriously in any case: I work as a personal trainer.

My doctor agreed it was a little strange that my lymph nodes were still swollen. She gave me another full physical, my second in six months. We were chatting away during my breast exam when I felt her hand stop. She stopped talking. Then she said, “Give me your hand.” She put my hand over hers and then removed her hand. “Do you feel that?” she asked. I did. Beneath my fingers sat a lump the size of an almond. It hadn’t been there five months ago.

I was 37 years old and I’d just passed the LSAT and was looking forward to going to law school in the fall.I was healthy and active, had a great boyfriend, and my life was moving forward. I was too young to have regular mammograms, so I didn’t know what to expect when my doctor advised me to get one. I was too young to worry about lumps in my breasts.

I asked her: “Are you really concerned about that lump?” She was direct. “I am,” she told me, “because of the swollen lymph nodes.”

I told my boyfriend, now my fiancé, but nobody else in my family when I had the mammogram, then the ultrasound, then, the next day, the biopsy. I was diagnosed with stage 3 triple negative breast cancer. I had to tell my family, but I could barely get my head around it. This cannot be happening, I thought as my fiancé and I drove into my first appointment with the specialist. He was crying. I was still in shock.

My genetic test returned with the result I dreaded: I was positive for BRCA 1, the hereditary mutation of a gene that is associated with breast and other kinds of cancer. Now I really had to talk with my family. I didn’t know much about my family’s medical history, but an aunt on my dad’s side shared that his mother died of breast cancer in her late 30s. Once we started talking about it, all kinds of family information came out. It turned out I had a cousin in her late 40s who had recently gotten the same breast cancer diagnosis.

Just three weeks after my first mammogram, I was sent into surgery to have a port for chemotherapy implanted near my collarbone. The port would ease the injection of 16 rounds of chemo. I’d start with four rounds ofthe dreaded chemo treatment nicknamed “the red devil” by breast cancer patients everywhere and then have 12 rounds of a second medicine. Law school was out of the picture. I’d be fighting instead.

Through the nausea, fatigue, hair loss, insomnia and night sweats caused by the chemo, my friends, family and, most of all, my faith sustained me. I asked my friends to send me Bible verses or inspirational poems to keep up my spirits. I’ve always been a person who smiles, and I continued to smile through everything. I couldn’t exercise, or even touch my toes anymore, but I could smile.

Last day of radiation, 2022Last day of radiation, 2022

I finished chemo in December and had a double mastectomy in January. After that, I was declared officially cancer-free, but treatment wasn’t over yet. Because my triple negative breast cancer was so aggressive, my doctors recommended I treat it aggressively. I went through and finished 11 out of 15 rounds of immunotherapy before it caused me to be hospitalized with pancreatitis. After that, I went through 28 rounds of radiation in the spring, and as I continue to heal from radiation, I’m starting the process of reconstructive surgery.

My triple negative breast cancer was found and treated because I had a triple blessing working for me. First, I paid attention to my body’s signals. I’ve always been proactive. I ask questions and follow up questions. I’m blunt, I’m direct, and I show up with my notepad in hand at doctors’ appointments.

Second, I have doctors who listen to me when I advocate for myself. Recently I saw my primary care doctor again for my first physical after my treatments. We were so excited to see each other, we talked for nearly two hours. I’m so grateful she took the time to really investigate my concerns. I have a good relationship with my oncologist as well. I tell him, “I will listen to you, but I’m the one going through this. I won’t take your word for everything. I will do my own research. Medicine is one thing, but faith in God is the other.” My oncologist always tells me, “That’s fine because I know medicine but I’m not God.” I tell him I’m glad he knows that.

My third and final blessing was the Covid-19 vaccine that saved my life, for reasons completely unrelated to the virus. The vaccine triggered my immune system in a way that was somewhat familiar — but just unfamiliar enough to get me into the doctor’s office. Having sent the blessings that guided me to a timely diagnosis, God has carried me forward, toward health.

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