As we begin to wrap up Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are thrilled to share the poignant and inspiring story of April Stearns, a HER2+ cancer survivor, and founder and editor-in-chief of Wildfire Magazine, a beautiful collection of candid, heartfelt stories for breast cancer thrivers. Since loosing her grandmother to metastatic breast cancer as a teen, April always had a gut feeling that she would be diagnosed one day. And at age 35, that suspicion became a reality. Her treatment consisted of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, followed by a mastectomy and 35 rounds of radiation. Now, eight years later and with no evidence of disease (NED), she is providing the resources to others that she so wanted then. To learn more about April's incredible journey, what she wishes she had known pre-cancer and how her life has changed in both good and difficult ways, read our latest In Her Words.
Name: April Stearns
Location: Santa Cruz, CA
Current Health Status: No Evidence of Disease (NED)
Tell us about yourself.
I am a writer and entrepreneur who loves hiking in the Redwoods and is crazy about her family. Most weekends, I'm in the kitchen, experimenting with a bread recipe or curled up reading a book. I'm also the founder and editor in chief of Wildfire Magazine.
When were you diagnosed with cancer?
I was diagnosed with IDC, Stage 3c, HER2+ breast cancer at 35. Although breast cancer runs in my paternal family line, I was always told that didn't increase my risk. I did genetic testing following my diagnosis and my dad's subsequent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and while I do believe there is something going on there, so far I've tested negative to all known gene mutations.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
“It's here.” My grandmother passed away from metastatic breast cancer when I was 18. I always thought I may one day be diagnosed myself. It sounds macabre but I used to tell myself my breasts were temporary. When the diagnosis came my first thought was that it had happened. My second thought was, “Did I do this to myself?”
How did your friends and family take the news?
My friends and family were gobsmacked and devastated for me. Having watched his mother's battle with breast cancer twice, my diagnosis of breast cancer was especially hard on my dad. But everyone rallied for us. We share our home with my husband's parents and they became a huge source of support for me, my husband, and our daughter who was 3 at the time during my cancer year.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
My oncology team prescribed neoadjuvant chemotherapy to shrink the 7cm tumor growing in my left breast prior to surgery. I did 5 months of chemotherapy (Taxol & FEC) and 13 months of immunotherapy (Herceptin). After I finished the Taxol and FEC, I had a unilateral mastectomy to my left breast only with aesthetic flat closure (no breast mound reconstruction). This was followed by 35 rounds of radiation. I opted to have a unilateral mastectomy because I wanted to preserve my healthy breast in the hopes that I might one day have a second child and breastfeed again. I opted against breast mound reconstruction to minimize surgeries. I had my eye on finishing treatment was quickly as possible and getting back to the work of mothering my daughter. Although having a second child has not panned out, I have no regrets on either the unilateral mastectomy or the flat closure.
Were able to work through treatment?
I did work all the way through treatment (yep, I was that girl in the Chemo Lounge asleep with her laptop on her lap, thinking she'd get a ton of work done and then zonking out from the Benadryl). I worked for an additional two years for the same employer until my dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. His cancer served as my wake up call – I realized I was a totally different person after cancer, so after I quit my job to care for my dad as he was dying, I took a year off to figure out what I wanted to do next.
Where and how have you found the best care?
I was fortunate to receive all my oncology within 10 minutes of my home here in Santa Cruz, CA. My team is all Stanford University trained which meant I got Stanford care without having to travel up to Palo Alto.
Have you received any additional support or alternative therapies? If so, what kind, and have they been they beneficial?
I complimented my West medicine care with Traditional Chinese Medicine (acupuncture). I believe it did help lessen some of the side effects and help me to heal from my surgery.
Who have been your biggest supporters? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
My husband was my chief caregiver and my daughter is hands down my biggest fan. I'm so lucky to have them. Beyond them, I had so many people rooting for me. Many family and friends shaved their heads in solidarity with me, and that meant so much. We had lots and lots of meals cooked for us, so many loving people brought my daughter gifts – we never ever felt alone in our cancer year.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
Now that I'm 8 years out from treatment, I would say the most challenging parts were diagnosis and then time years since treatment ended. When I was in active treatment, I surrendered myself completely to my medical team. There was comfort and relief in that. After treatment ended, I was unprepared for the depression and anxiety. Physically, I was unprepared for the long-term effects of treatment, such as premature menopause. I'm grateful for my health, but also feel there is a lot more needed in survivorship than is currently offered (or was offered when I was going through it).
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
That my sex life would be so affected. I had no idea how devastating chemo would be to the health of my vagina. I wish I had known so I could have taken steps to minimize the damage earlier.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
When things are hard, I tell myself, “There will be an 'after.' Just hang on.”
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Accept the help that is offered! And also get good at asking for what you need. There are no gold metals given for going it alone, so why not let your friends and family help?
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I'm so proud of the work I've done since cancer in building Wildfire Magazine. I needed to read the stories and see the images of other women diagnosed young with breast cancer to know how they were making a life after diagnosis. Wildfire is that resource that I so desperately needed and now it gives me so much to know I'm helping others know they aren't alone and tell their breast cancer stories.
How has cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
Although my grandmother passed away from metastatic breast cancer (MBC), I really didn't know anything about MBC until after I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Now that I know about MBC, I can't unknow this side of breast cancer that is so different from how the media and world portray breast cancer. I know now that breast cancer isn't easy or sexy or fun or any of the other ways it is often depicted. MBC is killing my friends in the breast cancer community. We need research to end these deaths. I also know now that even women diagnosed early stage, like me, even if cancer never comes back, we still face life long side-effects from treatment. Before breast cancer, I had no idea what that truly meant. For example, I will always be at risk of developing lymphedema in my left arm due to the lymph nodes that were removed. This is something I have to work against every single day.
How have you changed?
Cancer changed my life completely. It is a thief and has left so much heartbreaking loss in its wake. Loss that I continue to face daily. On the flip side, I love the life I have now after cancer. I have found my people and my life's purpose in helping women tell their breast cancer stories.