We’re launching our first “In Her Words” Journal series with Laurie Pomeranz – a San Francisco-based mother and wife, breast cancer survivor and all-around kick-ass female. When she’s not working as a high-school counselor, she’s working at Beautycounter, committed to getting safer personal care products and cosmetics into the hands of everyone, as well as educating people about their dangers and lack of regulations.
“If I can keep just one person from getting breast cancer through my work, it will all be worth it,” she says.
From her daily mantras and invaluable sisterhood group to her reconstructive difficulties and coping mechanisms treatment side-effects, read more about Laurie’s breast cancer journey and advice in our interview below.
Name: Laurie Pomeranz
Location: San Francisco, CA
Current Health Status: Post surgery, chemo, radiation, now on daily and monthly medications for maintenance.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer in 2010, four months after a clear mammogram. I noticed a puckering in my breast tissue when I raised my arm overhead. It looked different than anything I’d noticed before, and I decided to get it checked out. Things moved quickly from there, and I was diagnosed two days later with multiple tumors in my breast, and lymph node involvement. We have no family history of breast cancer and was just 41. It was a total shock.
How did you feel when you were diagnosed?
Am I going to die? How can this be happening?
How did your friends and family take the news?
They were scared, sad, emotional and stood by me.
What kind of treatment did you seek?
I met with one surgeon and oncologist, loved them both, and didn’t even seek a second opinion. I just did what this amazing UCSF team told me to do. I trusted them completely and felt like they gave me the time and care and respect that I needed to feel safe. I had a single mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and reconstruction. The reconstruction failed, and I now use a prosthetic.
Did you work while you were going through treatment?
I decided not to work during treatment. I was working as a therapist and did not feel like I had the energy or emotional bandwidth to be truly present for my students. I was so tired and sick and just needed to be in full control of my time and activities and to be able to stay in bed all day when I felt like I could barely move, due to treatment side-effects.
How did you find the best care?
I was a UCSF patient, so my gynecologist recommended a surgeon he knew and liked at their Breast Care center. I was so fortunate that every person I encountered there, from the front desk to the oncology team, made me feel like I was in extremely caring and competent hands.
Did you receive additional support or seek alternative therapies?
Weekly, I went to acupuncture with a phenomenal practitioner and healer in San Francisco. I think he made a huge impact on the way my body processed the chemo. I also frequently got massages, which were amazing, and attended a monthly support group meeting run by the Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS). I actively participated in their online community and that social support was invaluable. Lastly, I attended a weekly mindfulness-based stress reduction class, taught by a BAYS sister, which also helped me tremendously.
Who have been your biggest supporters and make up your cancer tribe?
My cancer tribe is my BAYS community. That sisterhood has been so sustaining for me. We share the hellishness of this experience, and also lift each other up with support, information, and a lot of laughter. My husband was also heroic during my illness. He worked, cared for me and our son, and handled all of the tasks related to keeping us all afloat. He was loving, nurturing and steady, every single day, even as he managed his own fears and grief about what was happening to me. I was also tremendously grateful for my best friend, who slept overnight in the hospital with me, after my mastectomy. And to all of my friends who came over and laid in bed with me, cooked for my family, and showed-up for me in so many ways that made me feel loved and supported.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
Losing my breast and my hair was really hard. Having my reconstruction fail, and spending 18 days in the hospital during Christmas, dealing with infections and attempts to salvage my reconstruction, was pretty awful. Living with one breast has presented its own challenges to my body image. And, heading into those yearly scans is quite anxiety-provoking. We live with the awareness that recurrence is possible, and that is an ever-present psychological challenge. The hardest part of all, though, has been losing my beloved BAYS sisters to this disease.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wish that I had known how emotionally difficult the aftermath of treatment would be. So many of us talk about the PTSD-like feelings we have after we finish “active treatment” and we are no longer just swinging from ring-to-ring on the monkey bars of treatment. We are done with just grabbing the next ring, counting down how many sessions of chemo or radiation we have left, and we finally have time to stop and think about what on earth just happened to us. It was an emotionally overwhelming time for me, as it is for all of the women I’ve met. But, no one tells you to anticipate this emotional fall, after treatment ends. Everyone expects you to be thrilled that you’re “done” and instead, I found myself a bit paralyzed with sadness and fear. It was so unexpected. I wish I had known to anticipate the emotional despair that I felt after I was done.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
In my mindfulness class, we did a loving-kindness practice, which I used every day on the radiation table, to stay calm and still. I use it to this day when I need to ground myself. “May I/you/we be free from internal and external harm. May I have a calm, clear mind, and a peaceful, loving heart. May I be physically healthy, strong and vital. May I experience love, joy, wonder and wisdom in this life, just as it is.”
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Connect with others who are going through breast cancer. You will need and crave the wisdom and support of others who have been there. Cancer can feel lonely at times, no matter how much love and support surround you. There is a kind of support that comes from others who have or are, walking the path, and it is profound and sustaining.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
My cancer experience brought out a lot of creative energy in me and led to me doing a lot of writing. Together with my BAYS sisters, we have now authored and published three anthologies of our personal narratives. I am extremely proud of this work.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life and illness?
It had forced me to consider my mortality sooner than I may have otherwise. I feel profoundly grateful to be here, and I try to live with gratitude every day.
Throughout this journey, how have you changed?
I begin each day with a gratitude practice. Before I get out of bed, I think of three things I’m grateful for. I’ve also become more of an activist, with a passion for breast cancer prevention. This has opened up a whole new addition to my working life. I am committed to helping others decrease their toxic loads, and become more aware of the toxic burden they create when exposing themselves to the dangerous chemicals all around us, with a focus on personal care products and cosmetics. The more I learn about how unregulated this industry is, and how much harm parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrances cause, the more enraged I feel, and the more impassioned I feel about educating people and making a difference. If I can keep just one person from getting breast cancer through my work, it will all be worth it.