20 Years Since Her Diagnosis, Julie is Stronger Than Ever

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: From Susan G. Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.

Julie Untener remembers the day like it was yesterday… 20 years ago, in January of 2003, Julie decided to do a breast exam. She’d been vigilant about getting her yearly mammograms, so on on this particular day, when she felt a marble on her left side, Julie knew something wasn’t quite right. She went to the doctor to get additional scans, and was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing six rounds of chemo, helping her sisters through their own mastectomies, and learning a lot of lessons along the way… Julie is here today to share her breast cancer story and what she’s learned over the last 20 years. Julie, welcome to the show!

[00:00:54] Julie Untener: Thank you for having me, Adam. And yes, this is my 20 year anniversary of being Cancer Free. And joining you today is just another wonderful way of celebrating.

[00:01:05] Adam Walker: I’m really excited to celebrate this with you and very excited to get to interview you about your experience. And man, 20 years is such a huge milestone. So very excited about it. So let’s start with your story. Tell us about the first few days after your cancer diagnosis and how you found out and all of that. Sure.

[00:01:24] Julie Untener: Well, I sh it’s never how you imagine it would be. I’ll start out by saying my older sister had gone through breast cancer a few years prior, and so I felt like I had some level of experience and have seen reconstruction, which had advanced significantly and was way better than I imagined.

But I do come from a family that is quite private and so when I felt that lump that very first time, the only person I told was my boyfriend. I didn’t wanna cause any concern with my family until I knew something. But yes, the appointments advanced quickly, and before I knew it, I was undergoing a biopsy and going to have results the next day, and all of a sudden it hit me, oh my gosh, I don’t want my first conversation with my family to be, I have breast cancer.

I, and I’ll find out. I thought it was just a, I thought it would just be more important to start with, I found a lump and I may have breast cancer. And but I’m fully prepared for it and it’s gonna be fine no matter what. I just thought. Let me go ahead and make those calls. I am, those calls are a lot. I had to call my mom and nine brothers and sisters, and that’s a lot of emotions across all those calls.

[00:02:38] Adam Walker: Wow.

[00:02:41] Julie Untener: So then the next day comes, and I was in the conference room with my manager. I worked for NCR at the time and still do, and my cell phone rang. I stepped out to take that call and was told, yes, you have two types of cancers. You have invasive ductal EDO carcinoma, and you have Highgrade Ductal Carcinoma in-situ.

And immediately I realized this is a more complicated journey than I thought. The nurse did offer that I could come immediately to her office for more information. So I went back to my manager and said, bill, I have breast cancer. I have to leave. And off I went. He was awesome. He immediately called my best friend at work and just told her, you need to call Julie. And so that’s how it began.

[00:03:23] Adam Walker: Wow. That’s wild. And I mean, especially just calling that many people the emotional toll of that. I mean, to be honest, like, like I just have to stop and take a minute because I just imagined like talking to a. That’s gotta be tough. But then to talk to that, you said nine siblings, is that right?

[00:03:40] Julie Untener: Yes. Yeah. There’s 10 of us total. And we love each other and get along and but yeah, it’s a great family.

[00:03:47] Adam Walker: I’m, I mean, definitely blessed. That’s inspiring on like so many different levels right there, like that. I love the large family that all it gets along. Like maybe there’s hope for my family. I got a bunch of kids. Maybe they’ll all like each other one day?

[00:03:59] Julie Untener: Yes, I’m sure.

[00:04:00] Adam Walker: Okay. All right. So I want let’s talk about the progression of events. I know that’s how you got the diagnosis. You mentioned the two cancers, which is just significant. But I also understand from your story that the progression happened really quickly. So can you walk us through like how fast that happened and how you just managed just life and emotion during that time?

[00:04:22] Julie Untener: Sure. So, yeah, so the, you know, I felt the lump in January you get sent to now that’s kind of odd because I… it was through a self-exam and I encourage everyone to do self-exams.

But if you have the ability to schedule it, don’t do it on a Saturday because the only thing you can do is worry about it till Monday and keep checking and back and forth. And so yeah. So it was a long weekend. Checking. Monday, getting in with an ob gyn and then getting, you know, confirming it’s a lump and you know, getting sent then for mammogram and then being sent to a breast surgeon and then determining to get a biopsy.

The biopsy was in February and throughout February then, and then scheduling for a double mastectomy in March. So that was very fast.

[00:05:25] Adam Walker: I mean, that’s shockingly fast. I mean, and how did you deal? I mean, how did you deal with all that in such a short amount of time?

[00:05:33] Julie Untener: Well, I had mentioned that y’all. I’ve, my sister, I’ve seen her go through it, although somewhat privately. And, but I saw the results and she was awesome. So I wasn’t, I didn’t have a huge, like, fear of death. But, I also said how much, when you find that lump and it hits you, you just keep checking and worry and whatever, and I know how much worry and stress is so bad for you. And so when my doctor the breast surgeon, she was absolutely amazing. I was… couldn’t have had a better doctor. She was so patient with me cause I had so many questions and she really took her time to explain things with me. And she was talking about lumpectomy and all I could just think back to is that weekend where I worry, is it on the other side?

Has it spread? Do all this stuff and I. You know, why wouldn’t I just do a double mastectomy? There was a little bit more family history with aunts in addition to my sister and I just know worrying is so bad and I’ve seen the reconstruction and so we really had a very great talk and ended, and it was my decision to move forward with the double mast.

And then her decision was, well, since there is a bit of family history, let’s go ahead and start the genetic testing in parallel. And at that time, 20 years ago, genetic testing took a little bit of time to get scheduled and get results back. So the results didn’t come back till after my surgery maybe just a few days later.

And it came back that I was positive for the breast cancer gene BRCA-2. And so they said great decision in choosing the double mastectomy. Otherwise we’d be rescheduling you to come back in and have a double mastectomy because that gene testing.

[00:07:27] Adam Walker: Wow. I mean, how fortunate is that? And it makes sense, right? That like the way you described it, like, I can follow your line of thinking and that’s really helpful.

[00:07:37] Julie Untener: But to have a doctor that listened to me appreciated where I was coming from and spent the time with me, it could not have gone better.

[00:07:45] Adam Walker: That’s fantastic. That’s so encouraging to hear. So, alright, so you underwent six rounds of chemo. In the second round, you realize the importance of asking for help. And this is something I like to talk about on the show because everybody wants to help and most people are terrible at knowing how to help. And so can you just walk us through like how can friends, family, colleagues, how can they be helpful when their loved one is undergoing chemo or any other kind of experience like that?

[00:08:15] Julie Untener: Sure. So, Adam, let me start by saying that certainly everyone’s experience is different. I think a lot of us think chemo is chemo and it’s the same drugs, the same prescriptions, and it’s not, there’s different drugs for different scenarios and so each drug is different. Each patient is different in terms of what they want and need.

But I can only speak from my experience that surgery was difficult and painful. And to be honest, after, especially after getting genetic testing, I wanted to be able to tell my sisters, you know, take action so that, you know, maybe you can proactively have the surgery and not, but that surgery I just woke up in tears, but I was like, I can’t imagine telling my sisters to go through the surgery.

It’s so painful. But then I went through chemo and that was, Indescribable. And at that point I was like, oh, have the surgery. He, if I can save you from chemo, that is, is worth doing. Chemo was, like I said, just beyond description. I had every side effect possible. I had nausea so bad. If anybody just mentioned food or if on the TV a commercial came on with food, I immediately get sick.

I had mouth sores so bad that I couldn’t talk. My white blood count my white blood cell count dropped to zero, which means I had no immune system and had to be hospitalized and away from germs for a period of time. And then eventually it e it even triggered early menopause in me, which meant I would never give birth 10 children.

So it, it took a lot away. So chemo was tough. Now that said, my family friends were amazing. I can’t believe all the creative ways they came up with to, you know, just bring smiles to my face. The chemo appointments were tough. I would cry. My entire way driving to those appointments. But once I got there, I realized I was the luckiest person there.

My sister drove me to the appointments. She almost always had a gift for me. Usually it was like maybe a pair of earrings, cuz she’s like, Hey, when you lose your hair, your all your hair and eyelashes, earrings start to matter a little bit more. . And there were people there with just financial challenges on top of going through the you know, medical challenges.

And so I w I was truly fortunate but it is still tough. So, but I did throughout this really learn how powerful a simple act of kindness and love is. Too often we, including myself, will offer or say, Let me know what I can do to help, or call me if you need anything and then don’t take action.

You know, we wait for the person going through a tough time to reach out. And the truth is that, while that’s nice, taking any small action, sending a card, send a bag of tea with a little teac a simple random phone call. It doesn’t matter what you did, even if I didn’t drink tea, that gift would brighten that moment just thinking that someone was thinking about me and took the time to do something.

Days during chemo can be so long, you just look at the clock count, the time of being miserable, and people say, what can I do? I’m like, make time go faster. And I know you can’t do that, but just those little actions from others. Huge difference. So don’t wait to think about the perfect thing to do. Those imperfect diff and actions are just as wonderful, if not more.

[00:12:11] Adam Walker: Yeah. You said something that that I think was really profound, which is just that it meant something to you to be thought about, to be considered. And I feel like, you know, a lot of times, like when someone’s going through something as traumatic as chemo, We kind of shy away cuz we just don’t, we get paralleled.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t wanna do the wrong thing. Yeah. And we, so we end up not doing anything sometimes and maybe we just need to let them know like, you’re on our mind, we do care, we’re here. And small acts, earrings, you know, can do that. That’s fantastic. That’s exactly so true.

That’s so, that’s really helpful. That’s really helpful. So, So then based on your experience, the experience of your family, can you talk a little bit about why you think it’s important for families to learn more about their genetic risk?

[00:13:00] Julie Untener: Yeah, so, So I remember a phrase I used to hear my older relatives that I used to find so odd.

They would be talking about someone that had maybe fallen on some hard times or some bad news and then they would say, and I don’t know if this will ring a bell with you. Like, well, at least they have their health. And I was like, I never understood that. And obviously after going through this, I totally understand it.

Yeah. And just realized I never have enough appreciation for health and took it for granted. I myself wasn’t the healthiest of individuals. I was naturally tall and thin, and so I appeared. From the, you know, from others that I was healthy, but I really didn’t exercise. I had a very poor diet.

It was way too heavy on fast foods and sugar treats. And then add to that some mismanaged stress, whether it’s relationships or work or whatever. But that’s not a good lifestyle. So it’s really important to focusing on managing and controlling what you can control. But there’s also these other factors that are beyond your control.

We have our own genetics and the environment we live in that are wholly outside our control. And so it’s important to understand that I’m so believe that knowledge is power. And with that knowledge we empower ourselves to make the best informed decisions, whether they’re proactively or reactively as much as possible.

And genetic testing is just adding another data point to our arsenal. Yeah. Important to understand our risks so that we can better prioritize the decisions we make in. Yeah,

[00:14:49] Adam Walker: I mean, and more data points. It just helps you make better decisions in all areas of life, right? So why not do it in this area as well?

So that’s such a great point. So, so you mentioned you know, focusing your mind, your body when it comes to kind of prevention and general health. You also mentioned like maybe you had a little too much stress. So I’m curious, like, what are some of your daily practices how do you prioritize exercise and diet and stress?

Re I mean, you have, I know you have a probably a stressful job. Like how do you manage.

[00:15:17] Julie Untener: Oh, I’m good. I’ll well, sometimes well, and sometimes not so well . So, I’ll admit inconsistent, but I’ll start with some simple ones for you. You know, you can kind of, well fun, be more mindful about when stress does come into your lives and.

And so simple, stop at that moment and just breathe. So when you’re stressed, you’re tired, just not yourself. All it takes is 10 seconds to do a few deep breaths of fresh air in and exhale out that bad negative energy. and it physically does change your posture, your stature, whatever. And 10 seconds can do that.

And if you can catch yourself in the moment and do it’s awesome. It’s little, but I do think it’s impactful. And then the other one, and I believe you practice this one, is I don’t think people laugh enough, . And I mean, truly laugh like out. Like out loud, the louder is better.

Where you can physically like feel it in your belly even. Yeah. With like those stomach muscles. . And I think you have to kind of. As we get older, we do it less, and so you may have to force yourself. It’ll feel awkward the first couple times, like maybe like watch TV alone in your bedroom in a comedy show or whatever, but force yourself to, to laugh out loud when nobody’s there.

But it’ll come more naturally. But I really believe laughing is. A great little mini cure for the body. Yeah. So two easy, simple ones. And then the last one I would say is really related diet. And I think too many people focus on eliminating what to starve themselves with either reducing foods in their diet.

But my doctor really worked at me on focusing on adding healthy foods and you know, whether it’s whole Foods, fruits, not vegetables. And she’s like, just work on getting, you know, 7, 8, 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And I’d be like, I can, and I get to like 1130 at night and I’ve only had like five.

And servings are pretty small, but yeah. But allow yourself the bit of junk food. But start, if you start introducing more healthy foods, it’ll start to change your p. And your taste and gradually get you in there. So it’s a positive change as opposed to restricting. And that worked for me.

[00:17:46] Adam Walker: I love that. Like I’ve n it, you know, it comes to mind too, that if you’re adding healthy foods to your diet, Then you’re satisfied, so you’re less hungry, so you’re also less likely to like go grab a bag of chips or

[00:18:00] Julie Untener: That’s the goal eventually. But yeah, let your mind the, yeah…

[00:18:05] Adam Walker: That is mind blowingly brilliant. , like, I love that. Wow. Okay. I don’t ne no one’s ever said that to me before I, that’s fantastic. That’s really great advice. I love the laughter. That’s such great advice. So, alright, so Julie, last question. It’s been 20 years since you did that first breast self exam. If you could pick one, what is the most important lesson you’ve learned from then until now?

[00:18:30] Julie Untener: Gosh I like to think I’ve learned a lot. So, lessons so picking one is tough.

[00:18:36] Adam Walker: Gimme a top three then I’ll give you a top three.

[00:18:39] Julie Untener: Yeah. Lemme, lemme figure that one a little bit. I don’t know if it’s my memory or I have so many, but but I’m gonna go with I tend to be a planner.

I was, you know, I was computer science background and project management at NCR and you know, whatever. And so I’m a planner. I love my list and that stuff. And so I think that, you know, having a plan in life is great and wonderful and I think everyone should have a plan. But more importantly life’s gonna throw those curve balls at you.

And so you need to learn how to adapt and respond when life hits you with those curve balls. And. Not just respond but know that more often than not, those plan Bs that, that you come up with for the moment when life hits you, there can be some wonderful gifts and surprises with those Plan Bs.

So I admit, Quietly that I am a much better person as a result of going through breast cancer. My friends would tell you I’m more compassionate. I’m more empathetic. I give better hugs than I used to . So it was, you know, I think I don’t know if it had to totally hit me as hard as it did to learn those lessons.

I think I could have learned ’em a little softer but I do believe I’m a much better person. There’s some wonderful gifts that came out of it. So it was certainly a tough journey with lots of battles. But I’m not only surviving I really am thriving life and I want others too, as well.

[00:20:29] Adam Walker: Well, this is a part of that journey. Sharing your story, inspir. All of us not just people that are dealing with breast cancer, but so many people. I really just appreciate you telling your story and sharing your wisdom and coming on the show today.

[00:20:44] Julie Untener: Well, thanks again for having me truly pleasurable, and what a, a great way to help celebrate my 20th year.

[00:20:56] Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit RealPink.com. For more on breast cancer, visit Komen.org. Make sure to check out at Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam, you can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog, AdamJWalker.com.