This episode of “Real Pink” presents an intimate and powerful conversation with Lauren Velarde, whose life was deeply affected by breast cancer. Lauren, shares her compelling story, from the early diagnosis at the age of 26, following a BRCA gene test, to her courageous decision to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. The episode delves into the complexities of facing such a life-altering condition as a young mother, and the impact it had on her family life. Lauren’s journey is not just about her struggle with cancer, but also about the importance of genetic testing, being one’s own advocate in healthcare, and the vital support of loved ones. The episode also touches upon how her experience influenced her mother’s decision to undergo genetic testing, ultimately leading to early detection and treatment of her own breast cancer.
[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.
Hey, Real Pink listeners, today’s episode is going to be maybe a little bit unique in the sense that it’s very personal for me. Today I’m getting to interview Lauren Velarde. Lauren is married to one of my old roommates. She didn’t even know he was one of my old roommates until just a minute ago, but we lived together in college and I’ve always admired him.
We lost touch after college, but we’ve gotten back in touch and now I get the opportunity to interview her on Real Pink. Lauren, this is actually, I think the first time we’ve spoken. I feel like I know you from social media, but so nice to talk to you and welcome to the show.
[00:00:52] Lauren Velarde: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on.
[00:00:55] Adam Walker: Lauren, I’ve followed your journey peripherally, as many do through social media and I’ve gotten glimpses along the way of your breast cancer journey, but really if you asked me to describe it, I could not tell you any level of detail whatsoever.
So let’s start there. Walk us through what it’s like finding your breast cancer, the diagnosis, what was that experience like?
[00:01:21] Lauren Velarde: Yeah. Like any breast cancer journey, it’s complicated. So I have a family history of breast cancer. I’ve had, I have multiple aunts, who have had it and my two grandmothers passed away in 1979 from it. Ovarian cancer runs in my family as well. I’ve always known I’ve had that in my history and so it’s always been in the back of my mind. My husband, John and I, we were living in Chicago at the time and I was seeing this gynecologist and every time I went to see her, we talked about my family history.
And then one time she just asked me, “do you want to take this gene test?” It was the BRCA gene test. I was like, “I don’t know.” I hadn’t thought about it and the more I researched on it after that conversation, just the information that would come out from that, it could either be good or it could be really challenging.
And my mom was totally set against it. She said, “I would not want to know that.” I’m not, I don’t want to do that, but, I ended up doing it, because I said to myself, “I want to be the healthiest that I can be for my family.” I had an 18 month old daughter at the time. And I said, “I want to be around as long as possible. I’m going to go down this path and we’re going to see just how it goes.” So I had the gene test done. It comes back positive. It came back as the highest risk for developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. So because of that though, it allowed me to get screenings done.
So I was now in the running for- I was able to get MRIs once a year. And then I was able to have the CA125 blood test for my ovaries and get an ultrasound every six months. I thought this is good. We can keep on top of it, if anything develops, we’ll catch it early.
Literally the next month I go in for my first MRI and then I get the phone call saying that they found something and my doctor was just shocked. It was small, it was. I don’t even know the size of it, but it was in a weird position against the back of my chest wall. So it was hard to find; they wanted to do an ultrasound to follow up and try to biopsy it from that. But even with the ultrasound, they couldn’t get to it. So I ended up having to do the MRI guided biopsy, which was terrible, it was painful. But they were able to get the sample and then sure enough, two days later, it was positive. And I was 26 at the time. And I think my world just stopped. And I think even though I had- I didn’t always think that I would get breast cancer, but I knew there was always that possibility, but I just didn’t think that it would happen when I was 26.
[00:05:31] Adam Walker: Yeah, I mean that’s shockingly early. Wow. I’m curious about the decision to get the genetic testing.
You met, you said your mother was against it. You went for it. Like what- and I understand her thinking, I kind of lean towards her thinking, I don’t know that I want to know. But I think I should want to know, I guess that’s what I’m asking is, so what was it that motivated you to overcome that feeling of “I don’t want to know” and choose that?
[00:06:04] Lauren Velarde: Yeah. It was just, I just wanted to be around as long as possible. And I felt like it was my responsibility to take the best care of myself as I could. And I think going with that, you could uncover some uncomfortable information. But I felt like taking that test was the right thing to do.
And obviously it was, because I feel like it saved my life. If I hadn’t have had that done, my doctor said that it could have been years before I would have really felt something, because of where the tumor was. Who knows what things would’ve looked like then, my life could have looked completely different.
Yeah. So I’m just, I’m really grateful that I did that. And, just so you know, further on down the road, my mom ends up getting the gene test done too.
[00:07:11] Adam Walker: Oh wow. Okay. That’s good. Good for her.
[00:07:15] Lauren Velarde: That’s a spoiler. But you know what, I think it saved her life too because she began getting mammograms and MRIs, not all together, but every six months she would have one and then the other.
And then last year they found something in her. And so they were able to catch it early because they found something that wasn’t there six months ago. I don’t know. I’m just appreciative that she did it, because she’s still around.
[00:07:53] Adam Walker: She’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. And that’s why testing is so important, right?
So talk a little more about it, you’re 26, I think you said you had an 18 month old. What was it like? Going through treatment, you’re married, you’re navigating that; I know your husband is a business owner and he’s probably pretty busy doing that. So just walk me through that whole part of your life.
[00:08:20] Lauren Velarde: It was extremely stressful. Yeah, having an 18 month old, it was my job. I stayed at home with her, but then I also worked in our business. And I had made the decision that I wanted to have the bilateral mastectomy. I was given the option of doing that or the lumpectomy. I was just really scared that it was going to come back if I just had a lumpectomy within five years, and the risk was really high. So I didn’t want to put my family through that again if I didn’t have to. I had the bilateral mastectomy and my mom came and lived with us for a month, which was extremely stressful. We lived in a two bedroom condo and she slept on the pullout couch.
[00:09:26] Adam Walker: That’s a good mom right there.
[00:09:30] Lauren Velarde: She is really great. But, yeah, it was hard though, going through that. The recovery on that surgery was really tough. I couldn’t hold my daughter, I couldn’t hug her, and that was really hard on our relationship and she didn’t understand, of course why I couldn’t do anything with her. Yeah, it was tough. And so then I went through, I had expanders put in. So then, I slowly had those filled up and I didn’t need chemo or radiation after my surgery, which I was grateful for. But, then of course I needed another surgery to have my implants put in. So I did that and that was at the end of 2015. And I’m still here.
[00:10:45] Adam Walker: And you’re still here. That’s right. That’s right. And you’re still kicking. And what’s your, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your current health status?
[00:10:55] Lauren Velarde: So I am healthy. I go right now to see my oncologist once a year and I get an MRI once a year. At first, or for the first six years or so, seven years after 2015, I went every six months to see my oncologist and just did an MRI once a year. So now we’re up to once a year for everything. But back in 2021, I knew that I would have to have my ovaries removed, that’s part of the BRCA gene. It’s you’re at, I have a high risk of developing ovarian cancer and it runs in my family. So I was told, “you should have your ovaries removed once you’re done with kids.” Or when you reach 35.
[00:12:00] Adam Walker: Okay, it’s very specific. Got it.
[00:12:03] Lauren Velarde: I was like, all right. Back in 2021, we had three kids by then, we went on to have two more kids after my first and I’m grateful for that. And yeah, 2021 I knew I was done with kids and so we just decided to do that. So I had my ovaries removed, my tubes, everything, and that put me straight into menopause.
But yeah, life is different. Of course, it’s not normal. It’s not normal for me, I’m 35 now and to be having hot flashes and the mood swings that can come with that, I’m learning to navigate it still.
[00:13:02] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah, I can imagine. So, I’m gonna ask you a question that I could not normally ask someone I’m interviewing because I don’t know their spouse, but I do know yours.
John. I’ve known John, I think from about seventh grade through college. And when I think of him, I think of two things. I think of a very high energy and very high encouragement. So I’m curious what role those two things played in his support of you throughout this process. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that.
[00:13:46] Lauren Velarde: Honestly, I just, I don’t know how I was able to snag him. He is just, his support through everything was just phenomenal. He was by my side for everything and always my number one encourager. And, yeah, it was just, it was beautiful just to have him by my side walking through everything.
And I knew I wasn’t alone. And he’s gone through his own, journey with this, I think he tries to be like strong for me, but then I know behind the scenes, he’s also battled, not feeling sorry or depression, but just it’s tough on the caregivers, and just to see somebody who you love so much walking through something really hard, it’s just difficult. But, yeah, John, I wouldn’t have anybody else.
[00:15:09] Adam Walker: He is amazing. I would fully agree with you on that. And I wanted to follow up too, you mentioned a minute ago, that your mom testing, that they ended up finding something. Do you mind me asking what her status is right now or do you mind sharing that?
[00:15:24] Lauren Velarde: Yeah. Because it was found so early, she was able to go pretty much, she had pretty much the same thing as me. It was odd in a way to be talking with her through what’s going to happen.
[00:15:44] Adam Walker: You’re like mentoring her through what you went through, like almost taking that guide role with your own parent, right?
[00:15:51] Lauren Velarde: Yeah, it is. And it shouldn’t be that way. But yeah, I was with her, I went down for her biopsy. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. I went down for her biopsy and then that came back positive. And then she had the bilateral mastectomy, and then she had expanders and she had the implants put in November, this past November. So she’s on a good path right now.
I’m grateful for that. I am a little bit jealous because she was able to go home from the hospital with a nerve blocker, which lasted about three days, which I definitely didn’t get that. But yeah, she’s in good health now. And yeah, like I said, it was just, it was an odd feeling for me to be just on the other side of this, walking her through all the steps and I know what it feels like. I know all the emotions and it was just different.
[00:17:14] Adam Walker: Yeah, I bet it was. Lauren, I appreciate you joining me on the show today, just sharing your story. I’m very glad that you got the genetic testing done and that resulted in finding that early and so happy that worked out the way that it did.
And I just wonder, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with any of our listeners?
[00:17:36] Lauren Velarde: I think that I would just say, don’t be afraid to be your own advocate, because we all know our bodies ourselves better than anybody else. And so I think that if we take care of ourselves and we do what we need to do, even whenever it’s hard, going through those hard things, it’s okay. But, there’s people in your life that need you and they’re counting on you. And do what you need to do to be there.
[00:18:20] Adam Walker: That’s the best advice ever. Do what you need to do to be there. I’ll leave it at that. Lauren, I really appreciate you joining us on the show today.
[00:18:27] Lauren Velarde: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:18:33] Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Koman. For more episodes, visit realpink.komen.org. And for more on breast cancer, visit komen.org. Make sure to check out @SusanGKoman on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog, adamjwalker.com.