[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.
If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, learning about your risk can empower you to make important breast care decisions to take charge of your health. Today’s guest has a strong history of breast cancer in her family but was still not prepared to find a lump at the young age of 32. Here today to share her breast cancer story, how she learned to self-advocate, and the importance of educating her daughter about her breast cancer risk is Courtney Parker. Courtney, welcome to the show!
[00:00:42] Courtney Parker: Thank you.
[00:00:43] Adam Walker: Well, I’m looking forward to chatting with you and really appreciate you joining us today. Let’s start off with your story, your diagnosis. Can you tell our listeners what was going on in your life and how you knew something was wrong and then what happened next?
[00:00:56] Courtney Parker: So it was 2017. I found a small lump when I was breastfeeding. I had been out of town and it was the first time that I had to like exclusively pump. So I thought maybe, oh, great, mastitis again. Don’t want to be on antibiotics again. Went into the doctor, they went ahead and did a mammogram and they said, just changes to breast tissue. You know, it’s not mastitis. Come back in two months.
[00:01:27] Adam Walker: Yep.
[00:01:29] Courtney Parker: Again, breastfeeding, the only time you’re all up in your boobs. Went back in two months. It grew to the size of a softball. This time they did the ultrasound. They did mammogram, and then they did a biopsy and came back positive for cancer. You know, the next three weeks were a blur. I ended up getting a diagnosis of breast cancer in the other breast, too. They found on a scan. The two ended up being separate types of cancer. One was HER-2 positive, one was triple negative. Just, it was, I felt like anything that could happen, happened. So yeah, that’s kind of like how I found out and what was going on.
[00:02:27] Adam Walker: That is wild. So, I mean, do you have a history of breast cancer in your family?
[00:02:33] Courtney Parker: I do.
[00:02:34] Adam Walker: Okay.
[00:02:34] Courtney Parker: My maternal grandmother, maternal aunt, maternal cousin, I think that’s how, I don’t know the correct term with that one.
[00:02:43] Adam Walker: Yeah.
[00:02:43] Courtney Parker: They all had breast cancer at 42, 32 and 32, but I thought, okay. So it like skips it looked like it skipped somebody like each time. So I was like, oh, it’s not going to be me. It’s going to be my cousin, if anything. But it wasn’t. Ended up having genetic testing. That was one of the appointments at the beginning of this journey. And I ended up being BRCA-1 positive. And kind of, by the aggressive nature of the cancer. I kind of figured that had, I had to have had the gene. So when my genetics counselor called me, she was like, you know, the only one we found was BRCA-1. I was like, okay, well then that’s good. She’s like, you’ve taken that the easiest I’ve ever heard someone. I was like, well, you know, I’m ready to move on. Like, yeah, let’s get this going.
[00:03:39] Adam Walker: Right. So, yeah. Wow. So, alright, so walk me through like, walk me through your emotional process. Like how did it feel when you know, you found out you had breast cancer, it had grown that much in two months. Like what are your emotions like during that process?
[00:03:59] Courtney Parker: Well, I was driving my daughter to daycare. She was 13 months old. I had to pull over into a neighborhood. I tried to call my husband, couldn’t get ahold of him because my doctor was on the line and said, can I call transfer someone in? She’s like, of course.
[00:04:14] Adam Walker: Yeah.
[00:04:16] Courtney Parker: I got ahold of my mom and she was on the phone when I, you know, got the news. I got my daughter to daycare because my mom was like, you can’t cry real. She’s like, you’ve gotta keep it together. Blair’s in the backseat. So, after that I headed to the gym at my high school cause I also coach gymnastics. I walked into the gym and I had texted my head coach. And told her, all I said was it’s cancer. She came out into the hall and just held me until my husband got there. I didn’t know if I was going to make it to see Blair turn two. Like, that’s what was going through my head. Like, am I going to see her? You know, at, are we going to get to Christmas? Like, what is this? Because I knew it had to have, because I felt it, I knew how big it was.
[00:05:12] Adam Walker: Right.
[00:05:12] Courtney Parker: Cause you could see the line too.
[00:05:14] Adam Walker: Yeah.
[00:05:15] Courtney Parker: Of the tumor. So, emotionally, I wasn’t present for the first probably week. I thought early on, oh, this is going to be, you know, lumpectomy. That’s how it goes. We’re moving on. And I didn’t understand that wasn’t the case with my diagnosis.
[00:05:38] Adam Walker: Right. Wow. So you mentioned earlier that you had one type of breast cancer in one breast in a completely different type of breast cancer in your other breast. Which I’ve talked to a lot of people, I’ve never heard that before. So kinda walk me through that. I mean, did that require different treatments? Was it more complicated? Like how did that affect everything?
[00:06:04] Courtney Parker: It was a little more complicated. I mean, my treatment, my doctor said, we’re giving you the platinum chemo.
[00:06:11] Adam Walker: That’s not the platinum you ever want, right? That’s not the platinum you’re looking for, right?
[00:06:17] Courtney Parker: Let’s look for a different, yeah. Yeah. So she’s like, we’re going to flip it. We’re not going to do AC first. We’re going to do carboplatin and Taxol first. And we were still waiting for the fish test on the HER-2 positive to come back. So, we were just treating it as triple negative right now. So I did that and a couple weeks into that, I got the official, HER-2 positive diagnosis. So we added Herceptin and Projeta in, and then when I had finished my initial, what I thought was my initial carboplatin and Taxil 12 rounds, my doctor was like, it’s shrinking. It’s responding to this, so we’re not going to do AC. And I was like, no “Red Devil.” Like.
[00:07:05] Adam Walker: Yeah.
[00:07:05] Courtney Parker: I had just heard, I had mentally prepared to do that.
[00:07:09] Adam Walker: Right.
[00:07:09] Courtney Parker: I didn’t have to. So it was, you know, that, but Carbo kicked my butt. So I was like, at least I know how that one felt. So the additional rounds were kind of more familiar with it.
[00:07:30] Adam Walker: Gotcha, gotcha. Okay.
[00:07:31] Courtney Parker: I had to skip a bunch of weeks because my counts were so low. I got down to zero neutrophils. And I had to go in for granite shots, like booster shots. I did like a whole week once, and then it still didn’t bump up. It was just like those days I would just break down in the chemo chair. Because I was like, I need to get this chemo so I can end on this date so I can have surgery here so I don’t have to miss a whole bunch of school. Like, I didn’t realize it wasn’t in my hands.
[00:08:06] Adam Walker: So you mentioned earlier too, you know, when you were originally given the diagnosis, you had your mom on the phone and I imagine she was supportive through this process. And I also understand that your mom was recently diagnosed as well. So what’s that been like to have the tables turned where, you know, you’re helping her through this process?
[00:08:25] Courtney Parker: It’s crazy. It’s crazy. We had always joked well since I got diagnosed on, so the last five years we had joked. You know, if she got breast cancer, it was just because she was old. And she told me of her diagnosis on the phone after I had dropped off my daughter at school. We talk every morning. And she told me, and it was like a flashback. It’s been weird because it ha it happened, you know, early December, so like holidays have, I felt like, have elongated the process. But I’m like, we’re almost two months in. Like why hasn’t, no, you know, what’s going on? And I had sent, I had called my surgeon when I found out my mom was diagnosed and she’s like, yeah, we’ll get on the calendar, we’ll bring her in. And when I went to that appointment with her, she’s like, Guys, this is not going to go as fast as Courtney’s. It’s stage one, hasn’t infiltrated any of the lymph nodes, so she’s like, you know, it’s going to go a little slower. And I was like, why? Like, why, like, let’s just move on.
[00:09:42] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:09:43] Courtney Parker: So she’ll actually have her double mastectomy February 7th and I’m nervous to sit in the waiting room because she’s done that. She’s been on that side. I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. But you know, there’s going to be other family members there, so it’ll be helpful.
[00:10:03] Adam Walker: Yeah I’m sure that you’ll be able to support her.
[00:10:05] Courtney Parker: Yeah.
[00:10:05] Adam Walker: And I think half of supporting is just being available, being there and I know you’re going to do that. There’s no doubt about that. So you mentioned earlier, too, I think you said, I want to make sure I got this. You said you had two other cousins diagnosed at 32, and you were also diagnosed at 32. Is that right? And then, I think you said an aunt and now your mom. So that’s a, is that, did I get it that right?
[00:10:26] Courtney Parker: So my grandmother was 42.
[00:10:28] Adam Walker: Okay.
[00:10:28] Courtney Parker: My aunt was 32. My mom’s cousin was 32.
[00:10:31] Adam Walker: Okay.
[00:10:31] Courtney Parker: And I was 32.
[00:10:32] Adam Walker: Okay. So, so considering that family history I’m just curious, like, what are you thinking, how are you thinking about educating your own daughter about her risk and the resources that a avail are available to her?
[00:10:45] Courtney Parker: So we were told she can’t get genetic testing until she’s 18 which dumbfounds us because like she needs to be able to get preventative scans, you know, early. I kind of say she’s not going to college or getting her college fund until she gets tested. It’s hard, like, I just can’t imagine because she was so young when I went through it. Like, I really can’t imagine having to have that conversation with her. Becuse she knows mommy was sick. She knows mommy had cancer.
[00:11:26] Adam Walker: Right.
[00:11:27] Courtney Parker: But she doesn’t remember any of it. So when I have to explain to her that, you know, there’s a possibility and you know, there, and there are great resources out there now and, you know, options to eliminate risk. But when you, if you have that gene, you can’t do much. So, you know, it’s hard to think about that. But it’s, you know, we’ll teach our self-examination and just kind of do what we can.
[00:12:04] Adam Walker: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think, you know, to your point, like being open about it, like that’s the starting point, right? And you can do that as she is at appropriate ages, and then she can have the testing done when she’s at the age where she’s able to do that as well. Right. So.
[00:12:16] Courtney Parker: Yeah.
[00:12:17] Adam Walker: But I think that’s, I mean, that’s where so many families struggle is just in, in having that open and honest dialogue and being, being real about it, you know? So, and you’re doing that right now, so you’re already way ahead. All right. So, so last question. I know this has been a pretty wild process to go through at such a young age, and especially as a new mom and kind of going through all those things, like what advice do you have for our listeners that, about how you’ve been able to get through this, either just daily tangible things that you do, or how are you able to keep your mental health kind of throughout this process?
[00:12:53] Courtney Parker: Definitely trust your body, which kind of makes it hard sometimes on the mental health, because especially on this backend of it now. I feel a bump or a lump or, you know, something’s not right. Discoloration in the skin and my mind automatically jumps to recurrence. And. But trusting your body and advocating for yourself I feel like some doctors are like, oh no, it’s fine. It’s like, no, like, let’s look at my history again. Understand where I’m coming from and let’s do something about this. So, you know, the self advocation is so important. And then also, finding someone you can talk to. I have an amazing therapist that I can kind of unload on because it does take a mental toll. It’s, you know, you face the possibility of death and if you try to. Bottle that in, like you’re causing more problems for yourself. So like really having someone to talk to and having that support system like my husband and my parents and my friends have been there. My students were there for me, like I fought and I worked all through treatment. I tried to get back early from my six weeks from my double mastectomy and then I ended up in the hospital for a totally different reason. But like I wanted to come back for my kids. I wanted to be back for my gymnasts. Like they, they kind of helped me to fight. And finding that core group is so important. And even afterwards, like I just, you know, on days that. I’m tired or I’m hurting, or, you know, second, like joint pain and all that. Like, I come to school and I’m like, they deserve the best for me because this is what they’ve done.
[00:15:05] Adam Walker: Yeah. So, yeah. I think they’re lucky to have a teacher like you. I really do. So, and I think, you know, to your point, like what you said, like having a community of people around you that can support you is so important. Like our, now our listeners of course, they can’t see your background, but in, in her background, everyone, she has a poster that says, think pink. That was written by one of her, created by one of her students. And I would imagine that’s pretty inspiring to have, you know, in your office and see on a daily basis.
[00:15:35] Courtney Parker: Yeah. And my kids for the last five years have made October doable. You know? It’s kind of cool because kids will come to me and tell me, oh yeah, you know, my mom is a breast cancer survivor and like sharing their stories. Because at the beginning of the year, like when I introduced, you know, I say I’m a breast cancer survivor, you know, worked all through treatment. And some of these kids are younger siblings of kids I had that year.
[00:16:07] Adam Walker: Yeah.
[00:16:08] Courtney Parker: What’s cool is that year my students, some of them I had for the third straight year. Because I started in middle school and I had them as seventh and eighth graders and then I had them as 11th graders. So I think that also helped me because like, I was like these are my babies. Like I saw them as middle school kids, I’m going to see them through and I joked that the class officers caught me on day after chemo when I was probably still drugged up a little bit to ask to be their class sponsor. So I did that with but you, I mean, again, like I wasn’t going to say no to these kids because I had seen so much of them growing up and it was just a special, special group. I would do it again. I’m not going to tell kids that, but I would do it again because of that. So.
[00:17:05] Adam Walker: Well, they’re lucky. They’re lucky to have you and we’re lucky to have you on the show just sharing your life with us. We really, Courtney, really appreciate you sharing your story with us today.
[00:17:13] Courtney Parker: Thank you so much for allowing me to.
[00:17:20] 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.