Breast Cancer Survival Guide, Part 3: Life, Interrupted
"I had just fallen in love..."
Natasha Toro, a kindergarten teacher in New York City, has known since she was little that getting married and having children were her biggest life goals. At 34 she had a job she loved and had just started dating Gilbert Chrisphonte, an old friend of her kid brother. Gilbert, now 36, an account executive at a medical staffing agency, already had three children by previous marriages. To Natasha he seemed like more of a party guy -- smart but not that deep. She didn't really see him as husband material but enjoyed his company enough to keep dating him.
Then, during Christmas break -- she'd been dating Gilbert for six months -- Natasha did her regular breast self-exam, just as she had faithfully done ever since she'd felt a hard mass in her left breast 10 years earlier. She'd had it checked then and the results were negative. Now she felt a lump again, even harder and bigger. She went for a mammogram and ultrasound as soon as possible, on January 4, 2005, then a core biopsy the next day. Two days later, when she called for biopsy results, she heard that cancer cells had been found.
All she remembers hearing is the word "cancer." First she was incredulous. "There's no way I'm sick. It doesn't happen in my family," she remembers thinking. Then she got sad -- she already knew from her previous breast cancer scare that treatments like chemotherapy could end her chances of having a baby. Friends stayed with her during the day. Later, Gilbert came over.
"Get dressed," he told her.
"Why?" she asked.
"We're going to go out," he said.
And that was the evening their relationship began to change. "Prior to this I only saw the fun side of him. But we never really talked about meaningful things."
Now they had a lot to talk about. The tumor was big enough that the doctors suggested chemo first in hopes of shrinking it before surgery. Natasha was surprised by how much Gilbert was able to help her sort out her feelings and handle her fears. Still, she tried to give him an out: "You didn't sign up for this," she told him. "It's okay to end it."
But he wouldn't. And when Natasha decided to have embryos frozen to give her a better chance to have kids in the future despite the cancer, it was Gilbert she asked to be the sperm donor. He agreed. "It was really horrible. I had to have a shot every day." Gilbert learned to give her the shot. "I felt like since we did all this together, he's here to stay," Natasha says.
"When I told him I was sad that I would miss the excitement of finding out I was pregnant, he even said, 'We get to plan it.'"
That spring, during her 16 weeks of chemotherapy, she continued to work, taking days off after the treatments. Her thick brown hair fell out. Her skin paled and her face became blotchy. She wore scarves and hats at school -- her wig was hot and uncomfortable. She thought she looked horrible.
Gilbert shaved his head in an act of solidarity. He even took pictures of their two bald heads. During the chemo they traveled with friends to the British Virgin Island of Tortola. "We did everything normal people do," Gilbert says.
After weighing different treatment options, Natasha had a double mastectomy in July 2005. She wanted to eliminate the chance of cancer spreading to her right breast. Doctors found she had had stage-2 invasive ductal carcinoma, cancer of the milk ducts that had spread to surrounding breast tissue. At the same time, she had breast reconstructive surgery. Two expanders were inserted to stretch the skin and muscle. Later, she got saline implants. Every day for six weeks that fall she left school to have radiation.
Three months after the treatments ended, in February 2006, Gilbert proposed. They were married in Montego Bay, Jamaica, that August, with just their immediate families and a few friends in attendance.
Natasha's hair has grown back now, wavy and beautiful. She continues to work. And plan. In July she stopped taking tamoxifen. Her body needs to be free of the drug in order for her to try to implant those embryos (she'll need three more years of tamoxifen afterward). She worries she is being selfish by wanting a child. "I don't know if I'm going to get sick again five years from now or two years from now," she says. When she tells that to Gilbert he says right back that she's not going to die and she's going to be fine. "And that," Natasha says, "is, honestly, the best thing to hear."