As someone who battled against Hodgkin's lymphoma when I was in my 20s, I can relate to Becky Hall, a young breast cancer patient at Stanford. I recently spoke with Hall about her cancer experiences and her short film, bare, which portrays the night her friends shaved her head before starting chemotherapy.
When were you diagnosed with cancer?
I was a 25-year-old graduate student in a veterinary program at UC Davis. I wanted to work with horses. I was a Stanford graduate and was all about school. Then I went for a run one Saturday and laid down on my chest to stretch -- a stretch that I've done every day for years -- and it felt like I was laying on a golf ball. The nurse at the health center said I was too young for breast cancer and didn't have a family history so I didn't need to worry, but she sent me to get a mammogram just to be 100 percent sure. I completely panicked, because that's what I do. The mammogram showed lumps in my breast and lymph nodes, so they biopsied right then and everything spiraled. A week after I found the lump, I was a stage 3 breast cancer patient.
I couldn't do such a demanding academic program. So I dropped out of school and moved back in with my parents in Santa Cruz -- really losing all my independence, privacy and social interactions for a year as I went through chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and biotherapies. I went into remission for about two years and then I found out my cancer had metastasized three weeks after my wedding. So I'm now a terminal, stage 4 patient. Since August 2014, I've been in continual treatment to keep up with and out smart my cancer.
What was that like?
Having cancer is always going to be traumatic and challenging, but there are additional challenges when you're young. My 25-year-old friends were busy going out drinking, so we couldn't relate to each other's interests any more. And they didn't have enough life experience and skills to cope with being a friend to someone with a major illness. So many of my friends just disappeared, because they didn't know how to handle it. It was very isolating.
There was also the whole element of being single, because dating was terrifying after I'd been through breast cancer. I had a reconstructed breast. I had scars all over my body. I knew there was a chance that it was going to metastasize. And I had to explain all of this to someone.
And finally there was the fertility issue. I had cancer and suddenly they ripped away this huge element of my life that I'd always envisioned for myself. When I was stage 3, I was hopeful and a little delusional, thinking that I'd still be able to have kids after chemo. When I was diagnosed stage 4, I was married to an amazing teacher who loves kids. On our honeymoon, we'd talked about how many kids we wanted and even about names. And then we got home and were told we could not have kids. And it just destroyed me. I would never be able to carry a child. Adoption is exceedingly difficult for someone with stage 4 disease, and surrogacy is pretty cost prohibitive. It's just a whole other layer of heartbreak that cancer throws at a young woman.
What motivated you to capture the experience of shaving your head in a short film?
The idea of watching my hair fall out slowly was absolutely terrifying. And I was facing so many changes physically that I had no control over, but I could control when and how I lost my hair. It turned out shaving my head before chemo really helped me process some of my emotions and biggest fears -- potentially dying, being unattractive, and losing a big part of my identity.
I wanted other women to feel what I felt when I looked in the mirror after shaving my head -- fierce, empowered and like I could take on anything. I also wanted to help people feel less alone. In mainstream media, so many of the stories told about cancer are very rosy and falsely upbeat. I wanted to show a more honest slice of what it's like -- that you can be in the darkness, but you can emerge from it if friends are willing to just sit in the darkness with you. I also wanted to shed some light on metastatic disease and the disparities in research between early stage and late stage breast cancer.
Before the project, I felt like all I did was go to doctor appointments. The film reminded me that I'm still capable of creating and contributing. I co-wrote the script with my childhood friend Kerith Lemon and helped with the project while recovering from brain surgery and brain radiation -- I'm really proud of that.
Do you have any advice on living with cancer?
When living with cancer, you're constantly dealing with treatments and side effects. Everything is always up and down -- one scan is good and the next is bad. It's really, really draining. In an effort to help, people often encourage you to stay positive and upbeat. But my advice is to feel whatever you feel: sad, angry, scared or whatever.
It's also important to find other metastatic cancer patients who understand on a deep level what you're going through because they are going through it too. Find people to reach out to on those dark days, who can help you process and get through it when you're ready.
What are you doing now?
I'm living in Santa Cruz with my husband and dog. In addition to being a full-time cancer patient, I'm writing and getting involved in metastatic advocacy. My advocacy work started a couple of months ago after I participated in a panel during a screening of the film. I really enjoyed public speaking and talking about the needs of metastatic patients to a room full of people that can actually effect change. It felt like I found my purpose beyond just surviving cancer. And I give credit for this to the film.
Previously: Why don't more breast cancer patients receive genetic testing or genetic counseling?, A cure is not enough for young cancer survivors and A cancer survivor discusses the importance of considering fertility preservation prior to treatment
Photo by Kerith Lemon Productions of writer Becky Hall, left, and director Kerith