Lauren McFall Gardner: My Breast Cancer Journey

by Lauren McFall Gardner, 2004 Olympic Bronze Medalist

It’s been said that we have been given one body and we must take care of it. My body has always served me well. It brought me through a 16 year athletic career that culminated in a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. It navigated a Wall Street career for over a decade (Late nights, high stress!). Most importantly, my body brought my two sweet, healthy babies into this world. I suppose, on some level, that I believed that I didn’t need to do routine check ups or follow proverbial “doctor’s orders” because I could just listen to my body, eat well, exercise and I would continue benefitting from the healthy life I had been granted thus far. As it turns out, I was wrong. Fortunately for me I had a doctor who was insistent that I get a mammogram as soon as I was done nursing my daughter. That doctor’s persistence saved my life.

As family legend has it, I was six months old when I learned how to swim. With a love of swimming and a love of dance, I chose the sport of synchronized swimming (now called artistic swimming) at age nine when I enrolled in classes with the Santa Clara Aquamaids in Northern California. At age 11, I won my first national championship. At age 24, I served as team captain to the bronze medal-winning synchronized swimming team representing USA at the 2004 Olympic Games. After the Games, I transitioned to focusing on my studies and attended Columbia University for my undergraduate degree. While attending school, I noticed that a hard lump had developed in my left breast. I had been told I had dense breast tissue before, so I didn’t think much of it. But, erring on the side of caution, my pre-med roommate urged me to have the lump looked at by a professional. When I did finally seek medical evaluation, at age 27, I was diagnosed with DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ) which at the time was called 'pre-cancer'. This diagnosis meant the cancer had not broken through the cell wall. Since I was not a carrier of the BRCA genes, and I had no family history of breast cancer (at least to my knowledge….. I was adopted but in contact with my biological parents), my prognosis was to have a lumpectomy without any follow-up radiation and I was advised to get regular mammograms to stay on top of the area where the DCIS had been discovered. 

In hindsight, I now realize that there were symptoms of the breast cancer’s return but I dismissed the changes and attributed them to aging or the toll that breastfeeding can take on your body. At the insistence of my OBGYN, I went for a routine mammogram where I ultimately learned that at age 40 I had Stage 2/3 ER/HR+, HER2 negative breast cancer. 

I felt betrayed by my body. What gives? I ate right, I exercised, I had no family history of breast cancer. Why me? I was scared out of my mind that the disease would take me away from my children and my family. I didn’t know anyone who had been through this and disease in general felt totally foreign to me. I didn’t even know where to start. 

As I write this post I find myself on the other side of a double mastectomy and six months of intense chemotherapy. I lost all my hair and now rock the tell-tale post-chemo white crop of short hair. One of the most difficult things about the past year, besides of course the slow, ritual poisoning of my body and painful surgery, was that I couldn’t utilize my normal coping mechanism of working out or exercising to manage the immense stress of fighting breast cancer. I had to find other ways to deal with the overwhelming stress, anxiety, fatigue and pain that came with my long road to recovery.

I found comfort in the unique and passionate community of breast cancer previvors and survivors. Everyone’s stories are incredibly different but universally I was able to find endless amounts of compassion, inspiration and hope from the brave, beautiful women who were going through, or had been through, what I was tackling. 

I also leaned heavily on my artistic swimming community. Those who I revealed by diagnosis to included a few teammates, coaches, trainers, officials and fellow athletes and they rallied to support me with messages, meals, anecdotes, comfy pajamas and reminders that my Olympic training would inevitably support me in the marathon of fighting this disease. 

Ultimately, I believe that my cancer journey made me realize that so much of my life had been focused on achieving. As a result, I forgot how to just enjoy life. It may sound cliche, but when you are faced with the evidence that life could very easily be taken from you, you pay attention to what a gift and a joy it is to be alive and to be surrounded by people who love you, and to have the time to love them in return. 

For most of my life, Breast Cancer Awareness Month was a blip on the radar. I would wear pink, maybe run a 5k, and remember to do a self examination on my breast because I had correctly diagnosed a lump on my breast once before. But now, I realize that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is much more than just a month for discussion or sharing of stories. It is a month for action. When I was first diagnosed, I wanted to ignore everything about the daunting journey that was ahead of me. I planned to never speak about breast cancer or my story once I was in remission. But the journey has led me to feel differently now. 

My Olympic coach, Chris Carver, wrote a card to me after the Games and I keep it in my desk drawer. She wrote, “You invested your insight, concern, energy and sense of humor into the successful molding of a wonderful group of athletes. I know this will serve you in your future”. I read that note on the day I was diagnosed. I hoped she was right. I aim to utilize that same fearlessness, lighthearted nature and empathy for others in not only my own breast cancer journey, but in my mission to educate others. 

My hope is that my story reaches women who are like I was before my diagnosis - healthy, happy, active and blissfully unaware that this disease can reach more than those with the genetic markers or family history. My hope is that these women will listen to their bodies. I plead with all women to not ignore any lumps or pain or strange splotches and remember that mental toughness alone cannot prevent disease. For those who will be fortunate enough to live without a life-changing diagnosis, I hope my story reminds them to cherish their health and value every day. And maybe, just maybe, my story will help someone detect a lump or abnormality early and allow them to live a long and beautiful life.

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