When Memphis mom Nicole Savage, 44, was 36 years old, she went to see her primary care provider for a routine checkup. Her PCP recommended a baseline mammogram, another term for a patient’s first screening mammogram.
For patients with no family history of breast cancer and no symptoms, many doctors recommend an initial screening at age 40, so this recommendation struck Nicole as slightly unusual. She almost didn’t go to the appointment but ended up getting that baseline mammogram a few weeks later.
A week and a half after her appointment, the doctor called and said she needed a complete diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Something was not right.
The news came back the day after Christmas 2014 – Nicole had stage zero grade 3 DCIS breast cancer, with multiple tumors on both sides of her chest.
“I was so shocked by the news, and it really didn’t seem real for a while,” Nicole explains. “It was very hard to process mentally.”
Luckily, because the cancer was caught early, Nicole had a couple of different treatment options, working with her team at West Clinic to determine the right plan. In early 2015, she underwent a double mastectomy, which means she had both breasts removed, to avoid chemotherapy and radiation altogether.
“I had a really hard time after the surgery and had such survivor’s guilt,” she recalls. “I felt very lucky we caught it early and that I didn’t have to get chemo, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty about it.”
Despite the physical and emotional toll the surgery had, Nicole is on the up and up today. Four reconstructive surgeries later and two years post-discharge from West Clinic, she is fully in remission from breast cancer. And she’s making her health and wellness a priority now more than ever.
Before her breast cancer diagnosis, Nicole didn’t live the healthiest lifestyle and didn’t make it a point to stay active. She would occasionally get on the treadmill, but nothing ever really stuck. Post-surgery, she admits to using her operation as a crutch initially and making excuses not to get fit.
Something finally clicked for Nicole as she processed her unexpected diagnosis and subsequent surgery.
“The realization that I was so young to be diagnosed with something so scary finally hit me,” she says. “I knew I needed to change my mindset and focus on getting myself healthy so I would be around for my kids.”
And change her mindset she did. In 2015, she started going to Live Fit in Arlington with a group of friends to start getting into exercising. Now, she works out there four to five times a week, incorporating a diverse routine of weightlifting, cross-training, and cycling.
She’s even defied her expectations and gotten into running, joining a running group and completing two half marathons and multiple 10Ks.
In addition to getting physically fit, Nicole credits her active lifestyle with improving her mental health. As a result of her diagnosis, Nicole struggles with lingering health anxiety, and any minor sickness or ailment can be scary. Sticking to her wellness-focused routine has helped her cope with these fears.
“I made a decision to put my health first, and I’m grateful every day that I made that choice,” Nicole says.
By Lucy Modzelewski
Photo by Sam Sikes