Mill Creek Magazine: Cancer from the Eyes of its Survivors

Originally Published October 2021 in Mill Creek Magazine.

Cover Story written by Barbara Pearson

Photos by Kathleen Williams.

3 Mill Creek Women Share Their Breast Cancer Experiences

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) is an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities every October to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cure. Founded in October 1985, the aim of the NBCAM from the start has been to promote mammography as the most effective weapon in the fight against breast cancer.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation estimated that in 2020, 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer would be diagnosed in women in the United States, as well as 48,530 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. Luckily, 64% of breast cancer cases are diagnosed at a localized stage (there is no sign that the cancer has spread outside of the breast), for which the five-year survival rate is 99%. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer amongst American women, after skin cancers, and 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.

Elle Marie Hair Studio Offers its Support

Soon after Colleen Buck’s career in corporate America ended, Lorry, her hairstylist daughter, asked if she wanted to open a hair salon together – and Colleen agreed! “I wanted to create a salon where I could work with like-minded women in a career path where we would make a lucrative living doing what we love: connecting with others and creating beautiful hair,” says Lorry. “It would be a salon where hairstylists, new and seasoned, could make and conquer career and life goals while finding the work/life balance they sought.”

Colleen’s reason for wanting to join her daughter in opening Elle Marie was quite simple – to create a legacy for her family. As Lorry explains, “We are family – and the Elle Marie Hair Studio and all our team are our family, too.” Together, Colleen and Lorry opened their first Elle Marie Hair Studio in August 2006 in Mill Creek – and there are now three additional salon locations (Alderwood/Lynnwood, Midtown Snohomish, and Downtown Woodinville) all specializing in on-trend color, haircuts, Balayage, and hair extensions.

“We’re a family-founded and employee-centered salon company,” says Lorry Green, Owner of Elle Marie Hair Studio, “and our focus and passion will always be to care for, nurture, and motivate our team, our guests, our community, and our industry.” They have created career opportunities for over 160 hairstylists, and 99.9% of them are women! The past year has brought on some changes between Colleen and Lorry’s partnership. Lorry is buying her mom out as Colleen will refocus her energies on her passion, Life Coaching. Lorry confirms, “While mom is handing over the reins, she trusts me and our people. She set me up for success, and I have no intention of letting her or our salon family down!”

“We feel a responsibility to give back to our community by being supportive, involved, and charitable, and having a presence in our local organizations,” Lorry says, “and through our Committee for Actionable Change we are entering our 15th year in our commitment to fundraise for those affected by breast cancer.”

Through October 31st, for a minimum $10 donation, guests can visit any of Elle Marie’s four locations to receive a pink hair or feather extension as part of the ‘Care with Pink Hair’ breast cancer research fundraiser. Staff and guests proudly display their support for breast cancer research by wearing their pink hair extensions all month long. Elle Marie Hair Studio is proud to have raised over $27,000 to date towards this important cause. Thank you to Lorry, and the whole team at Elle Marie Hair Studio for pampering our featured breast cancer survivors below.

Mill Creek Magazine interviewed three local breast cancer survivors, who thoughtfully shared their insights in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Gisela Higgins explains that she feels she has a ‘Master’s Degree’ in breast cancer, unfortunately, as she has extensive knowledge of treatments, outcomes, and recurrence risks. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of breast cancer – Triple Negative. She was treated at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a cancer treatment and research center in Seattle, and at 44 years old, was the youngest patient being treated there at the time.

“My advice to anyone affected by breast cancer – or any type of cancer – is to try not to focus every moment on cancer and your treatment, and to instead make sure to live in the moment and find whatever brings you joy. For me, I walked every day before my diagnosis and kept walking every day throughout my treatment, which was a great way to disconnect and clear my mind.”

Through Facebook, Gisela met women from all over the world who had also been diagnosed with Triple Negative breast cancer. “I soon realized that there was no place for Spanish-speakers to communicate,” she explains. Originally from Spain, Gisela launched a Facebook group of her own for Spanish speakers to share their experiences. “It makes me feel good to be able to help others going through a similar experience to mine – especially women in South America where treatment, support, and resources may not be as accessible as they are in the United States.”

“During my treatment, my husband and I realized how much love there is for us in our inner circle! This experience brought our already close family even closer, and my husband and I appreciate each other now more than ever. Between friends taking time to check in with our family and my mom and sister who came from Spain, it really helped me re-focus my attention on spending my time thinking positively and disconnecting from my situation.”

And as she concludes, “while Triple Negative breast cancer is one of the most aggressive, the team of doctors that my family and I chose planned the right treatment for my situation. It was extremely important for us all to be on the same page and fully committed to the treatment plan. I’m now enjoying being healthy, and continue to feel extremely fortunate that my outcome was not only positive but that I recently celebrated my five-year milestone cancer-free!”

Jennifer Desrochers explains, “I’m not just a survivor – I’m a thriver! My breast cancer diagnosis and treatment were a wake-up call for a much more thankful life: every day is a gift, and I aim to live grateful for the chance at another day.”

Now reaching age 36, Jennifer was just 33 with a new baby when she found a lump in her breast. She saw a nurse practitioner four days later who told her that it was nothing to worry about and that she did not need unnecessary imaging (insurance for mammograms does not typically cover anyone under 40). Jennifer kept saying, “But the lump is right here – you can feel it,” until the nurse practitioner begrudgingly put in the imaging order. “Waiting for test results was really hard,” Jennifer continues, “and one week later, I received the news that my diagnosis was Stage 2B Triple Negative breast cancer.” A lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation followed.

“I was so angry at the time, as I felt that my concerns had been brushed off,” Jennifer says, “but my take away now is that if your gut is telling you that something is wrong – you need to push back and look out for yourself, be your own advocate, get a second opinion, and have the test done.” Equally, if you are looking for more information, she advises reviewing the American Cancer Society or the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance websites, rather than Googling ‘breast cancer’.

“Cancer can be lonely and isolating because people often stop including you. It’s not because they are being unkind: many people just don’t know what to say so they shy away, or they don’t know how to treat you. You really find out who are ‘your people’. And I would say – please just take the time to reach out, shoot a text, ask how someone is feeling on any given day. I learned that because each day during treatment can be very different for the person and their body, so ask how they are today.”

Jennifer learned from breast cancer survivors she met during her treatment that marijuana is helpful for nausea and joint pain caused by chemotherapy. “I had never bought marijuana and had no idea where to purchase it,” Jennifer explains, “so my new survivor friends and I had a fun outing to a local marijuana store!”

“I see the world differently now,” Jennifer says, “and things that used to bother me don’t bother me anymore. I am just happy to be here and to see my children grow. I used to begrudge celebrating my birthday, but now another year of being able to exist on Earth when so many haven’t been able to stay with us is truly a special realization and celebration of life.”

And as she concludes, “Please reach out to me – my door is open and I want to help others who are going through their treatment. This is ‘the gift of cancer’: realizing your mortality, helping others, being kind, focusing on what and who matter most, raising awareness, and advocating for research.”

Kerry Sewell says, “I try to be positive and look back on any experience, good or bad, and learn and grow from it. I wanted to be positive for our daughter, Molly, who was five at the time: I did not want her to hear the word ‘cancer’ and be terrified of what might happen to me.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2017, Kerry highlights what tremendous support she received from friends and family. “I had chemotherapy every Friday for 12 weeks, and my dad put together a calendar for each Friday, with a theme!” she says. He also called all of Kerry’s close friends to see who would keep her company for each six to eight hours of chemotherapy. “Believe it or not, it actually became fun!” Kerry confirms.

Most people would expect chemotherapy to be frightening and uncomfortable – and Kerry’s first treatment was certainly scary as she did not know what to expect. “But subsequent treatments were fun – as I did not know who would be joining me or what their theme would be,” Kerry continues. “My friend Cathy and I had traveled to Hawaii together – so she brought a flower lei and Hawaiian-themed trinkets!” Her sister joined her for the Stars Wars theme – bringing a wig with Princess Leia’s iconic cinnamon bun hairstyle.

“I was treated at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, and the nurses there were so kind – they became such good friends. I’ve had so many surgeries in my life, not just my mastectomy and breast reconstruction, but surgery for a brain tumor, a back surgery, as well as accidents and broken bones, but I am in a good place now. I have learned to see the silver lining and live for today. I have gained so much – especially in how close I have become to my father and my friends.”

Kerry saved everything from her breast cancer experience – wigs, scarves, care packages – and created a ‘breast cancer box’. She recently pulled out a few scarves to give to a friend’s mother who is undergoing treatment. She mentions a wooden ‘Willow Tree Angel’ that her friend, Gisela, kept on her kitchen counter during her own treatment. Gisela passed her on to Kerry, who then passed her on to Jennifer. “The angel ‘speaks’ in her quiet way to encourage, heal, comfort, protect, and inspire,” Kerry says. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, here is Kerry’s advice: “Take some deep breaths, live day by day, and think about how you can make every day a good day.”