October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. As Rachael points out, we all know someone affected by breast cancer.
Rach's close friend and our show's extended family member, Gretta Monahan, took a moment away from her usual role as fashion and beauty expert to share her own, very personal breast cancer story. Gretta opens up about her journey — from diagnosis through the beginning stages of treatment — to help educate, raise awareness and inspire others affected by breast cancer.
"My name is Gretta Monahan, and I have breast cancer," she begins. "On April 30, I had my yearly mammogram. I went in as I always do and she took 3 or 4 pictures like she typically did." Gretta says that her doctor then asked for a few more images, followed by an ultrasound test.
"I always have to get that. It's routine for me, because I have dense breasts," Gretta explains. Unfortunately, this time, the ultrasound showed three lesions in the left breast. They checked the right breast, and it was clear, Gretta says.
The next day, Gretta came in for a needle biopsy. "They actually take the cells out of those sites. She sent it out to the lab as soon as we were done and I waited. I just wasn't sure what I was in for. I only knew one thing: I was scared," Gretta says.
The next morning, Gretta got a call from her doctor.
"She said, 'Gretta, I'm so sorry, but you have cancer. I want you to see a breast surgeon right away.'"
This wasn't the first time that Gretta experienced a scare. A little over five years ago, after a mammogram and ultrasound, the doctors found a suspicious area. "I went in and had that out and learned that I had a marker for increased risk of breast cancer. So my doctor said she could give me medication to reduce the risk. But if I took this medication, it would mean that I would not be able to have any more children," she shares.
At the time, Gretta and her husband Ricky had one son, Kai, and they knew that they wanted him to have a sibling. She says they'd "had a lot of trying and failing" and that even though she now knew about the increased risk for developing cancer, "at that moment, having another child was just as important."
"I didn't want to give up on that. And I made my choice to take the risk," Gretta says.
Gretta's next step was to see a breast surgeon. "I am feeling feeling frightened and scared and unsure. And I know the only way to solve those feelings is to become educated," Gretta says in a video from the surgeon's office. "So I will sit here as long as it takes so that I learn and understand clearly what's ahead of me.
The surgical recommendation at that point, Gretta recalls, was to have a unilateral mastectomy. This meant removing her left breast, but not the right. "I felt that after having two children, considering all the additional tests I would have to have every single year on my right side, it just felt — for me — that going in and taking charge of my health and going for the bilateral [mastectomy] was really where my heart was," Gretta says. So she got the surgery.
"It's a huge surgery," Gretta says. She explains that once the anesthesia wears off, you're so sore that you can't lift your arms. "Probably the most painful thing at all is to not hug your kids," Gretta says through tears. "That was hard. They're like, 'Sorry, you can't hug your kids.' It's unnatural."
Gretta's doctors then recommended 12 consecutive weeks of a chemotherapy drug, and a targeted therapy for a year. She also chose to do a cold cap treatment which helps prevent hair loss during chemotherapy.
"I have had five rounds of chemotherapy. I'm amazed that I am not more fatigued. I've been very, very lucky. I've had great doctors, great care," Gretta says. "I definitely have my days where I'm a little nauseous and I don't feel that great, but all in all, when I think about my kids and my husband, I now know why I'm there. Every time I sit down in the chair I know why I'm there. And I'm glad I'm there."
Like she shared, Gretta started out diagnosed with cancer in one breast, on the left side. She chose to get a bilateral mastectomy, having both breasts removed. "Post-surgery, the pathology revealed that I actually had breast cancer in both sides," she says. That was when her doctors recommended that in order to be fully protected from recurrence in the future, Gretta have chemotherapy.
Gretta sat down with Rach to speak about how she's doing now that she's in the midst of her treatment. They were joined by Dr. Mia Talmor, professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and attending surgeon at NY Presbyterian Hospital, who's working with Gretta on her reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy.
"I think the end point is really to bring you back to where you were before, if that's where you want to go, to a little bit better if that's where you want to go… people sort of have this impression that it's just a 'boob job,' and it truly couldn't be further from the truth. But it's a process and an investment in time," Dr. Talmor says of reconstructive surgery.
Gretta also invited Dr. David Sherr, professor at Boston University School of Public Health and Director at Find the Cause Cancer Foundation Consortium, to share his thoughts on the state of breast cancer research and technology.
"The technologies that are around now are just mind-blowing. It allows us to move the science forward at an incredible pace. In my field, what we do is try to identify what chemicals in the environment are causing these cancers in humans. I think we can do that," Dr. Sherr says.
The other piece of good news? We think Rach put it best. "In our lifetime, it has gone from a death sentence to a survivor story," she says. "Women don't just survive breast cancer. Women thrive after breast cancer."
And it is so important that thriving women like Gretta continue to share their stories, no matter how difficult, for others to hear. So thank you, Gretta. We love you! ?