By: Deean Yeoh
As a former Emergency Department (ED) nurse and current breast cancer survivor, anthropologist and entrepreneur, Laura’s journey transcends the hearts of many who’ve endured segments of her lived experience. We sat down with Laura for an intimate conversation about her cancer experience, post-treatment sex & intimacy-life, and her newest educational endeavors to support newly diagnosed breast cancer patients in their treatment and breast-reconstructions.
The 2 Cs: COVID & Cancer
At the peak of the pandemic, the bells of New York City would toll and it felt like a celebration of humankind’s resilience. But as a nurse stationed in Oregon, Laura wasn’t receiving standing ovations and accolades. Instead, she was dealing with another lethality – cancer.
“My coworkers were protective of me because I had just come back from treatment,” Laura recalls, “but I would volunteer to work the COVID rooms anyway because I didn’t want them to be exposed either.” Although the camaraderie ran deep, Laura decided to leave the ED when complications arose from her reconstruction – a common phenomenon experienced by Survivors.
It’s hard to believe in karma when you hear about moments like this. How could an ED nurse, a saver of lives, be struck with a cancer diagnosis? And for it to occur during the circulation of a virus that preys on weakened immune systems? How is it fair? What do you say? What is there to say? Well, as it turns out, Laura’s friends must have been faced with the same questions, inadvertently turning her breast cancer into the “elephant in the room.”
“If your good friend in her 30s just had her boobs amputated and you were seeing her for the first time, wouldn’t you ask questions?” Laura mused. “It was hard for me to realize that not everybody wanted to hear or ask about my wellbeing.” As a self-professed over-sharer, it got Laura thinking about community and the impact that asking questions and receiving well-rounded answers can have on a newly diagnosed cancer patient.
Siri, Play Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye
While the medical field is undoubtedly crucial to our health and well-being, we must remain aware of its shortfalls. As we’ve previously covered here on L’AMOURZINE, racial health inequity and self-advocacy are examples of areas of potential improvement for the healthcare sector. “It’s no secret that healthcare workers are on a tight schedule and patient-education isn’t always great,” Laura says.” In fact, honestly it’s pretty bad out there. Being a patient was an awakening for me because I was so surprised at how much I had to advocate and speak up for myself.” So how does one find a source of truth when making difficult decisions about treatment, reconstructive surgery – and sex life – after cancer?
For Laura, thoughtfulness and community were key to her decision making as well as her mental and physical healing. She credits her “sources of truth” to the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) and a mentor her age whom she met through an organization called Pink Lemonade Project. Laura also recalls “the day that [people in the YSC] had a ‘show and tell’ and four women lifted up their shirts [to show off] their mastectomy scars.” Laura left the virtual meeting feeling happy and became convinced by the power of community strength that “[she] might be okay, too.”
In an additional stroke of luck, Laura was also fortunate enough to have crossed paths with her physician’s assistant, who specialized in sex after cancer. “[This assistant] asked me if I was mourning the loss of my nipples and if sex was difficult because of that.” Laura remembers tearing up, overjoyed and relieved at someone’s willingness to ask difficult questions surrounding her sexual healing.
As a “sexual person” who often experiences “an imbalance in relationship libido,” Laura has now switched from the domineering to the more docile side of the sexual spectrum because of the hormone blockers in her medications, Tamoxifen and Zoladex. “Now maybe I have a ‘regular’ libido… but my most recent partner complained about my disinterest in sex though. You just can’t win with these folks!” Laura said, laughing light-heartedly. Thankfully, one of the things that surprised Laura was the ease of dating after a mastectomy. “I was broken up with the day after my mastectomy and while I was healing in bed, I was pretty low. Once I was healed enough…I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t let that shitty experience have power over me. I signed up for an online dating site, and once I actually set up a dinner date, I was shocked at how easy it was.” Laura attributes her courage to the “I don’t give a fuck” outlook that cancer had given her. “I was able to be relaxed and just enjoy meeting new people.”
Whether you’re a cancer survivor or not, Laura’s biggest advice for those going through a tough time with changing libidos is just to “give yourself grace… you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault. Don’t ever let a partner make you feel bad or shame because you’re ‘not normal.’ And finally, if you can find a gynecologist [physician’s assistant] who specializes in sex after cancer, it’s worth having them in your corner.”
Life After Breast Cancer - Education for All
The Internet is a double-edged sword – with its access to world-class information comes, inevitably, a slew of inaccuracies and fallacies as well. Ultimately, Laura had to compartmentalize all the information she received (from the Internet and beyond) in order to properly process and determine the best course of action for her treatment, medication, and counseling. In an effort to help educate newly diagnosed patients and inspire them to “let go of fear and move forward in good company,” Laura is building The Empowered Mastectomy – “a website…that [hosts] an abundance of mastectomy images.” She’s hoping the website will “change the experience for breast cancer previvors, survivors, and thrivers.”
“Breasts are considered so aesthetic in most cultures, so of course we want to see what they may look like [after surgery]… Not all [reconstructions] are ideal, but…I think the website will truly inspire hope in patients,” Laura said.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. By nature of Laura’s work as an ED nurse and anthropologist of breast cancer survivors, she’s seen and heard a good deal of horrific stories. “When I worked in the ER, I had to learn to disassociate from a lot of heavy things. You have to move on to your next patient and be 100%.” Laura tries to spread that sentiment across her work as a mentor to breast cancer patients as well. “I always feel honored when people share things that are heavy or dark… I’ve got a positive attitude, but I try to keep it real at the same time. Sometimes I have to take a few days away from cancer stuff. It’s so rewarding, but I don’t want it to consume me.”
A few months ago, Laura took a step away from Instagram to be a caretaker for her sister who had fallen fate to the same diagnosis that changed Laura’s life last year. Her biggest advice for caring for a newly-diagnosed loved one is to ask them how they feel, rather than just assuming. “It’s really hard to relate when someone is facing their mortality, but let them know that you’re interested in hearing what they have to say – no matter how scary or uncomfortable.” All that being said, it’s not hard to see why Laura is a role model to so many newly diagnosed patients. Her care and consideration send cascading ripple effects through the breast cancer community – online and off.
When we asked what legacy Laura wanted to leave behind she said she’d like to remind people that, “deriving confidence from being a good person will persevere over any physical attribute.” Whether it’s through her decade long tenure as an ED or her new venture with The Empowered Mastectomy, Laura’s beloved song, Sexual Healing, will play in a melodic loop for years to come as she forges forward on her path of community healing and loving.
If you’d like to be involved in The Empowered Mastectomy, please send a direct message to Laura on her Instagram @empoweredmastectomy.