Midwesterners are known for their gift of gab. No topic is off limits, and clamming up about hardship makes no sense in a place where everyone is eager to help.
Heather Lagemann of Alton, Illinois began writing a blog when she received an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis eight months ago at the age of 32.
“I’m kind of an introvert, even though it doesn’t look like it,” Lagemann told Healthline. “The text messages, people dropping by my house, all the phone calls [after my diagnosis] … it was too much for me. I couldn’t give that of myself. So I thought I would put it in one place.”
Fifteen days after the mother of two little girls found out she had cancer, she was without her breasts. To this day, she feels like she’s constantly staring down death.
Her frank, humorous blog posts express raw but tender emotions. Lagemann’s honesty and levity made “Invasive Duct Tales” the winner of Healthline’s Best Blog Contest for 2014.
Telling It Like It Is
“Invasive Duct Tales” received 8,782 votes in the annual Healthline contest, which honors the best health blogs on the web. Second place went to "Ultimate Pulmonary Wellness," written by Dr. Noah Greenspan
Lagemann is not a professional writer; she’s a cardiovascular nurse by trade. Since having her two children, now ages 4 and 18 months, she has worked part time.
“I was an English major in college, but I mean, what are you going to do with that,” she joked.
That sort of endearing Midwestern plain talk permeates her blog entries. For instance, in "Flat and Fabulous," she relays a conversation she had with a spa worker while preparing for a provocative yet tasteful photo shoot to show off her new, breastless self:
“So do you think God was trying to tell you something with this cancer?” she asked while applying hot wax inside my butt crack.
Umm … WHAT is she doing? Did she just put wax in my butt crack? I thought this was just a bikini wax! What exactly is a bikini wax?? I think I’m in over my head.
“Yes, I definitely do. I think this was His way of redirecting my life.”
And in "In Memoriam of My Boobs" she offers a hilarious account of her cancer survivor’s party, attended by the very first person who “felt me up,” to use Heather’s words.
Getting Past ‘What If’ and Staying Positive
Lagemann told Healthline that her husband, Josh, is a wonderfully sweet guy. She describes some of their fights (and tender moments) in her blog. She admits that her cancer battle has been difficult for him. Fighting cancer can be emotionally and physically draining for both the patient and their spouse.
From the beginning, the shock of the diagnosis hit the Lagemann family like a ton of bricks. Heather noticed a lump while breastfeeding her second child. “Everyone was quick to say, ‘It’s probably from breast feeding.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not.’”
She went to the doctor and had the lump biopsied. “I waited for four days, and I was pretty sure it was going to be negative because of my age. But it wasn’t,” she said. “I had surgery 15 days later. It’s a really crazy thing to have cancer in your body and just let it be there.”
Her decision to immediately have a double-mastectomy is becoming more common for women with breast cancer. “It takes a lot of women a long time to decide that. I actually tried to have surgery [the day of the diagnosis]. I was like, ‘I didn’t eat this morning and you’re going to cut my boobs off,’” Lagemann said.
In California, double mastectomies have become a more popular option for patients with cancer in only one breast. In 1998, just 2 percent of those patients opted for a double mastectomy, but in 2011, about 12 percent did, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Some doctors worry that women are having invasive procedures unnecessarily.
Lagemann said she needed to have her breasts removed to help her get past the “what if” of cancer.
“There’s research out there that says [a double mastectomy] only helps a little, but really, I don’t care,” she told Healthline. “It’s for peace of mind. I don’t want the other one to go bad.”
Recurring fears of “what if” are common among cancer survivors nationwide.
A recent study of cancer patients showed that many have unmet needs, including therapy to cope with the uncertainty about the disease returning. The study was published earlier this month in the journal Cancer.
For many people, journaling or expressing themselves in some other way helps to get through the cancer battle. In Lagemann’s case, it helped her think about what was really going on as she updated family and friends on her blog.
“I didn't want to just throw a bunch of negativity around, so I started looking for the positive and what was funny in every situation,” she said. “It really changed how I experienced the whole event, and I was able to laugh through so much of what I thought I would never laugh through. To keep it real, though, there were plenty of tears.”
Being Honest with Her Daughter — and Herself
One of Lagemann’s most upsetting issues related to cancer treatment has been hair loss, and now slow regrowth. She’s had people look at her with pity.
She has a pair of prosthetic breasts, which she says she doesn’t always wear. “I call them chicken cutlets, and they do feel pretty real,” she told Healthline. “I did think [my breasts] were beautiful and I did miss them for sure. But I do have a pretty good sense of self.”
She recently got beyond the hair dilemma, too. Her daughter, Penny, picked out a hot pink wig that Heather agrees has been working swimmingly.
Lagemann said she’s been honest with Penny throughout the entire process, while also keeping it simple. “Through the process, she saw me cry and struggle and pray, which is important to let her know all of that is okay when faced with a challenge,” she said.
Lagemann said she also went to the local children’s library, where the librarians were extremely helpful in finding books to read to her daughter. “My two favorites were ‘Nowhere Hair’ by Sue Glader and ‘The Goodbye Cancer Garden’ by Janna Matthies and Kristi Valiant,” Lagemann said. “Those books and others slid right into our reading routines and helped my daughter understand what was going to happen.”
And when it came down to just getting through one more day?
“In order to make it through surgery, chemo, and all of the emotional junk, I had to just let everything around me crumble and focus on getting through the day,” Lagemann told Healthline. “I rarely wore anything but pajama pants, and my husband had to take on so much more than before. But I just made a decision to not let any of that bother me or bring me down.”