Heather Caro finds it amusing, she said, when people tell her she's brave.
"I have breakdowns at inappropriate times. I'm not brave," she said with a laugh on Wednesday, as she sat with her husband Chris in their Coeur d'Alene home.
Except for one moment, she said. Going to the doctor's office.
"The hardest part was making that first doctor's appointment," Heather said. "If there was any bravery, it was there."
Quickly followed by devastation. The past three months, a blip of summer, has upended Heather's life in virtually every aspect after she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.
Following her diagnosis in May, Heather was put into surgery in June for a bilateral mastectomy, her treatment accelerated because of the nature of the cancer and the additional risks of her age. Cancerous lymph nodes were also removed.
The 32-year-old had barely regained consciousness when she had to go back under the knife the same night. Complications required removing the temporary spacers that would have allowed for breast reconstruction.
"One of the biggest lessons I've learned is that cancer can take away the illusion of feeling safe," said Heather, pixie like in her slender 5-foot-2 frame, with wide eyes and a flowered kerchief around her scalp after her first chemo treatment last week. "Your immortality is not an option anymore. You're faced with your mortality. It's something you never get back."
But while the treatment is wiping her out physically, interrupting time with her husband and their two children, ages 6 and 10, Heather is unassailingly upbeat, trying to glean what she can from the catharsis.
She is acting as a spokesperson for the upcoming Chicks N Chaps cancer fundraiser at the North Idaho Fair. And relying on her background as a nurse and freelance writer, she keeps up a blog tracking her progress, as much a learning tool for others as a therapy for herself.
"My comfort level is still in being a nurse and teaching and trying to help," Heather said, adding that readers have responded from around the world. "That's been one of my coping mechanisms."
She holds to the belief that this will be one strikingly "crummy year," after which she will embrace living again. She and Chris have kept the same perspective throughout, she said: That she is a cancer survivor, not a cancer victim.
"I am surviving it. I'm here. And that's important," Heather said.
Though not easy.
The Caros had just moved from Yakima Valley, Wash., to Coeur d'Alene in January, with Heather taking a nursing job at Kootenai Medical Center.
In February, she found a marble-sized nodule on her right armpit.
Immediately, she could do nothing.
"We had a three-month waiting period for insurance," she said, adding she hoped for safety because there was little family history. "Even though I knew the risk factors, I couldn't risk pre-existing conditions with an insurance company."
She was in the doctor's office the day after she gained insurance, and the family's fears were verified.
Hearing the words suddenly made it real, her husband said.
"We had kept telling each other, 'it's probably just something weird,'" Chris said. "I mean, we knew."
Life has since been an onslaught of doctors appointments and physical inspections. Two MRIs, ultrasounds, biopsies for both breasts.
"If you only knew all the labs," Heather said. "So much had to come together to go to the surgery stage, let alone me standing here right now. It's amazing."
With stage 1B cancer, she knows her odds could be worse.
The experience is all the more surreal after being a nurse for seven years, she said, some of that spent in oncology.
On the one hand, Heather is being treated by her friends and coworkers. On the other, she said, she almost knows too much.
"I've taken care of people during a bad chemo reaction," she said. "It's different being on the other side. I know which I prefer. I'd take any day in ICU over being a patient."
Fellow ICU nurse Traci Rounseville-Chavez said it has been humbling for the hospital staff to follow Heather's fight.
"I can't even explain what she's done for the morale at work," Rounseville-Chavez said. "She gives us so much hope and inspiration, and you can only dream if this happened to you that you would tackle it the way she's tackling it."
Just recovering from the surgeries was exhausting, Heather confessed.
She is now facing 18 weeks of chemotherapy, in which her immune system will cycle through being obliterated and rebuilt, followed by several weeks of radiation.
"Taking it really easy for the most part," Heather said of her treatment lifestyle. "I just do a little load of laundry, and I have to rest. Something as simple as a phone conversation, and I'll need to take a nap."
Her mastectomy won't help the current cancer, but it greatly reduces the chance of it recurring.
Heather decided against wigs, not wanting to pretend cancer isn't affecting her aesthetics.
After the terrifying complications the last go around, Heather said she won't pursue reconstruction, but likely get mastectomy tattoos and "let it be."
"I'm OK with being Skipper and not Barbie," she said.
Everyone Can Help
Ultimately what carries the family is outpouring support from the community, Heather said, to a degree they never expected.
Friends constantly check in, Rounseville-Chavez is bringing prepared meals. KMC has endeavored to keep Heather on staff, and her coworkers threw her a "bon voyage to the ta tas" party before her mastectomy, nipple cake included.
"Gilda Radner once said if it wasn't for the downside of cancer, everyone would be signing up for it," Heather said. "So many positive things have come out of this experience, and for that, I can't help but be grateful."
Women who want to help others in Heather's shoes can pitch in at the Chicks N Chaps women's fundraiser at 2 p.m. on Aug. 24 at the North Idaho Fair. Women will receive rodeo lessons for $65, as well as dinner and preferred seating for the rodeo. Proceeds will benefit the Kootenai Health Foundation Cancer Patient Support Program, and the North Idaho Fair Foundation.
For tickets go to northidahofair.com, or call 691-2197.
"It benefits people right here in our own community," said Rounseville-Chavez, adding that that's why Heather was chosen as a spokesperson. "Heather is a perfect example of that."
Folks can read Heather's blog at: email@example.com.
Friends are also holding a benefit for Heather on Sept. 7. For more information, call Rounseville-Chavez at 755-6365.
Heather and her husband emphasized a gem of advice.
If something seems wrong, get it checked out.
"It doesn't have to be a death sentence," Chris said. "You don't have to be that tragic story."
Warning signs of breast cancer
• According to the Susan G. Komen website, the most common symptoms of breast cancer are changes in the look or feel of a breast or underarm, like a knot, swelling, rash, discharge or pain.
For more information: ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/WarningSigns.html