Debbie just happens to be the mother of our Creative Producer, Tori. But that’s not the only reason we think she’s incredible. Last summer Debbie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. As a cancer survivor, she was still surprised, still scared, but ready to fight again. Her story is part of what inspired us to release our limited edition Dusty Rose leggings and Paloma bra for the month of October, and donate 100% of the profits to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Get to know her for yourself.
Can you tell us your story from the beginning when you were first diagnosed? What was that moment and season in life like for you?
I went for my annual mammogram in late July 2016. As usual, I was called back for a follow-up ultrasound. I have extremely lumpy boobs (polycystic), and I have been getting mammograms since my mid-20’s. Normally, after my annual mammogram, I have to go back for an ultrasound to make sure the “spots” on the mammogram are just cysts. Rarely, am I “clear until next year” at the first annual visit. In fact, four years ago (2012) they found a lump the size of a ping pong ball in my right breast. Major scare! But after removal, it was found to be completely benign. When the call came this year, asking me to return for an ultrasound, I was completely unfazed.
The follow-up ultrasound showed a pretty good size lump in my left breast, so a needle biopsy was done on the spot. Again, I had gone through this same process just 4 years earlier, so I remained unfazed. I just assumed it was the match to the benign lump found in my right breast. The call came a few days later. On August 5, 2016 I was told I had breast cancer. Not just any breast cancer, a 9 out of 9, highly aggressive form of breast cancer.
This is not my first bout with cancer. In 1999, when I was 7 months pregnant with my third child, I was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. My response this time was exactly the same. I don’t want to die. What do I have to do to live?
Like my previous experience, I chose to go the aggressive route, I wanted the cancer cut out of my body ASAP. I had my right eye removed in 1999, and now I was going to have my left breast removed. Unlike with my eye, this time my left mastectomy was followed by 6 months of chemotherapy. And another 5-10 years of a hormone blocker for good measure.
Chemo sucks. Enough said.
It took 2 months after stopping chemotherapy for my hair, brows and lashes to start growing back. I have curls now, and gray hair...which are both a big surprise. I have colored my hair since my 30’s. Now, at nearly 54, I think I will stick with the gray.
My prognosis is very good. The whole cancer event has brought our family together. My kids, husband and friends have rallied to help...one daughter even left college for a year to take a job near me. Everything happens for a reason, and a lot of good has happened in and around my cancer diagnosis. I wouldn’t wish cancer of any kind on anyone, but it is not a death sentence. It is completely survivable. You know the saying: What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. It’s true.
After your mastectomy, how did your body image change?
It is very shocking to look in the mirror after a mastectomy. Scars and pain...and numbness. I mentally understood that I could be put back together like the Bionic Woman, but during the process of chemotherapy, you are stuck in the “no boob zone”. I used a pillow to balance out my chest when I went out in public. I simply wanted to avoid the stares, or second looks, I expected to get with only one boob.
As a mother of 6, how has your battle with breast cancer changed or affected your relationship with your children?
My kids really supported me through my treatment. They, along with my husband, took me to doctor appointments and chemotherapy. I think my kids are stronger now for it. They took charge of a scary situation, tackled it head on, and came out powerful. My hope is that if/when they are faced with a similar situation, either themselves or friends, that they will not let cancer defeat them.
What does being a breast cancer survivor mean to you? How would you like to be portrayed?
I actually forget that I am a “breast cancer survivor”. I have been a cancer survivor since 1999, so this latest bout with cancer has not changed my view of myself. I am simply a survivor.
When it comes to breast cancer awareness, what do you feel people are not talking about, but should be?
Breast cancer gets a great deal of publicity. Having an entire month devoted to the spread of information with regard to Breast Cancer is fabulous! BUT for some reason, there are women out there that still put off getting a mammogram. They completely avoid it. Don’t want to even consider a mammogram. To those women I would like to say: Please do not stick your head in the sand. My grandmother did that, and she died of liver cancer (that had spread from her breast). Consider it the same as going to the dentist for a teeth cleaning. We want white teeth more than we want a mammogram?! Book your mammogram the same month as your annual dental cleaning, and you may remember to DO IT. Just DO IT. If you catch it early enough it is completely survivable. Life is good.
Debbie Jenner Culp photographed by Christina Hicks in Seattle.
Every week this month we’ll be featuring a different woman’s story with breast cancer. And what can you do? Get a mammogram, talk to your friends, and listen to those who know. 100% of the profits from our Dusty Rose leggings and Paloma bra will go right to the Breast Cancer Research Fund while our supplies last. Thanks for being a part of Girlfriend Collective - it’s what we can do together that makes us better.