Previvor Turned Breast Cancer Survivor Shares Her Unexpected Journey
Angela Schmidt Fishbaugh talks about being diagnosed with breast cancer after a mastectomy, changing her from a previvor to survivor.
BY Brielle Urciuoli
PUBLISHED June 12, 2017
In 2009, Angela Schmidt Fishbaugh went for genetic testing and discovered that she had a mutation in the BRCA gene, making her at a higher risk for cancer. She soon decided to take matters into her own hands and underwent a preventative mastectomy and hysterectomy.
Later that year, hoping to inspire other cancer previvors — individuals who are survivors of a predisposition to cancer but who haven't had the disease — she published the book “Angela’s Decision: Outsmarting My Cancer Genes and Determining My Fate.”
“I really wanted women to know about the reconstruction process. I wanted them to know what it's like to be a previvor and not have cancer. I wanted them to feel what it feels like to lose five close relatives to cancer,” she said.
But in 2015, that all changed. Fishbaugh went from previvor to patient turned survivor when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In an interview with CURE at the 2017 FORCE annual conference where she was leading a presentation called “Revealing the Story Within,” Fishbaugh discussed her life before and after her diagnosis, and how she hopes to inspire women in every stage.
Tell me about your previvor journey and how you found that you were at high risk.
I was at a routine doctor’s appointment and a wonderful nurse took my history. And she said, "You know you can qualify for genetic testing." Now this was 2009, so it wasn't hot on the market yet. It wasn't Angelina Jolie, newsworthy information. I didn't know about genetic testing. So, I opted for it.
About five weeks later, I got the results back and they called me in. I knew the moment they sat down — the nurse and the doctor — because they looked at the floor. They said, "You tested positive for BRCA1."
Then they put me through a whirlwind of tests — CAT scans and breast MRIs. They couldn't believe that I didn't have cancer. I remember going to a big hospital. The doctor had five interns and I could hear him outside the door saying "We got a BRCA1 without cancer." It was interesting because most people back then would get tested after they had cancer. I didn't have cancer, so I had a preventative mastectomy and then eight weeks later I had a preventative hysterectomy. Then I wrote about it and went through the reconstruction process.
It was almost empowering. I started going whitewater rafting and on roller coasters. It was wonderful, to live, to have life.
You mentioned that six years later, you were diagnosed with cancer. What was it like to find that out?
I was like, "You've got to be kidding me."
Everybody would say, when I would tell them I had breast cancer, and they knew I was a previvor who had a preventative mastectomy, "How? How is that possible?" And they never could get every cell? I did everything from actually having everything removed. Some women go for nipple-sparing, where they keep part of their breasts, but I wanted the lowest percentage of ever getting cancer. But I still got it. I went through 16 chemotherapy treatments and 33 radiations.
Do you think you'll write another book about life after the diagnosis?
I'm already doing it. Unfortunately, the first chapter has seven f-bombs in it. That's just the first chapter, but it gets better and more inspiring throughout!
Tell me about the process of writing and how that's empowering to you.
I'm just in the process of writing my survivor story. However, now I'm asked to present a lot and I can't write a book fast enough to get it out there, so I put together a video on YouTube called "My Cancer Journey." I put it out there visually to take people from where I was at, being diagnosed, telling my family and friends, not going to work, having surgeries, and then chemo after chemo after chemo and radiation.
Writing helps me discover more. You think you know everything, but when I'm writing, I learn new things about myself. There's a lot of ways to reveal your story from within.
What do you hope other people find on their journeys?
I'm a teacher by day and writer by night. I also have a therapy certification, so I do this technique called dramatic sharing. And there will be an opportunity for people to spontaneously answer questions. They are questions about sharing from within. I think the more that we self-discover who we are deeply inside, the more help we can be in the world because you get more in tune with the gifts that you have. My whole goal is to get other people in tune with their gifts.