Val’s Journey: A Plan—and Some Luck
“Once I had a plan, I stopped worrying. I thought that as long as I followed the plan, it would work out.” ~ Val Lane
Time files the edges, turning poignant, terrifying, and crisp recollections into memory’s soft touch. And that’s what happens when Val Lane—a 20-year breast cancer survivor—recalls her experience with triple negative breast cancer in 1999.
But, perhaps also, her diagnosis was not as distressing as it might have been if she were not still reeling from the deaths of both parents within a year and a half. Her recall of her parents’ cancers and deaths is almost more vivid than her own. Her father had liver cancer, caused by drugs he took for his heart transplant; her mother had stage 3 ovarian cancer—20 years after her radical mastectomy at 43. Every month for the past six months, Val had been flying from the Lehigh Valley to her Houston hometown to be with her parents for two weeks. She’d leave her two young teens, Adam and Mallory, in her husband’s care to tend to her parents. She was physically and mentally exhausted.
And one night, just 14 weeks after her normal mammogram, Val found a mass under her arm. Tests revealed breast cancer, which had spread to lymph nodes. She was 43—like her mother.
“I’ll never forget this,” she says, slightly tossing her shoulder-length black hair. Tiny silver earrings peeped through strands. “The doctor called at 5:30 on a Friday as Brad and I were getting ready to leave for our son’s high school football game. He told us, and he said he wouldn’t make us live with this information over the weekend. He’d meet us the next morning, Saturday. We went to the game, but were numb.”
Val had a mastectomy a week later; four malignant lymph nodes were also removed. She had stage 2.5 breast cancer. And then she began seven months of chemo and radiation, lost her hair, and bought a wig.
“Everyone knew I had cancer,” she continues, “but I didn’t want to be defined by it. I didn’t want to be ‘that woman with cancer.’ I was so much more. And there was nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about.” She shifts in the chair, her black Lycra tennis outfit clinging to her toned torso.
Because of the similarities to her mother’s experience, Val then had genetic testing. When the results showed she carried the BRCA gene, she underwent a prophylactic hysterectomy. And then she was done; she wouldn’t have breast reconstruction.
“Reconstructive surgery just wasn’t something I thought about. Neither my husband nor I wanted any more surgery. My mom had worn a prosthesis for years; in fact, my kids used to play with it. And my husband didn’t care if I were lopsided,” she giggles. “I was busy with my children, I was the director of Community Service and Civic Engagement at Muhlenberg College, I was on the Parkland School board, and I had just buried my parents. I’d had enough.” Val was fitted for a prosthesis.
She fingers a small silver pendant on a necklace. Her southern accent accentuates her words. “I gave one to my mom, my daughter, and my grandkids. It’s a tree of life,” she adds softly.
She looks into the distance for a moment. “The timing of my cancer was lucky. My kids were 13 and 16, young teens and self-involved like young teens are. When I told them I’d be fine, they just believed me, and went out with their friends and did their activities. It was easy to distract them. If they’d been little, I would have had the responsibility of caring for them. If they’d been in college, they would have known enough to be worried.”
She hesitates. It might not, after all, have been as easy on her kids as she thought at the time. “My son’s application essay to the United States Naval Academy focused on my cancer, and I read things I didn’t expect. And when my 13-year-old daughter was asked to speak in front of all the women running the Women’s 5K, she said, ‘There are so many ways I want to be like my mom and grandmother. But having cancer is not one of them.’”
Both kids have been tested, and neither has the gene. So, for the Lane family, the BRCA gene stopped with Val.
In 2006, after several years of wearing the prosthesis, Val determined to have reconstructive surgery. “It wasn’t just about vanity. After all, I’d been wearing a prosthesis for years. It was also pragmatic. I had a hard time finding bathing suits. And I was going through menopause—and this heavy prosthetic just made me hotter.”
Her doctor suggested that, because she carried the BRCA gene, she also have her other breast removed. She agreed—and underwent a TRAM flap, using abdominal muscle, fat, and skin to reconstruct both breasts.
She folds one leg over the other, her pristine white tennis sneakers in front of her. “Once I found my surgeon, oncologist, and radiologist, and they gave me a plan, I stopped worrying. I never went onto the internet. I thought that as long as I followed the plan, it would work out. It was in their hands.”
Brushing her hand along a sleeve of her black bomber jacket lying across the table, she muses, “I was probably going to get cancer anyway; after all, I had the BRCA gene. But after a year of caring for my parents, I was exhausted. My exhaustion might have hastened it.”
Yet, when she thinks back, Val thinks about her luck: “Cancer didn’t stop my life. But I recognize that I had advantages: I was 43, healthy, had great health insurance, a supportive husband, good girlfriends, kids with busy lives and no issues, and my own busy job. Even my side effects weren’t that devastating. I didn’t grieve for myself. Instead, I said to myself, ‘It’s not my kid, and therefore I can bear anything.’”
Val is part of the Cancer Support Community’s Ambassadors of Hope, a group of community members who advise and support the organization.