Aubrey Morguard would be the first one to admit that your wedding day is one of the happiest times in a girl’s life. This once beaming bride was beyond jubilant on her big day as she thought of herself as fortunate while forever counting her blessings. There was her beautiful toddler, her caring husband and a house, that although a fixer-upper, was a cozy cottage filled with love and plenty of potential.
But since that perfect summer in 2013, Aubrey learned how quickly life can change. She recalls returning from her honeymoon, unpacking her suitcase and taking care of her little girl, Paige, when she discovered an unpleasant surprise. While breastfeeding her daughter, she felt something inside her breast which she at first brushed off as a minor concern. Yet, upon further examination, the prominent lump reminded Aubrey of her mother’s battle with cancer many years ago and so after the initial moment of denial and knowing that breast cancer can be hereditary, she felt it was important to seek a doctor’s advice. Soon a mammogram was ordered, followed by a biopsy to determine the severity of her mysterious lump. When the results came back, her idyllic world of newlywed life was swept away and replaced with a battle against a deadly disease. Aubrey recalls,” I was a new mom. I was a new wife. We were newlyweds. This is supposed to be an exciting time in our life, not hearing that I had stage three breast cancer.”
Aubrey’s story of relentless courage and determination is featured on the PBS documentary series, Medical Stories. Aubrey invites viewers into her daily life to inspire them with her message that you always have to stay positive and fight for an optimistic future. We follow this young mother’s medical journey under the guidance of her physician, Dr. Shannon Puhalla, who sets a course towards wellness and a positive outcome from breast cancer. Faced with a tough treatment plan, Aubrey remained resolute. In fact on the day her cancer was confirmed she told the surgeon, “You know” she said, “You got to tell me what I need to do.” I have a two-year-old, so whatever I have to do to get rid of this and move on, that’s what I need to do.”
Not All Breast Cancers Are the Same. What is HER2 Positive Breast Cancer?
Aubrey’s breast cancer turned out to be HER2 Positive which makes up about 25 percent of all breast cancers worldwide. Her physician, Dr. Shannon Puhalla, who is a medical oncologist and hematologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center felt it imperative to immediately educate Aubrey about the particular type of breast cancer she was dealing with and put forth a treatment regime specifically designed for HER2 positive patients. ” I think it’s a really important point that patients know that not all breast cancer is the same,” says Dr. Puhalla.”It’s really not as simple as saying, ‘You have breast cancer.’ The question is, “What type of breast cancer do you have?”
Unlike Aubrey’s mother’s breast cancer, which was fueled by estrogen, HER2 is a protein that is actually charged by itself which can make it a very aggressive cancer. In an interview during the filming of the Medical Stories breast cancer documentary, Dr. Puhalla stated, “It used to be when we would see HER2-positive disease, you’d kind of sigh and think like, ‘Oh, I wonder how this is going to go.’ But with the advancement of targeted therapies, Dr. Puhalla assured Aubrey that people now often do very well on a treatment strategy designed for this subtype of cancer.” As Aubrey states in the documentary, although her tumor was significant in size and aggressive, “the good news is that aggressive cancers respond very well to treatment. So if there’s a plus, that would be it.”
Impact of Breast Cancer on Patient Emotionally and Physically
The Medical Stories documentary about breast cancer takes the audience through all of Aubrey’s medical treatments and procedures, which included surgery, chemotherapy, a mastectomy, radiation and a clinical trial. Throughout every stage of treatment and recovery, Aubrey fought to keep things going at home while maintaining a sense of routine for her daughter. Her goal was to remain strong through exercise so that she could still carry her growing toddler around and care for her as best she could. Keeping normalcy in the house was of utmost importance. “I didn’t want this to take over our lives. I wanted her to have our normal day-to-day routine.”
Inevitable fatigue, along with loss of appetite and strength, especially while undergoing chemotherapy, made being a mom while grappling with breast cancer quite challenging. Dr. Puhalla is sensitive to the many hats a mother wears, and how hard it is to muster the strength during treatment to sometimes perform even the simplest tasks. “I think moms are used to taking care of things for other people,” said Dr. Puhalla. “And not being able to do that to the extent that they want to,and even in some situations having to ask for help, I think is inherently difficult for moms. I think moms across the spectrum have difficulty.”
Aubrey found solace in family, friends and a trip to the gym to keep her energy going through even her darkest days of chemotherapy. The Medical Stories documentary shows Aubrey working hard at a cross fit class to help her keep her muscles strong and her outlook positive.
After Aubrey’s surgery she lost weight, leaving her weak. “I hated not being able to pick up my daughter,” recalls Aubrey. After seeing an ad on Facebook called the New You challenge, Aubrey headed down to the local gym and started an intense Cross-fit regime. Lifting weights not only lifted her spirits but helped get her body back to her original shape before the cancer. She calls it her therapy.
“I can still carry Paige and she’s now probably 75 pounds,” said Aubrey. “So I don’t need to ask my husband to get her in the house. I’m quite capable of doing that myself. And I finally feel like I’m me again. Scars and all.”
Becoming Pro-Active with Support Groups
Aubrey’s mother, a breast cancer survivor, came to help Aubrey with Paige when fatigue rendered her almost too tired to get off the sofa. Their shared journey brought them closer together, especially when Aubrey decided she wanted to support the local chapter of The American Cancer Society around the time she was undergoing chemotherapy. Eventually Aubrey, with her mother by her side, started organizing local walks to raise money for breast cancer research. Aubrey says that her mother chided her that around the time of her diagnosis that she walked into a telephone booth and busted out with a pink cape. Part of her healing was to be supportive of other women going through breast cancer. The sense of a sisterhood was suddenly a much needed camaraderie among women in similar situations.
Making It Through the Darkness
Not that Aubrey has all the answers to surviving breast cancer, but her journey out of the darkness is proof enough that if there is a will, there may always be a way. From the early days of her diagnosis where she told her doctors she was ready to do anything to make sure her daughter would not grow up without a mother, Aubrey learned important lessons about being adaptable, strong and ready for the unexpected. A great doctor who helped her along her medical journey was key to her recovery. So too was modern medicine and a huge dose of family support. Yet she recommends a heaping teaspoon of humor to help get her through the dreary doldrums of cancer. Aubrey recalls, “I know there were probably things that we laughed at that most people would think, why are they laughing? Or why is that funny? But yeah, you have to find the humor in not so humorous situations. And again, just keeping a normalcy for a little girl that is looking at you, not wanting to know that you’re sick, and being strong for her was the biggest part of what kept me going.”
Note: If you are looking for Breast Cancer Support Groups, please look below:
Reach To Recovery page on cancer.org
Living Beyond Breast Cancer https://www.lbbc.org/
Susan G. Komen https://ww5.komen.org/
Medical Stories is produced by Inventi Media Group, LLC, a fully integrated multimedia entertainment company and are leading the way in the creation, production, distribution, and marketing of all forms of digital media content.