Button: Pride 2020

This Is What One Year Of Chemo Looks Like

Emily Helck is an incredibly inspirational young woman. She battled breast cancer at an early age — and chronicled the process for a year, through weekly photos. This week, she compiled all the photos into one arresting video, and it became a viral sensation. Ahead, she talks with R29 about what it's like to be diagnosed in your 20s and how she hopes her video will help others feel more comfortable with cancer.

Could start by telling us a little bit about when you were diagnosed and what kind of cancer you had, specifically?
“So, I was diagnosed in July of 2012, when I was 28, with breast cancer. And with breast cancer, they usually aren’t sure what stage you’re at until after the surgery. But, I ultimately got diagnosed at stage I.”

How did you discover you were sick? Did you feel a lump in your breast? “I actually didn’t have a typical lump. What I had was a little bit of bleeding from my breast. I remembered back to high school health class and thought, ‘This is not normal.’ So, I emailed my doctor. She said, ‘It’s probably fine, but come in and we’ll take a look.’ So, I went to see her the next day and she was familiar with my family history — both my dad’s sisters had had breast cancer in their 40s.
She said, ‘It’s probably fine because you’re so young, but let’s just be extra cautious because of that family history.’ So, she sent me to a breast surgeon, who sent me to get an ultrasound, a mammogram, more ultrasounds, and, eventually, biopsies. About two-and-a-half weeks after I had my first symptoms, I found out.”
Wow, really fast. And, then you immediately did chemo or radiation? “So, the first thing I did was a mastectomy. That was a requirement for the cancer site because of where the tumors were located. And, I decided to do a prophylactic mastectomy on the other breast as well, because of my strong family history and age — the anxiety and all of that.
So, that was a choice I made, and I was supported by my surgeon. Then, after that, I started chemo about a month-and-a-half later. I did chemo for three months, along with this other drug called Herceptin. It’s not chemo, but you get it at the chemo place, so I call it ‘chemo-ish.’ So, I did that for a year. During that time, I had more surgeries [to address] complications with my reconstruction and I also did radiation treatment.”
And, at what point did you begin your daily photography — taking a picture of yourself as you progressed? “I started that when I started chemo — my chemo was weekly, so I took a picture of myself every week to follow that schedule. And then, once chemo ended, I decided to keep going. Originally I was just thinking about losing the hair, and how long it would take to grow back. But, along the way, as it continued, a lot of other stuff happened. [I was] having these other surgeries, having radiation. There were a lot of other changes happening to my body that I hadn’t really anticipated when I started taking the pictures.
You had had your mastectomy already, when you began the photo project? “Yes, so when I did the mastectomy I didn’t take any pictures. There were no ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots, and I felt really sad. I felt like I’d lost something by not having an objective record of what it was like before and what it was like after the surgery. I didn’t want that to happen again, so that’s why I started doing it when I had chemo.
cancerPhoto: Courtesy Of Emily Helck.
What has the reaction been like? I imagine you’ve had a lot of people reach out to you since your video became so popular online. “It’s been pretty staggering. A lot of people have been sending a lot of really sweet well wishes. And, lots of people having been asking questions. I think everyone probably knows someone who has dealt with some kind of cancer treatment, and there is a lot of fear that surrounds something like that. There’s [the fear of] not wanting to say the wrong thing. Some people are afraid. They think, ‘Oh, is this person going to look really terrible? Am I going to get upset if I see them?’ I feel like maybe seeing the process — seeing a stranger go through it from beginning to end — may be helpful to people. They can see it and maybe think, ‘Oh, this is what it is. And, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.’”
There is a lot of fear when you see your friend or family member in the time when their body is reacting to the chemo. It’s difficult when they’re looking their most sick and they’re feeling the most weak. What does it feel like to look back at those pictures today? “It’s really strange. So, when I was taking the pictures I didn’t look at them. I checked to make sure each picture was in focus and then moved on. So, I didn’t look at any of them until about May. And, I was really floored. I couldn’t believe that I had gone to work and ridden the subway. I worked on a bunch of photo shoots [during that time]. And, I was just like, ‘Oh my God. That’s what I looked like?' It was pretty shocking. Because I think that when you’re in it, you just put your blinders on. You shut out a certain amount of it, but then capture it in the photos. So, that was really jarring to me.
And today, is your cancer in remission, or are you still undergoing treatment? “I finished with my treatment in August. I’m still working on reconstruction, physical therapy, and trying to get into some clinical trials. But, with breast cancer, they can say, 'There’s no evidence of disease,’ and that’s where I am right now. Unfortunately, with many cancers — but with breast cancer in particular — there’s never a moment when they say, ‘You’re cured,’ because there’s always a small chance that it can come back.”

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