In September of 2019, Stacy Deems was lying on a table, getting an ultrasound of her breasts.
Deems had found a lump while getting dressed during the summer, but that was at the height of camp season. As assistant director of J Camps, she felt she was too busy to deal with the lump at the time. So she waited.
The technician took photos of her breasts. Then, she started taking photos of Deems’ underarm.
As the daughter of a woman who died of kidney cancer, that rang alarm bells in Deems’ head. She felt dread.
“I said, ‘Are you taking photos because there’s tumors in my lymph nodes?’” Deems said. “Of course, they can’t say anything, so she didn’t say anything. … I was like, ‘Please, is it in my lymph nodes?’ She again didn’t answer. She was like, ‘I’m taking photos. This is standard procedure.’ Right then is when I knew, it was 100% in my lymph nodes.”
That lump was the beginning of Deems’ breast cancer journey. Not long after her ultrasound, Deems sat in her doctor’s office with two friends and received the news that she had cancer. Her doctor informed her that she needed to give him — and her breast cancer treatment — a year of her life.
Deems was 47 when she received her breast cancer diagnosis, only a year younger than her mother had been when she was diagnosed with a cancer that eventually killed her. Deems was only 19 at the time. But that was a different kind of cancer, and it was 30 years ago, and Deems was determined to have a different outlook on her diagnosis.
“She handled it in a totally different way than I did,” Deems said. “Her anxiety took over for a lot of it. She had a really, really difficult time relaxing. She would make jokes about it, but you could just tell that they were on the surface. And I didn’t want to live like that. I watched it, and I didn’t want to live like that. I realized I have full, 1,000% trust in my medical team, and at this point, all that I can control is how I’m going to live with this.”
Deems brought two friends, Helene Rapaport and Sara Rubinstein, to the appointment where she received her diagnosis. She had met them while working together at the JCC.
Rapaport, who herself is a survivor of thyroid cancer and had a preventive double mastectomy after finding out she had a BRCA2 mutation, was the first person Deems told about the lump. And when Deems told Rubinstein, “me, Stacy and Helene became a team,” Rubinstein said. “From that moment, she wasn’t doing this by herself.”
“I knew from the beginning that I needed to be open, and I needed people around me. I needed a support system,” said Deems, who has been divorced for several years. “I’m a very extroverted person, and I needed a support system to be there. I didn’t have somebody at home, an adult at home, to lean on, to cry into, all of that. I cried into my pillow and broke down in showers. … I didn’t have that soft place to fall, so I needed to create a system.”
Deems’ year-long treatment would go on to include radiation, chemotherapy and a mastectomy.
The evening before she had her port put in, a few days before she started chemotherapy, Deems told her sons, ages 14 and 17, about the diagnosis. She didn’t want to tell them until she had a fairly clear picture of her situation. At a family dinner, she informed them matter-of-factly about what was happening. She told them that it was going to be a rough year, but her prognosis was good, and they were going to get through it.
“I was able to lay it out,” Deems recalled. “I have breast cancer. This is what it’s going to look like.”
At the end of January, Deems faced another challenge. Just a few weeks earlier, Deems’ doctor informed her that her mastectomy was going to be moved up from the summer to the end of that month. They were only going to remove unhealthy tissue, which meant that Deems would have a single mastectomy, rather than a double.
“By the time the surgery came, my biggest fear was accepting my body afterwards,” she said. “That was my biggest fear. I was like, ‘How am I going to do this? How am I going to accept myself? How am I going to live like this? How am I going to hide this?’”
Her friends, she said, were unbelievably supportive, and threw her a “Goodbye, Boob” party.
Then, she said, she just barreled through recovery. She had only gone back to work for a day or two when the JCC closed because of COVID-19.
For her, Deems reflected, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise in some ways. It gave her an opportunity to learn to accept her new body. When she was in public, everyone was too anxious about the coronavirus to care what she looked like.
Today, Deems, 48, is still receiving treatment for her cancer and is confidently navigating the world with only one breast.
“Stacy is amazing, with having just the one breast. She’s fabulous,” Rapaport said. “I wasn’t that good. I was uncomfortable, I had a padded bra. She’s a rock star. If I ever had to do anything again, because of Stacy’s strength, I’d be like, ‘Yep, this is what it is. Deal with it.’”
During lockdown, Deems went through more rounds of radiation. As much as she hated the treatment, she said, she appreciated the fact that it gave her somewhere to go.
The quality of her care didn’t go down at all because of the pandemic, Deems said, though it did make it more stressful.
Now, she’s on oral chemotherapy and takes a pill. This round of chemo is expected to end mid-November, she said, at which time she’ll get more scans done. If everything looks good, she’ll start the process for breast reconstruction. She plans on getting a DIEP Flap Reconstruction, a type of surgery where skin, fat and blood vessels are removed from the abdomen to reconstruct a breast.
“I went through a period of time where I said, ‘You know what? I’m comfortable being flat, and I’m going to have the other one taken off, and I am going to be able to choose my bra size, whatever bra size I want, I will just pad it, and that’s what it is,’” she said. “I’m not in a relationship with anybody, I’m not breastfeeding anymore. Why am I going to go through all of this? … Then, I realized, no. It sounds kind of crazy, but I miss my cleavage.”
Deems is learning to prioritize her health more.
“I’m trying now to live that idea that if you don’t live in wellness, then you’re going to live through illness,” she said. “I’m really trying to take that idea and roll forward with it and not go back to putting it on the back burner because that’s not where it belongs.”
And for anyone else who might be recently diagnosed with cancer, Deems recommends getting a trusted medical team and not being afraid to ask for help and support.
“My best advice is that it is your own journey,” Deems said. “You get to choose how you’re going to go along the path. You can choose who you want to tell, you can choose how you want to handle it. You can choose all of that.”