How can we work to have early detection of cancer. What can we learn from someone battling cancer with terminal diagnosis?
Today’s guest is my friend Onjali. She is a stay-at-home mom to 3 kids, living in Southern California. She was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer almost 2 years and is learning to not just survive but to thrive with incurable cancer.
In this episode
How Onajli’s cancer was diagnosed
How she faught it
How it has impacted her life.
Producer: Drew Erickson
Hey, guys. Welcome back to the Pulling Curls Podcast. Today we have a bonus episode. We’re talking about boobies. Let’s untangle it. Hi, I’m Hilary Erickson, the curly head behind the Pulling Curls podcast, where we untangle pregnancy, parenting, home, and even travel. We know there’s no right answer for every family, but hopefully we can spark some ideas that will work for yours. Life’s tangled just like my hair. Hey, guys, before we get started, just go ahead and leave a review or subscribe. Either one choice is up to you. Today’s guest has been a friend for a long time. We have kids of similar ages, and we lived in the San Jose area together. But she is the lucky recipient of stage four metastatic breast cancer. And I’ve been following her journey on Instagram. And I just thought she has some inspirational words for all of us and the things that she’s learned during her treatment. So I want to introduce today’s guest, Anjali Pettingale. Hey, Angelie. Welcome to the Pulling Curls Podcast.
Yes. So Onjali and I are old friends. How old is your oldest?
Okay, so Evie is 14, and I can’t remember. So we met in San Jose. And had I given birth to her? No, I had it.
I think you had her while we were there, right. Because I think I had given you advice to his breach or something. Right?
Oh, yeah, that was right.
So Spencer is 17, almost 18. And then I had a baby, like two years after you had EV.
Yeah. And then you had your daughter and I had Owen. We were like a week apart. Do you remember that? Yeah.
But you probably had your baby way before me because I was so overdue.
Yeah, I don’t remember. But yes, you were like whenever I had any pregnancy questions or anything, like it was always nice, like having you to turn to.
People at Church love me.
Yeah. All right, so Onjali was telling me yesterday she was a chemo because what’s your official diagnosis? Onjali.
So I have stage four, also known as metastatic breast cancer. And with metastatic breast cancer, I’ll go into this more. But basically what that means that it spread past my breasts and it’s now in my bones.
Okay. Is it just in your bones or have they found at other places?
It is in my bones and in my bone marrow. So up until this point, that’s all I know. Yeah. Last Pet scan, that’s the only place where it was good. Stay there. Yeah.
Okay, so let’s rewind. How did you find it?
Okay, so I will start from the very beginning. So it was like February 2020. I was just getting dressed one morning, and I happened to feel a lump on my boob, but I had actually had felt the lump about a week earlier. As long as I can remember, I have had fibrous cystic breasts, which I talked to my gynecologist about. And he had confirmed that it was something that was normal in common. And basically what that means is that my breasts would get kind of lumpy in sore around my cycle, but it would always go away about a week later. So it’s like, I noticed. I’m like, oh, at that time, I got some lumps. Things are a little sore, but I felt this lump, and I’m like, wait, I’ve got this lump, and I’m not sore anymore. And it was in a spot where I usually didn’t get lumps. I was like, okay, this is a little concerning.
So, I don’t know, I just kind of, like, wrote it off. I’m like, maybe I’m just being dramatic. It was kind of crazy. Like, about that same time, I had a sweet friend in my Ward who had just passed away. I just attended her funeral, and she passed away from metastatic breast cancer and was young, just a little bit older. She was, like, in her early 40s. And I had another friend who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and my sister in law a few months before that had just been diagnosed. So it was definitely something that was fresh on my mind. So I was like, you know what? I’m just going to call my gynecologist and get in. And I got into my gynecologist, and he told me that he didn’t think it was anything. He’s like, it might just be like a swollen lymph node, but he’s like, let’s just get you in for a mammogram and also, like, a diagnostic ultrasound, and we’ll go from there. But he’s like, I think you’re fine. I don’t think it’s anything. So you know what? I didn’t worry about it. I totally convinced myself. I’m like, I’m young, I’m healthy, I exercise.
Like, I’m doing everything right. It’s just like, breast cancer is not going to happen to me. It happens to other people. Not to me.
Yeah. How old were you?
I was 35.
Okay. And have you had a mammogram before?
I had never had a mammogram. Never needed to be normal. Yeah, it’s 40, right? It is 40.
Unless you have a history in your family, like, Evie will want to get checked early on. Yeah. If you had a history of a young a person in your family having breast cancer.
Yeah. So the next steps, I felt like everything just took a while. It took about a week and a half to get in for the mammogram, and I was really nervous about the mammogram. For some reason, I thought it was going to be so painful. For some reason, I had that idea in my head, and it’s not like, for me, I didn’t feel like it’s awkward, super awkward. But it wasn’t painful. And then they did the ultrasound, and it was really nice. The radiologist, he came in, like, not too long after that. And you get your results back immediately. You don’t have to wait. And he said that there’s definitely something there, but it didn’t have all the qualities of breast cancer. But he’s like, I think that we should still get a biopsy just to completely roll it out. And with a biopsy, that’s the only for sure way to know if it’s cancerous. So that was the next step. And it was right about this point that the pandemic, like, everything was kind of starting to really hit like that’s when food was flying off the shelves and everybody was worried about toilet paper.
I don’t think it wasn’t quite to the point yet. I don’t think my kids that they had canceled school yet, but that’s about where I was at. And so I remember when I called to schedule the biopsy and get that going, it took a lot longer because they were only doing medically necessary procedures, and so they had to verify with other people to make sure I needed this immediately. And so it was all pretty frustrating. Yes.
Especially for a breast biopsy. It’s not like you go in just for fun, right? For that one.
I know, yeah. In the breast biopsy. I was nervous about that, too. It was not fun. Basically, what they do is it’s guided by an ultrasound, and they take a giant needle and stab it into that lump and pull out tissue to test, and they have to do it multiple times to make sure that they have got enough tissue.
Do they numb you for that?
They do numb you. But I know I could still feel a lot of it because it’s, like, so just invasive. And then they told me it took it would take about a week to get the results back from that. And the results went back to my gynecologist, and I was like the super annoying patient and was calling my doctor’s office every single day. I just wanted to know. I’m like, I just want to know. Just have that relief. I was still convinced. I was still totally convinced that it was going to be nothing but. Yeah. And it took about a week to get those results back. And then finally he called me. I just remember that phone call. Like, the first thing he said, he was like, I just want you to know that it’s malignant. And I was like, going through my head. I’m like, I couldn’t remember. I’m like, it’s malignant. I’m like, does that mean it’s cancerous or not?
Which one is that?
But no, he confirmed it pretty quick that it was cancerous. But he’s like, I think we’ve caught it early. I had actually three months before that had been for my regular top smear check up. Everything was normal then. I even had blood work done. Everything was normal. He was just like, no, I think that we have definitely we’re on top of this. We’ve caught it early. He went over it was still like a really hard conversation. He went off about the different type of cancer I had and what that meant and everything. And I remember I heard none of it right. I was just like, Holy crap. He just told me I had breast cancer. But it’s like the next steps were that I needed to find an oncologist, and I needed a breast MRI, and I needed to find a surgeon, and it was pretty overwhelming. The next step after that was I got the MRI, and then I met with my oncologist. And that was hard because at that point, they weren’t allowing anybody to come to any appointments just because people were so scared still about coronavirus. And that was like when we were in the depths, I felt like the lockdown where everything felt so uncertain.
Yeah. So my first appointment with the oncologist, he confirmed that the MRI had shown that the breast cancer was a little bit bigger than what they had normally saw on the mammogram, but there was no lymph node involvement. So he’s like, I think we’ve caught it early. But he’s like, Because it is a little bigger. We’re going to start chemo right away because usually what they do if it’s caught earlier, like, if it’s still like, stage one, then they do surgery first. It’s surgery and then chemo, but if it’s a little bit bigger, then they’ll do chemo first. So that was a plan. Start chemo right away. So that’s kind of what we decided. As I was getting ready to leave the appointment, I just happened to ask him. I’m like, So how do you know if it’s spread or not? And he was like, well, you have no lip node involvement. So he’s like, It’s not something that we need to worry about. He’s like, but if we make you feel better, like, we can order a Pet scan. I was like, yeah, I think I would like that. So that was the next step.
I got the Pet scan, and I was getting everything set up to start chemo. And then I got a call from him with the results from this Pet scan. And he let me know that it had spread to my bones. And that was a really hard call to process. Not only I just remember him reading off all the bones that it was in, it was in my hips, like, multiple places in my hip bones. It was multiple places in my spine, my ribs, in my shoulders. So I was just like, no, this isn’t happening. On the phone call, I told him, and at this point, he’s like, we will treat your cancer differently now. We don’t have the intent anymore to cure you. The intent was now just to treat me, just to live as long as possible. And I was like, no. I’m like, I’m going to have a clear Pet scan. I’m going to feed this. I didn’t accept it. I’m like, no, this is not how it’s going to go.
So at that point, did they say it was basically incurable, right? Yes, that’s what he was saying.
It was incurable at this point. Yeah. So, yeah, I was just like, no, I’m not accepting that my treatment plan completely changed at that point. They’re like, we’ll put you on chemo was kind of taken off the table. They did give me the option, but they’re like, at this point, we don’t even know how helpful it would be. But there was other drugs that I could take that could work and work with drugs and could help keep everything under control. So I opted for those. And my breast cancer was hormone positive. So they immediately put me into medical menopause, which shut down my ovaries. And also they give you drugs to stop any other parts of your body that make estrogen. So that was fun.
Yeah, that is fun.
At 35, I know all of a sudden be in menopause, and, oh, my gosh, really? The worst part is a hot splash. I have some pretty intense hot lashes, but yeah. So that was kind of where things were going. And I was like, just kind of took this attitude. Like, I was in full blown denial, and I was just like, I am going to do. I’m not listening to the doctors. I knew I wanted to take an integrative approach. So I’m like, okay, the medical system can’t hear me, but I’m like, I just have this belief that I can hear myself. So I’m like, I’m going to do everything I can. I started breathing for, like, two months straight. All I did was read about different ways. What supplements, what foods, everything. I started, anything anybody had said it helped them to cure their cancer. I went vegan. I started juicing. I was drinking, like, six glasses of vegetable juice a day. I was drinking so much carrot juice, I started turning Orange.
You’re pretty fair skin to start with Anjali. So that’s not super surprising.
I should send you some pictures because it is, like, it’s crazy. I was, like, really orange, and I just was having the hardest time just, I don’t know, just accepting everything because it’s a lot. Yeah.
Did you go to, like, a natural path or anything, or was it all your own research?
It was mostly my own research, and I was reaching out, like anybody I could find online. I reached out to quite a few people online and asked them questions about what they were doing and what had helped them. But at that point, I hadn’t met with Naturopathic doctor. Things were steady. My blood counts were good. My tumor markers were staying good, like, everything for about four or five months. And then my tumor markers started going up, which through this process, I have, my tumor markers are usually a pretty good indication of progression. And then my next Pet scan did show that I was having progression, and it was so frustrating because I’m like, I’m doing all of this stuff, and none of it’s working, and it’s been like such a roller coaster.
So I was so frustrated. And at that point, I’m like, maybe we just need to do chemo. I’ve also switched oncologist a few different times. Yeah.
Because you want to try and find somebody that’s a good fit and that will fix it.
Yeah, I know. Because my oncologist I was with at this point, she was really just, like, kind of put it in my hand. She’s like, you can decide. She’s like, if you want to do chemo, that’s fine. We could try a different drug. And after thinking about it and worrying about it, I’m like, I just felt right about doing chemo. I had also went and had a second opinion from another oncologist. And so I went on chemo. It was like, last fall, I did six rounds of chemo and finished in March. I was still just kind of, like, had that mindset, like, I’m going to beat this. And I’m like, okay. I had eased up, like, during chemo, I started eating meat and just realized that while my body was going through that, I needed a little bit more, and I needed this chair for my body in a little bit different ways than I had been before. But as soon as I was done for chemo, and I was still just, like, searching for whatever I could find, I actually about a year ago, I realized I started meditating. I read a lot about meditation and how good it is for you.
I was meditating every day for almost an hour, like, most days. And I’m like, okay, this is going to be it. Once that’s like, my missing link, and everything was like, meditating. I meditated for a long time, and I finished chemo. I was hoping that chemo would get me into remission, and it didn’t. My Pet scans were getting better, but it still wasn’t clear. And then I went onto a different drug and was still doing I went back on my diet. I wasn’t juicing quite as much as I was. And that drug worked for a few months. And then my next Pet scan, which was over the summer, came back with more progression, but still in my bones. Just in my bones. Thankfully, nothing has spread past my bones. And at that point, I ended up having another biopsy. And my cancer is so tricky because my cancer had mutated, and it’s not quite as strongly estrogen and progesterone and fat anymore. And there’s also something with breast cancer called the Herti protein, which can feed your breast cancer. When I was originally diagnosed, I was her two positive. So my breast cancer was considered triple positive.
And now it was no longer herd-2 positive. But my current doctor I was with because my cancer was being so aggressive. She’s like, I really think that your biopsies are wrong that you’re still her too positive. And it just didn’t sit right with me. I’m like, I don’t know. So she had this completely different direction. She wanted my treatment to go in, and I just didn’t feel right about it. And that’s one thing in this process is just, like, learning to trust myself. And what I felt was right. At that point, I ended up switching to a different oncologist, and I’m so thankful that I did. Honestly, if I hadn’t switched, I don’t know if I would be here, because the new oncologist immediately was like, Something is not right. My blood counts were all dropping really quickly. I had gone in, and I needed my platelets were really low, and I needed a platelet infusion. Then my hemoglobin started dropping. She’s like, okay, we need an Ma to the hospital and really figure out what’s going on. And at that point, they were growing out, like, possibly, like, a secondary cancer, like leukemia or something like that.
So I got to spend a few weeks in the hospital.
That was close to the holidays, right?
Yeah. Well, it was beginning of October, okay. Yeah. And it was kind of nice because I feel like everything happens so slow. But it was like once I was in the hospital, I had a bone marrow biopsy. I had another scan. It’s just like, things happen a lot faster. And it came back that the breast cancer had taken over my bone marrow. And so they suggested starting me on another chemo right away to try to get a hold of everything. I was getting chemo in the hospital and then also getting daily blood and platelet transfusions. And it was hard. It was rough. Nobody had real definite answers. Like, they weren’t telling me how long I would be there, what the chances of this actually working were just like, it was a really scary time. Definitely the hardest point of this whole experience of dealing with breast cancer. But it also those few weeks really helped me to just kind of change my perspective on everything. I remembered this conversation that I had with a friend who she had a lot of has a lot of health challenges, and she had had a heart and lung transplant quite a few years ago.
But I remember talking to her right after I was diagnosed, and she told me how she couldn’t really kind of come to peace with everything. She’s like, I had to just accept the fact that I could die on the operating table. She’s like, I just had to accept that. And at the time, it was so hard for me to hear that, because to me, I’m like, that felt like giving up where I was at. I was like, no. I was like, no, that’s not my attitude. I’m going to beat this. But when I was in the hospital, I realized I’m like, we’re all dying. I just kind of accepted that fact. It’s like, I have no idea when I’m going to die of breast cancer, but, I mean, hopefully it’s not for another 20 years. So hopefully it’s like, longer. But it’s just like I realized that I could accept that outcome and still have hope that it just like facing. I think we don’t I don’t know. We don’t want to face the fact that we’re all dying like we are.
We have no control.
And we have no control.
You couldn’t work your way out of this mess, right?
Yeah. I’m like, I can do whatever. I can focus on eating healthy. I can focus on meditating, everything. But still, I have no control over the outcome. And honestly, in accepting that, it has been so freeing and just like a weight has been lifted off of me. It’s like I still eat healthy. I still am doing. I still have a lot of hope, but it’s just like that just released from just accepting that has been so huge for me.
I can totally see that. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. How did husband and kids tolerate all this? Anything you want to share about that?
It’s hard because I try to talk to my kids to check in on them on a regular basis. What are you thinking about? Things. You know what? I feel like we’ve just kind of gotten into the groove. A new groove.
And it’s hard. It’s hard because it’s like this diagnosis has also forced me to really just embrace the present. Like, I really have learned just to take things one day at a time. And it gets kind of hard when it comes to planning a vacation, because we just don’t ever know what things are going to look like in a month. That has been tricky and chuggling that. But it’s just like giving me the chance to just like, every day I wake up and I’m just like, I am alive. I am here. I am going to make the very most out of this day because this is what I have and I don’t know about anything else.
That really is the one thing you can control, right?
It is. It’s your outlook, your perspective.
That is what I have kind of learned to just focus on.
I love that. What have people done that has been helpful to you?
A lot. I just feel so blessed to have such an amazing support system and so many friends who have been there for me. But one thing that has been huge, it’s always just like my friends who remember the days that I am having chemo and even just like, it’s a simple text like, hey, just thinking about you today, I hope everything goes well at treatment. Like, even little things like that just helps me to know that I’m not alone in this. It’s not like the big things people have done who have given me amazing gifts which I do appreciate, and they do make me feel loved. But it’s like those little texts also are so huge for me.
I love that because your friends feel real hopeless as well. So it is nice that small things make a big deal. That’s good to know.
Yeah, I do. I know I’m trying to think if there’s anything else, but I know I do feel really blessed. Like I’ve just been surrounded by so many loving people.
Anything people have done for your kids.
When I was in the hospital, it was so nice. Friends who offered to pick up from school and things like that were just so helpful.
Yeah. Just like the mechanics of your life they’re helping with.
Yeah. I wasn’t there anymore. And things still needed. They still needed rides and picked up. And my daughter does dance. I was doing late night band practices and. Yeah. So we had a family who also ended up coming into town to help Todd’s mom and my mom. Yeah. So it all worked out all right.
So it sounds like control is the big thing you’ve learned during all this.
Yes. Is recognizing those things that I do and don’t have control over and accepting them.
That is the hard part. Just accepting that.
Yeah. That’s a good lesson for all of us. Were you a big self exam doer before this?
Okay. So I remember going to the Gynecologist and getting this pamphlet that was like, all the things that you should do, you rub this way and that way. And it was so confusing. And I didn’t to follow that. And what I found was it’s like I would regularly check my breasts. I knew my breath. I knew what was normal. I knew that I got lumps on my period and I knew where those lumps usually were. So it’s like I would fill my breath. I knew what was normal. I knew that one of my breasts was a little teeny bit bigger than the other. I did. I did check them regularly, but it’s like I didn’t follow the standard. Like, this is what you do that you check that certain. I don’t even really remember. You rub one way and then rub the other way, and then you use two fingers.
It is really confusing when in reality during your shower, you just soap it up and see what’s up there, right.
Yeah. But really, I think that the key is just to know what is normal for you. And it’s not just with your breast, but with your entire body. It’s like, make sure you’re checking all your moles. Like, you know what all your moles look like? Tracking your cycle. Know what a normal menstrual cycle is for you? I think it’s so important just to know your normal because it’s different for everyone.
Yes. My doctor actually told me they had stopped telling people to do self exams, which I was like, are you kidding me? Because all of my friends that have found theirs found it through self exams.
Yeah, I know. I’ve heard that lately that they’re not recommending that and they’re also thinking about or maybe they already have, but I think they’re the mammogram age. They were moving up to 45. I’ve heard something about that, too, but I’m like, yeah. No. And it’s also really heartbreaking to me in the different forums that I’m on, quite a few different, like, on Facebook, like metastatic breast cancer forms and how many times I hear women talk about how they found a lump when they were breastfeeding and their doctor just wrote it off as a clogged milk duck. And so by the time they were finally diagnosed, they were already stage four. And you really have to advocate for yourself. Like if something does not feel right, then it’s like you really have to push. Especially, I feel like for younger women, I feel like with doctors a lot of times it’s like they don’t take it as serious because you’re young.
Yeah, well, and I like what you really said at the beginning. A lot of times you’ll have a lump per week, right?
So give yourself that week. Like, take a note in the shower. Okay. I need to check that again after my cycle is done or whatever. But if it’s still there, push sometimes you have to push.
Yeah, but just like a clogged mill stack, like, if it is not going away, then have it checked out.
Good to know.
All right. Onjali, thank you so much for coming on. I think you are a brave warrior for even sharing your story, and hopefully it helps a lot of people, maybe in similar situations or just moms that need to let go of some control in some area of their life.
Well, thank you. Thanks for having me on and letting me share my story.
Yeah. Thanks, Onjali, guys. The whole time she was talking about things we don’t have control over and how we can try and work our way out of things that we really can’t work our way out of. I really felt that. I don’t know. Did you guys feel that too? So thanks so much to Anjali for coming on. That was a great episode, and I hope you guys learned a little bit something about both breast cancer and making sure that you know your own body, but also going through hard stuff and sometimes you just don’t have control and you have to let that go. Thanks so much for joining us on today’s episode. We know you have lots of options for your ears. We are glad that you chose us. We dropped episodes weekly. And until next time, we hope you have a tangle free day.