I wasn’t prepared for the tsunami-like wave barreling down on me. There was no way to avoid it; I was going to get hit – period – and sure enough, I did. But not by a wave. This time, I was hit by breast cancer.
Two and a half years have passed since I heard those stunning words; “you have breast cancer.” What? Me? No way! I take care of myself. I was an active, healthy, middle-aged woman, with great family and friends, getting annual check-ups and mammograms – and I surf.
My initial reaction was complete shock. There was no lump or visible sign of cancer. Nothing. Only a mammogram detected this aggressive growth. I cried like a baby from fear and self-pity – truly gut-wrenching moments. I was so scared and didn’t want to die – not yet! I still have more life to live and waves to surf.
It seemed surreal that I was now the 1 in 8 women who get breast cancer. And like the ocean, cancer doesn’t care if you are ready or not. It will take you and consume you, and the best you can do is go with the flow, and trust and surrender to the process.
After the initial diagnosis, the next few weeks were a flurry of doctor appointments, tests, insurance approvals, and other medical activities. My life was in turmoil. I surfed as much as possible for the physical and spiritual connection the ocean provided. It felt good. While in the line-up, I freely shared my story with others, and heard their stories, too. There was no judgment in the water, just support, inspiration, and hope.
My final pathology was Stage 1, Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), not in my lymph nodes, and not metastasized. It was a small fast-growing cancer caught early, but TNBC is the “bad” one and difficult to treat with limited options. Because of that fact, my amazing team of doctors recommended aggressive treatments to ensure the best long-term outcome. I was ready to fight for my life.
Surgery was in June of 2013. I had a bilateral mastectomy (both girls gone) with immediate breast reconstruction (implants inserted underneath pectorals). This was a big deal and a true game-changer. My life and body changed completely and profoundly in only 21 days. A few weeks after surgery, I had four chemotherapy treatments over three months. Chemo scared me, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. It reminded me of getting “freaked out” by a big wave, then dropping in anyway and realizing it was fine. Scary but fine.
One of the worst parts about chemo was going bald. All my hair fell out within two days. This was brutal, and another gigantic hit to my womanhood and ego. However, soon I accepted my temporary baldness (with cute hats) and trusted the chemo drugs to work their magic. My life depended on this and I fully cooperated.
Throughout the process, my husband of 34 years and three sons (all surfers), plus family and friends, were very supportive and vital to my recovery. Some allowed me to ramble on endlessly while others were “one and done, you’re good to go.” Both perspectives were valued and needed. I posted regularly on Facebook and welcomed the humor, prayers, and wisdom offered. In particular, my husband was awesome. He never made me feel ashamed about what was happening and the significant impact it had on the family. I’m forever grateful and humbled by his kindness.
Surfing forces you to be in the moment and live it – to face your fears, conquer them and move on. These are the same qualities needed to get through cancer treatments. It’s curious, but I didn’t realize how important surfing was to me until it was gone for a while. The thrill of catching a wave, hooting and hollering, morning surf sessions, dolphins – I love it all!
I was fortunate; all my procedures went well, including ovaries and tubes removed after chemo ended. About six months after diagnosis, during the 2013 holiday season, I started surfing again and my hair began growing too – chemo curls, but I’ll take them. These were the best gifts ever!
Today, nearly three years later, I’m happy, healthy, surfing, running and adjusting to my “new normal” existence. I’m proactive about life and trying to eat healthier and reduce consumption of “bad” foods – still a challenge but making progress. I enjoy preparing healthy recipes and finding great substitutions for favorite snacks.
The fear of recurrence is quite real but not a dominating factor anymore. My quarterly checkups with my oncologist are stressful, but important post-treatment monitoring. It is still scary as ever, but there are no signs of recurrence. There is life after cancer and it can be great! I made it! I survived! I am thriving!
Besides breast cancer, I continue to get skin cancers, even with lots of sunscreen, hats, and clothing protection. The sun sins of my youth are catching up to me. I have had dozens of basal cell carcinomas over the past 30 years, mostly on my face, eyelids and scalp. It is mutilating and annoying, but treatable and fixable. I just have to be smarter when surfing and look “kooky” but stay protected and safe.
Because of my own diagnosis and the support I received, I am now paying-it-forward and mentoring recently diagnosed breast cancer women and providing friendly support and hope during the tough diagnosis and treatment phases. This is hard – it breaks my heart that so many women continue to get this dreaded disease. I was and always will be a cheerleader, and root for the winning cause.
I am an active volunteer at Susan G. Komen (SGK) in many capacities; at corporate health fairs around San Diego, as a member of the SGK grant committee to identify worthy non-profits to receive SGK funding, and at major SGK fund raising events. I also participate in the 5k Race for the Cure during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
My husband and I are both turning 60 this year. To celebrate, we went on a joint birthday surf trip to Corky Carroll’s Surf Adventure in La Saladita, Mexico in January. Additional plans for my 60th year around the sun include surfing as much as possible. I would like to compete in a friendly surf contest, travel at least once a year to a great surf location and complete the 60-day surf challenge; attempt 60 surf sessions in 60 days. Seems like the right year to do it.
As I move forward through life, I am concentrating on keeping things in perspective and focusing on what I have, not what I do not have. I truly appreciate life now more than ever. Each day is special and should be celebrated.
Please be mindful of your own journey in life and in the water, the highs and lows, the good and bad, the joy and the pain. Stay positive, make good choices, live with purpose, be grateful – it truly matters. We all have a story to tell with many chapters to write. Cheers to my “salty sistas” for health, happiness, and the joy of surfing. It’s all good!
Barb Whatley is originally from Buffalo, NY, and the oldest of five kids. She attended SUNY at Buffalo for her BS and went to Clemson University in South Carolina for her MS. A retired project control/financial analyst and mother of three grown sons, her family has lived in San Diego since 1984. She started surfing at age 48 and is one of the original members of the San Diego Surf Ladies (SDSL). Whatley can often be found at La Jolla Shores and Scripps Pier, her local breaks.
About San Diego Surf Ladies
Founded in 2004 in San Diego, California, San Diego Surf Ladies (SDSL) is the only all-female surf club in Southern California. SDSL is part of the Coalition of Surf Clubs (CSC), an international organization of surf clubs that support clean water locally and globally. For more information on sponsorship opportunities or to become a member, visit our website at http://sandiegosurfladies.com/membership