Inspiring Story of Strength From Breast Cancer Survivor

BY: NIKKI MICHELLE CHARNSTROM

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 Image Courtesy of Conni Colella-Ersland

Image Courtesy of Conni Colella-Ersland

Enduring life’s most unexpected, painful journeys teaches one’s soul how to be resilient. When 54-year-old Conni Colella-Ersland found a small lump in her breast in June 2000, she was about to grow a whole lot stronger — because of the battle ahead.

When she was in her 20s, Conni’s gynecologist diligently reminded her to have her first mammogram at the age of 35. But, when the time came to follow her doctor’s instructions, the American Medical Association changed the age recommendation to 40 and Conni was told to wait another five years. It was only a few short months later when she discovered the nickel-sized lump in her left breast. 

After some internet research and one mammogram later, Conni had to make a decision to find out if the lump was cancerous — a needle biopsy or a lumpectomy. She chose to have the lump removed and tested — a procedure she endured with very little anesthesia — and then, came the results.

“I was on deadline at work when the surgeon called me with the news. I was stunned! I ran to the restroom and cried. One of my colleagues was in there and consoled me, and I pulled myself together and went to tell my boss. He offered me support and left his office to me for privacy while I called [my husband] Paul. Paul was stunned too, and asked if I would be OK to drive home, I was and I did,” Conni recollects, “I was so sure it was just a fatty lump and breast cancer could never happen to me.”

It was in this moment, at 35-years-old, that Conni was diagnosed with Stage II Intraductal Carcinoma In Situ. Her left breast was removed followed by an immediate reconstruction using an expandable implant that was filled gradually to make room for the final implant. To ensure her breasts were symmetrical, Conni also decided to have her right one augmented. Throughout this process, several scans and X-rays were done to check the rest of her body for cancer — it all thankfully came back clear.

It wasn’t until she was fully healed from reconstruction that she began chemotherapy and for the next three months she would sit in a circle with other patients once a week for four hours to watch the chemo drip into her IV. 

“I went home that [first] day and got into bed. At exactly midnight I began throwing up and I couldn’t keep anything down. We thought it was supposed to happen, people on chemo get sick, so it took about 18 hours to call the doctors for support. They prescribed me a fast-acting anti-nausea medication and sent an in-home nurse to set me up with an IV to get me hydrated again — and it got much better from there,” Conni says.

Two weeks into her chemotherapy and Conni said goodbye to her hair with the help of a razor and her supportive husband Paul. By February 2001, she had one last reconstruction surgery and final scans — she was cancer free and in remission for the next 16 years.

When the wife of a former colleague passed away from a recurrence, Conni insisted on another PET scan and discovered three suspicious spots. After another mammogram and a needle biopsy, her results were positive and the same cancer was back — except this time it was considered a stage 0. Her right breast was removed while her left implant was replaced due to an encapsulated rupture back in 2006. Unfortunately, a serious infection invaded her right breast and everything had to be removed before she could have another implant. Two more surgeries later and Conni’s cancer was treated with genetics and hormone receptors rather than chemo — she’s been in remission ever since.

“I felt like since I wasn’t predisposed to breast cancer through any genetic or ethnic markers, I had no control over whether or not I get cancer again. My motto is ‘attitude is everything’ and I believe if you have a good attitude about whatever difficult time you’re having, you’ll get through it easier,” Conni explains, “Even though I had some really difficult moments the first time, I still felt I got off easy. I think the hardest thing is having the feeling that you’re waiting for it to show up again.”

 Conni recently participated in her first 5K walk to support breast cancer with her friends, Esther Miller, Jan Hart and Linda Oliphant.  Image Courtesy of Conni Colella-Ersland

Conni recently participated in her first 5K walk to support breast cancer with her friends, Esther Miller, Jan Hart and Linda Oliphant.

Image Courtesy of Conni Colella-Ersland

Without the love and support from family, friends and colleagues, Conni’s experience with breast cancer could have been much harder. She owes her strength and motivation during this time to those she cherishes most. From her ever-present husband Paul to her compassionate mother Paulette, Conni never had to go about this alone. 

“My mother dropped everything and helped during the surgery recovery and that first chemo, I was so glad she and Paul were with me when they took the bandage off of the incision that was my breast, as it was a little traumatic to see. At first, I felt deformed and mourned the loss of a body part, but then I realized I didn’t lose an appendage or an organ that was important to my survival. It was just a mass of tissue I will never officially need, and it tried to kill me,” Conni says.

Fortunately, Conni’s fight with breast cancer encouraged her to try new things and lead a less stressful life. She decided to leave her deadline-driven career eight years ago to start a pet sitting business. This new venture has brought her and Paul much happiness — not to mention her quality of life has vastly improved!

To the woman who has just been diagnosed with cancer, Conni encourages you to seek a second opinion. With all of today’s treatment options, she says survival is easier than ever if it’s caught early on. “I think when one is diagnosed with any kind of cancer it is frightening and you think you might die. Do not be afraid to get a second opinion. There are so many cancer centers that offer different types of treatment,” Conni says.

To fellow breast cancer survivors, Conni would like to tell you, “Being a survivor shows everyone you have the courage and confidence to face the worst thing that can happen to you and come out [on] the other side a stronger person. There is a quote I like, Be strong. You never know who you’re inspiring.”

Nikki is the owner and founder of Crowned Chics. She lives in the warm desert of Phoenix, Arizona with her beloved family. If she's not ferociously clanking away on her typewriter, she's behind the camera capturing moments for her business Charnstrom Captures Photography.