Tough Titties: Lowry Beall stares down breast cancer 

At 27 she found a lump. At 29 she had a bilateral mastectomy. At 30 she's trying her damnedest to be a badass cancer survivor.

Instead of swilling $1 PBRs at a beachside happy hour on a random July afternoon, Lowry Beall was being infused with toxic chemo cocktails that wrecked her body, made her hair fall out, and ultimately gave her a 98 percent chance at a long and happy life.

The chemo was coming three years after Lowry discovered a lump in her breast while idly watching TV one night. Invasive ductal carcinoma.

At the time, in 2007, she was 27 years old, had just moved back to Charleston after living in New York City, and was ready to settle into her hometown and have some fun.

"I was having a great life," she remembers wistfully.

She quickly made an appointment with her OB/GYN, who referred her to the Charleston Breast Center for a closer look.

"My radiologist took one look at the ultrasound and immediately wanted to do a core needle biopsy," she relates on the blog, Tough Titties, that she started back in March. "I didn't have much time to absorb what was happening, but the thought of a long needle going into my breast was mildly terrifying."

She left feeling not too worried about it. "Everyone thought it was probably nothing," she says in an interview at Kudu on the eve of her first course of chemo. "But they called me the next day, and told me to come by — and to bring my parents."

The diagnosis came back as Stage 1 breast cancer. She has no family history of breast cancer. Her lump, about the size of a walnut, was removed, and her left breast spared but no longer so pretty.

From her blog: "The first time I looked at my breast after surgery, it was an absolute mess. I stared at it in the bathroom mirror for about 10 solid minutes in absolute shock. A mangled and bruised up version of what it used to be, it was also missing a huge portion at the bottom. It looked like I had been partly deflated. I felt like I would never be able to look at it again."

Breast cancer is relatively rare in women under 40. According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, of the 192,370 new cases projected to be diagnosed in 2009, only about 5 percent will be in women under 40. But breast cancer among younger women is much more dire. According to the Young Survival Coalition website, it's more aggressive, more deadly, and biologically distinctive from that of older women's cancers.

"Before I was diagnosed, I had never really thought of cancer as something a twentysomething could easily get," says Lowry. "I never considered myself at risk. I was living my life like any other young person I knew — eating well, drinking some on the weekends, exercising, just living my life as a young social person. My perception was that cancer was mostly a disease for older people or unhealthy people. After you are diagnosed you realize how widespread it is in the younger population, but it's just not really talked about and out there in the media as much."

Treatment, however, remains the same. Lumpectomies, radiation, hormonal therapy, mastectomies, chemotherapy. In that first bout, Lowry won with a one-two knockout punch. After the lumpectomy, she underwent radiation. "And then I went about my life," she says. "I pretty much pushed it out of my mind completely."

The problem is, she says, once you've gotten that big C, it's always going to affect your overall GPA.

After radiation, Lowry was put on hormonal therapy and given Tamoxifen, which interferes with estrogen levels, to help combat a recurrence.

Nearly three years later, a routine MRI screening revealed the nightmare that haunts cancer survivors: the big C had returned. A small cancerous growth had appeared near her chest wall. This time, it wouldn't be as easy as the breast-sparing lumpectomy. This time, the decisions would be tougher, the disease would be bigger, and the consequences much more life-altering.

"Standard treatment for that is a mastectomy," she says. "I was totally freaked by it. My option was to remove one or two (breasts)."

Finding fellow patients her age in Charleston for support in making such a major, devastating decision was nearly impossible. At support groups, she rarely saw anyone in her 30s, much less her 20s.

"You feel completely alone," she says. "I felt like there's no one in the world at 27 with cancer. But it's not true."

A child of the internet age, Lowry instinctively turned to social media sites like Facebook and the bulletin boards at Young Survival Coalition to cope with her ordeal.

"I really used the YSC website to see how others made that decision," she says. "Most said that doing both (breasts) was best. Why go through another surgery?"

Her status updates on Facebook over the last six months have been the usual combination of gripes, observations, and howls for help and commiseration, but hers are more dire, the seriousness of the subject matter belied by the twittering shallowness of the medium.

Shawnté Salabert, who became friends with Lowry in Charleston before both of them moved to Brooklyn, now lives in Los Angeles and has remained close.

"It's devastating to be 2,500 miles away when one of your closest friends reveals that she has cancer," she says. "And then to find out, two-odd years later, that it came back, and she'll have to go through a mastectomy and chemo? Double devastating. You can't hug a person through a phone, you can't hold their hand, or stroke their hair, or sit next to them in solidarity while they're pumped full of truckloads of chemicals."

When Lowry took to Facebook to help her cope, Shawnté was unsure if it was the best place for that sort of sharing.

"On one hand, I find it incredibly odd that all of us are now predisposed to vomiting up the minutiae of our lives (Shawnté has a sinus headache! Shawnté can't believe how delicious that egg salad was!) on an hourly basis. ... So part of me resisted when Lowry first started using Facebook as a way to express what she was going through — all of the emotions and circumstances that occur in cancer's orbit; I would rather talk about something so personal on the phone. Here I was, trying anything I could to get closer to her, and she was just blasting everything on the internet. I didn't understand it, and I really didn't like it at first. But then she started a blog, and that changed things for me."

Lowry created her WordPress blog (toughtitties.wordpress.com) a few weeks after the recurrence was discovered in March. On it, she recounts her history with breast cancer and agonizes over crippling decisions like whether to have a single or double mastectomy.

"I think using social media is an excellent way to keep everyone in the loop and hear it from the direct source," adds Kirsten King, a close friend since the two were 15 who now lives in New York. "Her blog invites you to be a part of her journey. The title (Tough Titties) is an instant indication of her sense of humor. Nothing is sugar-coated, which makes it hard to read in one sitting."

Not only did she use her blog to grapple with the decision, Lowry even put it out there on FB.

"I found it was easier to use Facebook to keep everyone updated, so I didn't have to keep repeating the same thing over and over," she says. "I just didn't have the energy to talk on the phone most days."

Despite an initial freakout, Lowry made the decision, with the help of the YSC boards and feedback and support from FB friends, to have both breasts removed in a bilateral mastectomy. On her blog, she explains: "Coming to this decision wasn't incredibly hard in terms of why I think I should do it. But deciding on it and realizing what is actually going to happen to me, well that, my friends, is scary as shit."

On April 14, she underwent a 10 hour S-GAP procedure, which was pioneered by Dr. Robert Allen at MUSC back in 1993. The microsurgery takes tissue from the patient's upper buttocks in order to reconstruct the breasts, without sacrificing muscle. Nicknamed the Ass-Gap, the procedure required Lowry to stay in the hospital for five days as the medical team monitored her breast flaps and their newly attached blood vessels with a Doppler ultrasound machine.

Reconstruction surgery is a long process and requires multiple surgeries over the course of many months in order to pull the new flaps into the right shape and reattach nipples. Two weeks after her first surgery, Lowry recounted the experience on her blog: "I don't want to gross anybody out, but because I opted for nipple sparing (meaning I am using my own nipples in the reconstruction process), they are a bit torn up at the moment, which apparently, like everything else, will heal and get back to normal in time. ... This reconstructive process is all going to take so much time, more than I think I originally anticipated."

After she got home from the hospital, Lowry had drains in both breasts and hips, siphoning out quarts of fluids that looked like pink Kool-Aid. "I felt like crap the whole time," she says.

"This new treatment (the S-GAP) that they've done for her," says her mom Gwen Beall, "not a lot of people have done it. It was quite a surgery. It's not just going in and having a mastectomy, putting in some expanders, and hopping up off the table."

As if having your boobs removed and your butt harvested for healthy tissue wasn't enough of an ordeal, during her recovery she learned that she would have to undergo chemo, a stunning development that caught her by surprise.

The day after she learned the news, she wrote on her blog — after obviously doing some serious homework — "I'll be having terrible bone pain, severe nausea, extreme fatigue, and will definitely, for certain, lose ALL my hair by around day 14. Some other strange side effects are gross, metal-like tastes in mouth ('like a robot took a shit in there' is what one breast cancer patient said), mouth sores, fingernails getting weird and looking like tree trunks, nose bleeding, bone loss, nerve damage, there's a litany of side effects that I don't want to get into. A lot of it bums me out so much I can't bear to type it."

Lowry has done a great deal of research on her disease and completely owns it. Her mother and friends are astounded by the knowledge she has gained over the last six months. "She's very proactive," says her mom. "She doesn't just sit there and let people do what they're gonna do. She asks questions. She's researched it a lot and wants to know everything about it. Even the medication she takes, she researches all of it and knows a lot about it."

In conversation, Lowry rattles off the names of her medications and treatments, lists side effects, and even knows nicknames of the drugs she's not getting. One chemo is called the Red Devil for its nasty side effects and red color. Fortunately, she escaped the clutches of that one and instead was administered TC, a chemo cocktail that has documented positive results and fewer negative effects.

In June, Lowry embarked on the first of an anticipated four rounds of chemo. It was as bad as she expected it to be. By day 14, her hair did fall out, even though as a Stella Nova hairstylist, she embraced the changes as best she could, going GI Jane with a badass buzz cut. But then it started getting patchy and she had to shave it down completely one night. "That's when I felt like I was a cancer patient," she says.

The chemo process was frightening and took its toll on her physically. In June, Divine Gardens installed a garden in her backyard, providing her a sanctuary to help her deal with the stress and anxiety of chemotherapy. After the third round, she had a severe allergic reaction and broke out in a rash all over her body. Her doctors counseled her to skip the fourth series. After getting a second opinion, Lowry decided to do just that.

After recovering from the chemo, she returned to work this fall, alternating between shifts at the retail shop Estella Vitae and taking clients at Stella Nova downtown. "I'm hoping life will return to normal, and it already has," she says. "I'm able to live like I was before."

But there's no question that life has changed for her. She's on a medication that puts her body into a post-menopause-like state, which causes its own host of problems. She turned 30 in August, has been going through relationship ups and downs, and is asking herself big questions.

She's wondering a bit more about the uncertain future: Will she be able to have children, or could the chemo have affected her fertility? Where will she live? What will she do? Where will she go? Will she finally escape the clutches of the big C?

"Most cancers start small and work their way to superstar celebrity status," she writes. "All the drugs they give you, from hormonal to chemo, a lot of them really just put the cancer to deep sleep. Sometimes they sleep for a very, very long time. Sometimes they tear the bedcovers off and want to jazzercise with your major organs. And no one knows. That's the hard part. You don't know. The doctors don't know. They can do some pretty heavily researched guesswork, but ultimately cancer is an unguarded disease. It does what it wants and it won't let you off the hook. Ever."

The day before surgery to complete the second phase of breast reconstruction — reattaching her nipples — Lowry was notably restless. She seemed eager for the surgery, ready to start thinking about traveling again, perhaps moving to another city, starting fresh with new hope, having fun again, pursuing yoga, getting involved with nonprofits, working with the local chapter of Susan Komen to create a support group for younger women with breast cancer. Once again, she was feeling like the possibilities were endless.

Unlike her last bout with cancer, this time she's more connected to the cause. When friends and coworkers from Stella Nova run the Race for the Cure on Oct. 17, she won't feel the same social anxiety that she felt when her face was on their race T-shirts two years ago.

She knows she'll always be closely connected to the disease, and on a certain level grateful for the experience, if only because she's survived it.

"Cancer is telling me to wake the fuck up," she says. "I hate when people say cancer is a gift, because it's the last thing you want, but it does make you appreciate other things."

Lowry's beat cancer Playlist

1) "Sing Me to Sleep" —Chad VanGaalen
2) "Calling All Doctors" —Telekenesis
3) "40 Day Dream" —Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes
4) "The Fight Song" —Ane Brun
5) "You Saved My Life" —Cass McCombs
7) "Orange Shirt" —Discovery
8) "Heartbreaker" —MSTKRFT feat. John Legend
9) "We Own the Sky" —M83
10) "Feeling Good" —Nina Simone

Breast Cancer Events

The Daisy Dash
Sat. Oct. 10, 10 a.m. Riverland Terrace, James Island.

5K run to raise awareness for Simply Divine Garden, an organization that plants gardens for cancer patients to help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with treatment. Its mission is to show men and women undergoing treatment that life begins in the garden.

Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. $25 on-site registration fee includes a long-sleeved T-shirt and great prizes. Kids under 10 are free. simplydivinegarden.org

2009 Komen Lowcountry Race for the Cure
Sat. Oct. 17, 8 a.m. Daniel Island

Komen's largest and most popular event is the Race for the Cure. Lowry's friends Kirsten King and Josh Zoodsma along with her coworkers at Stella Nova are running on her behalf. To make a pledge, visit the Komen race site: race.komenlowcountry.org (Click on "find a participant to sponsor").

For information on the young women's cancer support group that's forming or to volunteer, contact Community Outreach Coordinator Lucy Spears at Komen. (843) 266-2699 komenlowcountry.org


Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-11 of 11

Add a comment

Classified Listings

Powered by Foundation   © Copyright 2016, Charleston City Paper   RSS