“I just got off the bus during a class field trip,” Kaiser science teacher Tanya Ashimine said. “My phone rang. I thought it was just my mother checking up on me, but when I looked at the screen, it was my doctor calling.” The week before, Ashimine had scheduled an appointment with her radiologist for a mammogram and biopsy. She had asked him to tell her the results of her biopsy as soon as he found out. “When my doctor told me I had breast cancer over the phone, I was not surprised. I kind of expected it because of the talk I had with my radiologist, which was a different talk from the ones I had in the past,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be good news.”
Ashimine proceeded with the field trip as if everything was normal. “Although I had expected breast cancer ever since the biopsy, being told you actually have cancer is such an unreal experience. At that moment, I wasn’t scared or freaking out. I was utterly numb,” she said.
Soon after her diagnosis, Ashimine underwent a lumpectomy, a procedure in which the tumor and the surrounding tissue are surgically removed. The extracted tumor was larger than her doctors had thought, which complicated the procedure. They had originally estimated it to be around 2-3 mm, but it turned out to be 5 mm, forcing them to make a larger incision. “It took a long time to recover from that surgery. I can still feel the pain in my breast sometimes,” Ashimine said.
Even after the removal of the tumor, Ashimine wasn’t out of the woods. She still had to eliminate any remaining cancer cells. However, when the doctor suggested chemotherapy, Ashimine adamantly turned it down. “I didn’t want to lose my hair. Also, the side effects of the radiation scared me. And so did the thought of feeling nauseous all of the time. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had been so nauseous I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t want a repeat of that,” she said. Fortunately, the doctors suggested chemotherapy’s milder cousin, radiation treatment, instead and Ashimine agreed to undergo the procedure. “I cried immediately; I was so relieved and happy. It felt like a large burden was lifted off my shoulders,” she said.
After scheduling her treatment, Ashimine took medical leave from her job at Kaiser. Then, for six weeks, she went to the Cancer Center of Hawaii to undergo radiation therapy. “I had done some research beforehand, but nothing could have prepared me for actually receiving the treatment,” she said. “The people there made it easier. I loved them. They treated me very well for the duration of my visit and and made sure I was comfortable and knew what to expect.”
When all thirty rounds of radiation treatment were completed, the doctors deemed Ashimine clear of cancer. However, her life still did not go back to normal. She would need to do follow-up tests with her doctors every three months for five years to check for any complications caused by the therapy. “I did experience some lasting pain in the area around my surgical scar. I still do now, in fact. But on the bright side, I always felt really lucky that I didn’t have to do chemotherapy.”
Soon after the radiation therapy, Ashimine was able to return to Kaiser and teach. “Despite what I had gone through, being at Kaiser again felt like none of it ever happened. I felt like my old self,” she said.
Ashimine credits her successful recovery to the unwavering support from her family, friends, fellow teachers, and students. Family members spent time with her while she stayed in the hospital and assisted her in transportation to and from the hospital. Her close friends texted her consistently and made her cards to show their support. “They weren’t sappy, or sad, they were just like ‘we’re thinking about you,’” Ashimine said. Fellow teacher and friend, Janelle Ling, bought her the breast-care book, Dr Susan Love’s Breast Book. Ling’s aunt, who also had breast cancer, made Ashimine a pillow to ease the pain after the removal of her tumor.
As a science teacher, Ashimine considers research extremely valuable. She learned as much as she could from books like Love’s Breast Book, as well as from her doctors, and peers who previously had breast cancer. Ashimine believes listening to one’s doctor and getting regular screenings to avoid lasting health issues is vital.“ I started to get my mammograms when I was supposed to, and I went in for my six month check when I was supposed to,” she said. If not for the regular check-ups Ashimine’s tumor could have grown even larger and would have most likely have required chemotherapy. “Do what you are supposed to do, when you are supposed to do it,” she said.