Montreal mother and daughter battle breast cancer at the same time
MONTREAL — Last November, barely 22 when she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, Lindsey Hope Finkelstein had radical surgery to amputate both breasts. Within six months, as she was getting chemotherapy, her mom, Merle, was in the operating room for the same surgery, a double mastectomy.
“Two cancer diagnoses, two double mastectomies and two best friends,” an emotional Lindsey wrote on Instagram about the twin ordeal.
Merle faced breast cancer seven years ago. Back then, “the diagnosis sounded like a death sentence,” she recalled. But not the second time. In April, her diagnosis of Stage 1 cancer seemed like “a hiccup,” Merle said. And the decision to have radical surgery came easily, even before the results of the biopsy showed it was malignant, she said, “because of Lindsey’s approach to cancer.”
Lindsey, the youngest of Merle’s children, is her hero for “facing things no young woman should have to face, with such courage and humour and determination. She has a dream and she’s building it.”
When the Montreal Gazette first spoke with Lindsey, she’d recently attended a bachelorette-type bash at a Montreal boutique hotel, “Lindsey’s breast friends Booblerette prior to surgery.” She was bidding adieu to her breasts — and to her current self, still whole, intact and carefree.
Resolute in finding joy and beauty in daily activities, and determined to help others going through similar situations, Lindsey shared her experiences on an Instagram account called tatatomytatas that now has more than 4,000 followers, hashtag #howtohavefunwithcancer, and on her Facebook page. She’s also an ambassador for the Look Good Feel Better campaign, posting several blogs, for example, about the emotional aspect of going from “blondie to baldie.”
Terrified of blood tests and medical procedures, afraid her life’s dreams were in ruins — university, marriage, a career, and a family — Lindsey was nonetheless determined no one would feel sorry for her. Once she recovered from surgery, she saw a fertility expert about preserving her eggs. In January, she and longtime boyfriend, Jonathan Ifrah, got engaged. Then she started 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
Make no mistake, Lindsey said, it’s no picnic having cancer. “It’s an effort to be happy, but sad is not doing anything for me. I’ve got the metabolism of a 60-year-old; I’m bald, but I have a fiancé.”
Breast cancer in young women is rare. In 2013, only 4% of all breast cancer cases occurred in women under the age of 40 in Canada, according to the Canadian Cancer Society’s Advisory Committee on Cancer Statistics. Breast cancer risk increases with age. In 2016, an estimated 83% of new cases occurred in Canadian women over the age of 50.
As a seven-year survivor of cancer, Merle finally had got the all-clear from her oncologist. She could stop taking Tamoxifen, an anti-cancer hormone therapy often prescribed for several years. But as per Lindsey’s instructions, Merle had been doing breast self-exams on the first of every month, in the shower. It was a chilling experience to find a lump April 1 — within days of being declared cancer-free, she said.
Although mother and daughter are extremely close, Merle hesitated to tell her daughter.
“I wanted to tell her. But I was concerned about her reaction. She’s in the middle of chemo. This is her journey. I didn’t want to infringe on it, no matter how lousy it is,” she said. “Our life experiences are very different. I’m going to be 63, I’m a mother of three.”
As for Lindsey, learning her mother had cancer was devastating.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I didn’t believe it was happening.”
Within weeks of the diagnosis, Lindsey threw her mother a Booblerette party, complete with a naked butler (wearing an apron) to serve drinks. “It was better than mine,” she said, chuckling.
On May 11, she walked by her mother’s side as her stretcher rolled toward surgery. Lindsey and her sister had worn silly Superman and Batman costumes to lighten the mood. Her mother loved it. The entire ward was in stitches, Merle said.
Lindsey posted some of these images to Instagram, one is captioned: “This woman is my hero, this woman is my inspiration, this woman is my mother. I watched you take care of me during these past 6 months and now it is my turn to take care of you. I love you champ.”
But as the hours passed in the waiting room, Lindsey, whose immune system is compromised because of cancer treatments, started feeling sick. She ended up in the emergency room, when her body temperature spiked to 40C. That day, health teams cared for mother and daughter in different areas of the same hospital.
“This has taken quite a toll on everybody, but especially my parents,” Merle said this week. “It’s hard to watch a child be sick. And it’s hard to see your granddaughter and daughter.”
The two went through another rough patch in late May. Within two weeks of her operation, Merle was running a fever, a sign of infection. Lindsey insisted she go back to the hospital. “Luckily, I listened to Lindsey,” said Merle, who had sepsis, a life threatening bacterial infection. “It was really serious.”
On the last Friday in May, Merle had emergency surgery, what felt to her like “a mastectomy on top of my mastectomy.” She was prescribed three powerful antibiotics, two of them delivered intravenously. Lindsey couldn’t visit her at the hospital because she is susceptible to infection. But Merle called to say she also has an IV pole now, although not for chemo. “We’re twins,” Merle told her. “You dress mine and I’ll dress yours.”
It’s not known what provoked the cancer. The family is undergoing genetic testing.
But Lindsey hopes her mother doesn’t follow in her footsteps entirely. The family is waiting for results from a pathology report on whether Merle will need chemotherapy. “We’re hoping for a summer away from hospitals,” Merle said.
There’s one more celebration coming this month: Lindsey’s end of chemo party, which Merle is already planning. And if Merle doesn’t need chemotherapy, the two will be going on a road trip to Vancouver Island.
Asked whether cancer brought them closer, both quickly said that could not be possible.
“We’re attached at the hip,” Lindsey said. “How can we be any closer?”