Danielle Farris has had a true roller coaster of a past couple years, facing the lowest of lows and celebrating the highest of highs along the way.
Farris recently gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Etta, now clocking in at 2 months old. Things feel very "normal," she said, as the family enjoys Etta being around and Farris goes about her day-to-day, making plans with friends and spending time with the family's new addition and her older brother, Oliver, 3.
Less than a year ago, however, Farris was in a fight for her life.
Farris was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in January 2018. She immediately created a treatment plan consisting of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation. Chemo started in February of that year, in six rounds, and wrapped up in June. The tumor was responsive and shrunk quite a bit, but a bilateral mastectomy was still necessary, on Aug. 1, 2018. Radiation began in October and was complete by November 2018. Besides the near year-long treatment plan, there's also the medications and immunotherapy added to the top of the pile post-treatment and beyond.
Needless to say, it was a long year.
"Especially when you're a woman — you start to lose your hair, and then it starts to grow back and it doesn't grow back fast enough for you," Farris said. "You don't feel like yourself. And you need to be yourself, because you have a toddler that only sees mommy — he doesn't see all that other stuff."
But Oliver was great throughout, she said. He'd tell Farris not to lift him while she was incapable during and immediately after her treatment, and he'd do a little bit more than what a parent might expect of a 3-year-old — walking a bit more than usual, or getting himself up into the car.
Farris has a reconstruction surgery on the horizon this November, and she's been on new medication that has been okay so far. This is her final surgery, despite it having been about a year since she finished with radiation, since the skin needs time to heal from that treatment.
"I hear it's a much easier surgery, so I'm looking to stick to the normalcy," Farris said.
It's apparent that having normalcy to fall back on is important to Farris — she continued working throughout nearly the entirety of her treatment in her marketing position with nonprofit MidwayUSA, where's she's been employed for around six years. She had flexibility to come in or work from home as needed, which she said was a big help as she started grasping how her body felt following different periods of her treatment process.
"I do not regret how much I worked during treatment at all," Farris said. "I think it was very helpful and it made me feel like me, and that's really important, I think, when you're faced with a diagnosis that isn't going to go away anytime soon."
Farris compared it to being on the mend of a lesser illness — sometimes getting out of bed and taking on the day just sounds exhausting, but you know if you just do it, you're going to feel better, she said.
Even after treatment, such struggles remain — the mending just shifts from a physical process to a mental one, Farris said. She said from the mental weight of possible recurrence to worries about having to leave behind a growing family, the mental tax can snowball easily.
"I'm a glass half full kind of person so I don't sit around and think the worst always," Farris said. "But at the same time, there are things that took me a little extra oomph to get through that wouldn't normally happen."
Add to that the fact that breast cancer is hormonally-driven, Farris said, and the after-effects are even further still. She said it's a one day at a time sort of process.
Taking it a day at a time is helped by a healthy support system — Farris was born and raised in California, where much of her family still lives. Farris has always stuck around Mid-Missouri, but she's been far enough away from home to feel "away" for a while — she attended Westminster College in Fulton and has now lived in Columbia for more than a decade.
She said despite living elsewhere for so long, you wouldn't know it based on the support from her hometown.
"I loved every minute of growing up in Moniteau County," Farris said. "And that community, since my diagnosis, has just been amazing, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest."
Farris said she's always gotten more emotional about the support she received throughout her battle with cancer, rather than about her diagnosis, and she said Moniteau County's at the top of that list. The small town mentality, the feeling of knowing everyone and being known in turn, was an important connection to her as she worked through her treatment.
Once the dust had settled a bit, Farris said it was an opportunity to begin thinking again about long-term goals, such as she and her husband's desire to continue adding to their young family.
"It wasn't ideal with the treatment plan that my oncologist and I had talked about," Farris said. "I wanted to be on the medication for two years, because I hoped I wasn't done growing my family, but (with) a diagnosis like breast cancer and the hormones involved — let alone with any cancer — things might not go like you thought they would."
And so the family's plans were seemingly halted, if only temporarily. As it would turn out, that plan would quickly be flipped on its head — Farris would soon become pregnant with her second child. She just wouldn't know it until months down the line, last May.
The plan, as Farris mentioned, was to spend two years — out of five to ten total — on her medication, before voluntarily pausing for a while to try for their second child.
"And that would be my choice," Farris said. "I'd take on the risk that could come from stopping all those medications, I'd be aware of all that. That was the original plan."
Yet all of a sudden, Farris could tell there was something going on with her body. Progress didn't seem to come at the gym. She was "eating a lot of celery," as she joked. She said this was all despite her doing all the things she thought she should be doing with the idea of getting back to full health in mind.
She chalked it up to a flux in hormones — posters on some of the forums she frequented for individuals using the same medication as her reported similarities in weight gain.
"Every time I tried to think it was something else, I was quickly brought back to what I thought was reality," Farris said.
Farris eventually decided, around May, that it was time to double check, and ultimately confirmed what was at times a quiet suspicion.
"That was quite the roller coaster, because you want to be excited, but you can't," Farris said. "You don't know if the baby's healthy."
So the couple pumped the breaks. They went in for tests, and made sure things looked good and healthy. That was the first piece of the puzzle, Farris said. And throughout, figures in her treatment like her oncologist were shocked, she said.
Farris said she's not sure of the percentage of women who have babies post-breast cancer, but she's heard it's a very unlikely cancer for this to be possible — that on top of the medication she was taking. Yet the baby was perfectly healthy, against all odds. Farris said that caused her focus to shift to her new baby, where previously it was on getting healthy herself.
"I was really focused on getting 'me' back," Farris said. "Work's going great, I'm hitting the gym, our son is thriving, I feel good, I have social plans. You know, you're just checking every other box, because that's what you kind of earn after a year of treatment."
Farris said, with the circumstances in mind, it's fair to label Etta a "miracle baby." They never had a doubt of her health, with each communication from doctors, and the baby has turned out to be a "perfect completion to our family," Farris said.
And on top of the joy of giving birth to a very healthy baby, it was something that could serve as another motivator in Farris' continued recovery, she said.
"It kind of renewed my competitive spirit to tackle the next chapter of treatment," Farris said.
The story's significance isn't lost on Farris in the midst of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she said. It goes back to trusting your gut and knowing your body, Farris said, and there are parallels to be drawn over the past couple legs in her journey.
"I could've continued to go on and not listen to that little voice in my head saying 'There's something else here,'" Farris said. "Its no different than if you, unfortunately, discover a lump."
Ultimately, Farris said, the highs and the lows since her diagnosis have all been a result of her speaking up and trusting in herself enough to use that agency. That, she said, is an important part of being an advocate for your own health.