Carly Byrd was just 25 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she would go on to battle the disease two more times and make decisions that would alter her life forever.

Last updated: July 12. 2014 12:13PM - 14026 Views
By - mruberti@civitasmedia.com

Following her third diagnosis of breast cancer, Carly started chemotherapy which lasted for a year. After a five year battle, she was finally declared in remission in April 2013.
Following her third diagnosis of breast cancer, Carly started chemotherapy which lasted for a year. After a five year battle, she was finally declared in remission in April 2013.
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When you meet Carly Byrd, the first thing you'll notice is her warm and friendly smile. Quick to follow is her upbeat personality and positive energy.
You'd never know the battles she's fought or the uncertain road that still lies ahead, until she shows you her scars. Each one like a map on a journey Carly never wanted to join, but is bravely walking through one step at a time. It started back in November 2007 with some abnormal discharge.
“When I first noticed it, I assumed it to be a nicked nipple or dry skin that just needed to heal,” Carly explained. “Every time I showered I checked it and cleaned it with Neosporin and a bandage …. but there was a small amount of blood.”
Married at the time, the Troup County High School graduate kept the discovery to herself hoping it would heal on it's own. But by January, with no change in sight, she went to her gynecologist who took some samples and sent it off to the Mayo Clinic to be tested. The news wasn't good. Carly had Ductal Carcinoma Insitu, a type of breast cancer. She was just 25 years old with no family history of the disease.
“It was really overwhelming,” said Carly. “But you can't deal with the emotions because you're dealing with the business end of the diagnosis. You become an expert on cancer terminology. It's like having a second degree. You join message boards. Your life becomes centered around cancer.”
Fortunately for Carly, the cancer had not spread. She had a lumpectomy, but was given the option to have a double mastectomy in hopes of eradicating the disease forever.
“I thought if I keep one breast I can still breast feed my baby, when I have one,” she said. “But I opted for the double mastectomy. That was the beginning if a journey that I'm still on.”
On March 19, 2008, 25-year-old Carly Byrd had the surgery. During the operation, doctors took out 99.7 percent of her breast tissue and placed expanders inside her chest to begin the process of reconstruction.
“I remember waking up and feeling so sorry for myself,” Carly remembered. “I heard nurses talking and jabbering about trivial things and at that moment I realized my world had shifted. That was the moment I knew I was a cancer patient.”
Carly didn't let herself feel down for long. Since she required no further treatment, she continued the process towards breast reconstruction. Three years passed, and while the cancer remained in remission, life continued to throw her curve balls. One of her new implants slipped, causing her to start the reconstruction process all over again, and sadly, her marriage crumbled as well. Just a year after her double mastectomy, Carly and her husband divorced.
Still, Carly found joy in the simple things, like refurbishing her grandmother's home in LaGrange and peace with her new found freedom. Plus the comfort of her family, friends, and favorite dog. As she said, “life was great.”
That was on the outside. But lurking on the inside was another ominous signal Carly's life was about to change, and not for the better. It first showed itself in February 2011, appearing as three lumps over her left breast that Carly said, “felt like bb's on her chest.”
She went back to her oncologist who delivered the news she feared most.
“He said, 'Carly, that's cancer. You have less than 1 percent of breast tissue left. In all my 30 years of practice, you're only the third patient I've had that's had a recurrence.'”
This time, after the surgeon removed all three lumps, he prescribed radiation treatment. Carly went every day for six weeks and thought she was in the clear. But on the last day of treatment, during her exit physical exam, the doctor found another lump under her armpit, in the same place Carly received her radiation. Once again, she received a cancer diagnosis, but this one was a little more devastating. It was stage 2 invasive metastatic breast cancer.
The surgeons removed 15 lymph nodes; two were riddled with cancerous tumors. Now, the doctor told Carly, it's time for chemotherapy.
Just to make sure she was on the right path to remission, Carly decided to seek a second opinion at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Since chemo can also cause women to go into early menopause, Carly had to make a tough decision about her future. Would she want children? And did she want to risk the side effects of chemo in hopes she would conceive naturally? It was a risk she wasn't willing to take.
While in Texas, she visited a fertility specialist at the Sher Institute in Dallas, where they harvested 25 eggs and are storing them for a later date.
“That whole trip gave me peace of mind,” she said. “It also gave me hope that even though cancer took my breast …. it didn't take away my chance of having kids.”
In June 2011, Carly started chemotherapy on the road to becoming a three time breast cancer survivor … all before the age of 30. She said the year long treatment was the hardest part of her cancer battle.
“I was drinking coffee in bed and I had a mug in my hand. I looked down and I had hair in my coffee,” she said. “Losing your hair is 1,000 times harder than losing your breast. You can put socks in your bra and no one would ever know. But you can't hide your head.”
But Carly was determined to be positive through the process.
“Your life doesn't stop,” she said. “The world doesn't stop turning. Sometimes you have to find something to get you out of bed because some days it will seem nothing will.”
In June 2012, Carly stopped chemo and in April 2013, her cancer was officially declared in remission. She went through yet another reconstruction surgery, this time surgeons took muscle, skin, tissue, and veins from her back to reshape her chest wall and new breasts. While the physical scars from her battle are fading, the emotional ones remain as vibrant as the scarves she wore to cover her balding head during chemo.
“It can be you … don't think it can't,” she said. “The physical effects become the 'new normal,' but you're never the same on the inside …. it's a complex web of emotions that filters into every day life. It's hard.”
“I don't always have sunny days,” Carly added. “Sometimes I think about how my life has changed without my consent. But I don't dwell on it [breast cancer] …. what I don't do is the 'why me?' game. There's no time for that. I think 'why not me?' It's redefined who I am. I've always been a friendly, outgoing person. Now I'm a friendly, outgoing, relatable, approachable person for anyone going through cancer.”
In fact, Carly has become very outspoken about her battle with the disease. She's appeared on several talk shows, spoken in front of civic groups, and started her own blog that chronicles her fight with breast cancer.
“Breast cancer allowed me to be me,” she said. “You don't have to hold back anymore. You embrace who you are and share it.”
While she has found some solace in being a three-time breast cancer survivor, Carly said she still wrestles with heart wrenching decisions about her future. The cost of continuing to store her eggs is getting expensive. One of her ongoing treatments requires her to be on the cancer fighting drug Tomoxifen, which prevents her body from producing estrogen. She'll stay on that for the next 10 years, meaning she won't be able to conceive children naturally.
But while she struggles with the decision to keep her eggs, she said she knows either way she'll be fine.
In all, Carly has had 18 surgeries … and still counting. She sees her oncologist every three months for a checkup and tries not to worry about the cancer returning. Yoga has become a staple in Carly's life, as well as healthy eating, and educating the public. As she said, she didn't ask to be a cancer survivor, but has found a sisterhood and strength through the disease she never wants to let go.
“We don't all lose our hair or a breast,” Carly said. “But there is a common thread for those of us who have fought the 'dragon.' We're all optimistic people. And I'm proud to be a part of that group.”
You can follow Carly's journey on Facebook under “The Carly Byrd Hope Fund” or read her blog at www.littlegypsybyrd.blogspot.com.

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