Andrea Benavente finds ‘inner strength, silver linings’ in battle against breast cancer
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Andrea Benavente was 37, she felt a small lump.
Because of an aunt who was diagnosed at 45 and a grandmother at 68, Benavente always had heightened awareness about breast cancer.
She didn’t have insurance at the time, so she went to a low-cost clinic to get it checked out. There was no sense of alarm, but she was advised to keep an eye on it.
After the fourth time of requesting the lump be examined, always by a different doctor or nurse, it was advised she get a mammogram.
But even as she was scheduling the mammogram, her age made some question whether it was necessary.
“You have to be your own advocate,” she said. “You have to be the one to search out answers. You have to ask questions. You can’t let your fears take over.”
Immediately after the mammogram and sonogram, Dr. Terese Kaske at UCHealth Gloria Gossard Breast Care Center in Steamboat Springs ordered a biopsy.
Kaske was great, Benavente said, and very upfront.
“She was 98% sure this was cancerous,” Benavente said.
From there, everything happened fast.
And it was all during a period of major life upheaval for Benavente. She was going through a very painful divorce. Everything she’d thought her life was going to be was changing. She wasn’t sure where she would be living.
After more testing, it was determined a mastectomy wasn’t necessary, so she scheduled a lumpectomy. However, traces of the cancer were found in her lymph nodes, so she began an intensive treatment regiment.
The same week of diagnosis, Benavente had started a new job — a management position in retail, two things she’d never done before.
Uncertain whether she would be able to keep the job to which she had just committed, Benavente found complete support from her employers at Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.
“My boss is the reason I was able to get through it,” she said.
Diagnosed with a “triple positive” type of breast cancer — which is more aggressive and grows off of hormones — Benavente’s treatment also included immunotherapy infusions for a year following the chemotherapy.
During fall 2018, Benavente received 62 radiation treatments at Shaw Cancer Center. The triple positive essentially meant “there’s so much to feed on,” she said, but she knew the rigorous treatment had good results.
A friend donated $2,000 in her name to help with her stay at Jack’s Place, a “cancer caring house” that operates on a pay-what-you-can lodging system.
There were so many people who stepped up to help, Benavente said, fighting back tears as she thought about the friends, family and co-workers — mostly women — who pitched in.
The nonprofit Bust of Steamboat also assisted with some expenses, especially while she couldn’t work, and equally as important, provided emotional support.
After the “awfulness of chemo,” Benavente dived into her job — she was single and reliant on her paycheck — quitting wasn’t an option.
“I rocked the bald,” she said. Wearing big earrings and keeping her scalp shaved smooth, a lot of people thought that was just her style.
After everything in her life seemed to be falling apart, Benavente was back on her feet. She’d made the decision to stay in Steamboat Springs and started the process of buying a house.
She was thriving in her new job and working as much as she possibly could.
The final parts of her cancer treatment ended last spring. There still were more difficult decisions to make, however, as Benavente elected to have her ovaries removed and take hormone blockers. As a result, she recently entered early menopause.
While the ovary removal surgery took her out of commission for about a week, “after chemo, everything seemed easy,” she said.
Young and healthy going into the diagnosis, Benavente’s body healed quickly. By the end of last ski season, she was skiing the Hogan Park Trail. During the summer, she fell in love with mountain biking, and next summer, she plans to take up rock climbing.
Last week, she was playing tennis with 24-year-old men.
She has her hair back, though she’s still waiting on her eyelashes and eyebrows.
The biggest struggle was the “chemo brain,” a mental fog that affects chemo patients, sometimes for only a short while, sometimes for much longer. She also experienced severe anxiety, another “side effect you don’t think of” when it relates to a cancer diagnosis.
Because the cancer had spread into her body, Benavente doesn’t think of herself as “cured.” She will be under close monitoring for many years to come and is looking at survival on a year-to-year timeline.
But today, Benavente feels stronger than ever, both physically and mentally. Going through cancer and divorce at the same time revealed an inner strength, independence and fearlessness she didn’t know she had.
She’s found out she’s a badass.
Now, Benavente is providing support to other women dealing with cancer diagnosis.
She cannot emphasize enough the importance of being armed with knowledge. The more information you have, the more control you have, she said.
“It’s very scary, but you can’t let that keep you from knowing,” Benavente said.
Making a conscious effort at finding daily silver linings also helped Benavente through. She posted them on her Instagram account: Her hair growing back with curls; hosting a dinner for all the amazing nurses she met; free pottery and yoga classes during her radiation treatment; walks with her dog Pepperoni; her art; and a job she loves.
As 2018 drew to a close, she wrote: “I feel so grateful for the new friends I’ve made, challenges I’ve conquered and lessons that have made me stronger. Thank you cancer?”
On her 38th birthday, she wrote: “Having glanced at the possibility of death up close and personally I appreciate the privilege of aging. Chemo really impacted my body speeding up the aging process (wrinkly skin, stiff bones, declining eyesight, menopause), but I also matured so much and found an incredible love for myself and my body.”
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