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Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women.
Approximately 1 in 8 women in Canada are expected to develop breast cancer in their lifetime — this includes our friends, family and co-workers.
Two if those women — Erica and Parminder — have heard the words "you have breast cancer," and know what it's like to have their lives changed forever.
Read on to learn more about the personal and unique experiences of these two breast cancer survivors, who open up to support others on a similar journey.
Erica: 'Cancer is nothing to be embarrassed about'
After weeks of tests, poking and prodding, Erica Hawkshaw "kind of knew" that she had breast cancer. At the age of 39, she received her official diagnosis.
"I knew this was coming and I was prepared…as prepared as one can be when finding out their body has betrayed them and is now trying to kill them," she recalls.
After her diagnosis, her first thought was, "now what?" The doctors swiftly scheduled her a bi-lateral mastectomy, and she underwent hormone therapy, chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation — which began right before Christmas in 2019.
Opening up about her mastectomy and eventual mastectomy tattoo, Hawkshaw reveals that she "wasn't looking forward to it" but ended up feeling "beautiful."
"I have two long scars, but they are beautiful scars...and they are a reminder of what I endured to get them."Erica Hawkshaw
"No woman wants to be flat...seeing my chest was oddly gratifying for me because I knew that the cancer was now removed from my body," she explains. "I was worried that I was going to be left with some ugly, puckered, mangled scar across my chest. That was not the case. Yes, I have two long scars, but they are beautiful scars...and they are a reminder of what I endured to get them."
When asked how she stayed hopeful during her diagnosis, Hawkshaw credits her "fight" mentality and her support system that made her feel less alone.
"Hearing the actual words 'it’s cancer' threw me into fight mode and I was ready to go. I wanted to know what we were going to do, how we were going to fight, when could we get started," she says. "I was and still am, extremely blessed with my support system. My husband, family and friends rallied around me. I would get cards and notes of encouragement in the mail."
Although Hawkshaw says that "breast cancer sucks," she wants those affected by the condition to know that there are many people out there with the disease, and they're "thriving."
"Sure, you’re going to be really sick for at least a year, but it ends and the light at the end of the tunnel is bright and it’s beautiful. There's hope," Hawkshaw adds.
When it comes to advice for those with cancer, or who might get it in the future, Hawkshaw encourages people to not keep it to themselves. In her eyes, speaking openly about your condition can help you get the support you deserve.
"The more people that know of your diagnosis, the more people can support you through it – and trust me, you’ll be surprised by who steps up and who doesn’t; it’s eye opening," she explains. "Cancer is nothing to be embarrassed about, you didn’t do anything wrong."
"The more people that know of your diagnosis, the more people can support you through it"Erica Hawkshaw
Parminder: 'You don't need to be brave and strong all the time'
In August 2021, Parminder Punia felt a lump in her right breast. After a few weeks of tests, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
For Punia, the diagnosis came as a "complete shock" because she felt "in perfect health."
"I had been exercising on a regular basis since the pandemic began so I didn't understand why this was happening to me. I wanted to know...what I had done wrong to be diagnosed with cancer," she says.
For two days, Punia recalls being "full of emotions" including sadness, anger and hopelessness. However, she quickly realized she needed to "pull [herself] together."
"I had so much life to live still and I was not going to let cancer get in the way of me seeing my daughter graduate university, get married, have children," she explains. "From that day forward, I was on a personal mission to get better and get back to my life."
When asked what she wants other people to know about the breast cancer journey, it's that it's "not all bad." However, Punia says that the mental game can be tricky to overcome.
"Breast cancer has good and bad days...The physical pain and symptoms can be managed with advanced medications but managing the mental pain is the most challenging part of the journey," she reveals. "The health care system is very fragmented and no one stops to ask how the patient is feeling from a mental perspective about the journey."
"Therefore it is critical that the patient takes control of their own mental health and ensure they are feeling good during the treatment plan," Punia adds.
When it comes to advice for people touched by breast cancer, Punia suggests asking lots of questions and surrounding yourself with a positive support system.
"Allow yourself to be angry, scream, cry and laugh as there is no handbook on how to handle breast cancer."Parminder Punia
"Get second opinions and don't believe everything you read on the internet as everyone's body reacts differently to breast cancer and the treatment plans," she says. "Surround yourself with positivity and ensure to keep calm. This will help in the healing processing and build mental energy."
Further, she emphasizes how important it is to seek help and let out your emotions.
"There are so many resources and support systems available to breast cancer patients that will help along the journey," Punia explains. "My last advice would be that you don't need to be brave and strong all the time! Allow yourself to be angry, scream, cry and laugh as there is no handbook on how to handle breast cancer."