It started with a cup of coffee.
In 2013, Nicole Clark was going through chemotherapy treatments after an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 39. Clark was having coffee at a restaurant near her Lovettsville home, her bare head covered by a scarf, when a fellow mom began (hesitantly at first) asking questions about her experience. Those questions prompted Clark and a friend to launch the inaugural Breast Friends event later that year: a funny, moving, no holds barred conversation about breast cancer.
“I joke and say ‘I’m the boob lady of Lovettsville’ … I’m happy about it and it makes me so proud,” Clark said with a laugh.
Now 43 and cancer free, Clark is gearing up for her third Breast Friends event later this month, with a goal of sharing her story and helping other women. The event takes place Sept. 29 at Harmony Middle School near Hamilton and features a talk from Clark about her experience and a Q&A with a panel of doctors.
Clark, an Army veteran who now works an office job, was shocked when she got her initial diagnosis at a young age, despite having no family history of the disease. Her gynecologist found the tumor during a routine breast exam, setting the course for Clark’s year-long battle.
“It was just kind of a roller coaster from there,” she said, with a whirlwind of tests and specialists including a mammogram, biopsies (which led to the discovery that her cancer was at stage two), six months of chemotherapy and six surgeries, including a lumpectomy and eventually a mastectomy.
In the midst of her chemotherapy treatment, following her aha moment at the coffee bar, Clark began planning the first Breast Friends event in 2013. She teamed up with her friend and neighbor Michelle Batt, who lost a close family member to breast cancer and tested positive for the breast cancer gene mutation (also known as BRCA), which has been shown to increase the risk for breast cancer. The friends repeated their presentation the following year but took a hiatus last year when Batt took a job abroad. This fall, as Clark’s daughter entered middle school, she decided to revive the program, using new connections to reach a wider audience in western Loudoun and beyond.
Clark’s aim is to be brutally honest—and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny—about the ups and downs of breast cancer. She openly discusses her struggle with the effects of chemotherapy, including losing her hair and nails and suffering from unbearably itchy skin, and the toll treatment took on her family, husband Bill and daughter Jordan, now 11. Clark describes the grueling moments: when Bill couldn’t hold her because chemo made her skin so sensitive, and her constant feeling of never being able to get warm, along with weight gain and depression linked to steroid medications taken during chemo.
But there were also plenty of moving and funny moments, like when her co-workers’ coordinated a program to donate sick leave and vacation time during her treatment and the countless times her family fell back on humor as a coping mechanism.
“We have a good sense of humor—kind of a twisted sense of humor—in our family,” Clark said. “There were even jokes coming from [Jordan] about the cancer.”
And while humor is a big part of her Breast Friends talk, it’s also a time to tackle serious issues. Clark uses her presentation to help women focus on self-care and paying attention to their bodies, as well as to promote screening and her recommendation that 3D mammograms become the new standard of care.
“She’s really trying to use her negative experience to help others have a more positive experience, and that’s a really important thing,” said Clark’s breast surgeon, Dr. Elizabeth Feldman of Reston Breast Care Specialists.
Feldman will be part of panel of doctors at the Sept. 29 program, including an oncologist, a plastic surgeon, a family doctor and a gynecologist, along with representatives of Loudoun-based Radiology Imaging Associates. The panel will supplement Clark’s presentation, answer questions and provide information on advances in treatment since her diagnosis.
“The earlier we can catch a cancer with screenings, the less aggressive a treatment may be and the potential that we can extend patients’ lives if we can catch it early and cure it. That’s really the best thing that we can do,” said Dr. Mei Firestone, an oncologist with Oncology/Hematology of Loudoun and Reston, who will also sit on the panel. Firestone said immunotherapy (which has not yet been approved for treatment of breast cancer) is often a “hot topic” at awareness events.
Clark said the programs often attract both women who have been recently diagnosed and are looking for information and advice, as well as women with no personal or family history who simply want to educate themselves, and speaking to both of those audiences is part of her mission to share her experience.
“I think that’s why I was left behind,” she said, “to tell people what they need to know.”
The adults-only Breast Friends event takes place 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, at Harmony Middle School, 38174 W. Colonial Highway in Hamilton. Doors open at 6 p.m. Refreshments will be provided and door prizes from local businesses will be offered to the first 50 visitors.