Breast cancer survivor: Keep positive attitude, have an advocate

When a rapidly growing lump appears and intensive treatment and life-changing surgery ensue, “you have to” keep a positive attitude, said Mandy Bergstrom, of Jersey Shore, who is in remission after battling breast cancer.

“I don’t associate cancer with death,” she said. “Cancer sucks. Chemo sucks. Your whole world changes. But, after that, it really does get better.”

Bergstrom completed her last round of chemotherapy nearly two years ago and also went through a nine-hour double mastectomy, or the removal of both her breasts. The painstaking process strengthened her faith and gave her a new appreciation for life, she said.

“I have a lot of faith,” Bergstrom said. “I know God guided me through it, and He still guides me every day.”

Despite the rigorous chemo treatments, painful neuropathy, or nerve damage caused by chemo, and problems in her personal life, Bergstrom said she maintained her sense of humor and positivity thanks to her family and friends.

“Without my mom, Cindy, and step-dad, Rob, I wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “My son Gabriel was my angel the whole time. I would watch him and think, ‘Wow, he has so much energy and life.’ And you know what? I have that, too.”

Along with keeping her chin up, Bergstrom said another reason she made it through treatment was because her mom advocated for her.

When treatment starts to affect someone’s body in new and unexpected ways, or when a patient doesn’t know what something is, it’s important to be able to speak up, she said.

“Don’t let the doctors pass you off and say, ‘Oh, you’re fine,’ “ Bergstrom said. “Make them explain things. You need somebody to talk you through it, or you’ll feel like you’re crazy. Open your mouth and get the answers.”

But, even with keeping her positive attitude, having the aid of her family and making it through treatment, Bergstrom still struggles with aspects of her new life — particularly with her appearance.

Bergstrom began to lose her hair within a week of starting chemotherapy. It’s now grown back and is shoulder length, but is much more curly than before her treatment. Such a thing may seem minor, but to a hair dresser by trade, the change is difficult for Bergstrom.

The bigger struggle for her, though, is her chest.

After the double mastectomy, Bergstrom received implants that are smaller than her natural breasts and that, she feels, were poorly executed. The scars, placement, loose skin and other issues resulting from surgery make her very self-conscious.

Bergstrom said she used to work more with the public, both by dressing hair and helping her mom with event-planning. She now hides in baggy shirts and often struggles to find the energy to do her hair or makeup.

“Why bother? I don’t like the way I look, at all,” she said. “I would never dress hair like this. I used to do more up-front work. Now I’ll stay in the background.”

Her self-consciousness clashes with her gratitude for beating cancer, she said.

“It’s so hard, thinking about everything you went through and survived, and then thinking about doing something to change your appearance,” Bergstrom said.

But her son, family, friends and other parts of her life help Bergstrom stay positive. Fearing there was a chance she wouldn’t make it this far has changed her outlook, she said.

“Things aren’t a big deal anymore. I don’t dwell,” she said. “I just smile about life. I’m way more content.”