Ashlie Woodward, a teacher at Little Lions Learning Lab at Louisa County Public Schools, was only 31 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2014.
When she first felt the lump on her breast, she thought it was nothing – her daughter was one year old at the time, and she thought it was just hormones. Then she became more concerned, and her husband encouraged her to go to the doctor.
She didn’t check any of the usual boxes for being at risk for breast cancer: She was young, and there wasn’t significant family history of cancer. The doctors reassured her but scheduled an ultrasound, just in case.
From there, Woodward said things escalated “at lightning speed.”
“Within two weeks of that, I had a diagnosis,” Woodward said. “Initially, [there was] shock, and then I was angry, I was sad, and I was terrified.”
The day after she was diagnosed, she didn’t go to work. She stayed home by herself, feeling emotional and unsure.
“Still to this day, I wish I would have just called my mom or a friend or my husband and said ‘Hey, I need you to come home. I’m not OK.’” Woodward said.
The treatments started immediately. After being diagnosed in April 2014, she had a double mastectomy that June and started 16 weeks of chemotherapy two months later.
“The whole thing was super emotional,” Woodward said. “I like to control things, so it was difficult for me to have to let go of that.”
She finished her chemotherapy the day before Thanksgiving 2014. She said that the journey to that point was difficult but that she was so thankful for her support network of family and friends. She never went a day thinking she wouldn’t have someone with her, citing her husband, mom, step-father, brothers, friends and colleagues as some of her biggest supporters.
“It’s still so overwhelming to even think about, but I never once had to worry that I wasn’t going to have people with me,” Woodward said. “I was just so lucky.”
One of her friends, Denise Feagans, asked Woodward if she could document her journey through photographs and a blog. Woodward was hesitant at first but ultimately agreed to share her journey with others who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and her daughter, who was too young at the time to understand what was happening.
“I want [my daughter] to know exactly what it was like and why I went through all of it,” Woodward said. “It was for her and her daddy. I had to just do what I had to do to live.”
Woodward has been cancer-free for six years but is still healing from its aftermath. Because doctors linked her breast cancer with estrogen, they advised her to not have any more children, which was devastating for her. She gets an injection every three months to suppress her ovarian function and estrogen production, which includes side effects that mimic menopause.
“While one of the hardest parts of it all for me was making peace with not being able to have any more children, I thank God every day for the amazing gift of my daughter,” Woodward said.
October is breast cancer awareness month. While Woodward says it’s great to have a month of focus on breast cancer prevention, the importance of self-exams and self-advocacy, and those who have been diagnosed, she also says that for her, it will never be just a month.
“For me, breast cancer awareness is all the time,” she said.
Woodward encourages all women to do their self-exams and see a doctor if they feel anything abnormal. For women who have been diagnosed, she encourages them to accept help from others.
“Let people help you and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and show emotion,” Woodward said. “It’s a tough thing [to go through], and it’s going to be a lot easier to get through with people beside you.”