Conquering Breast Cancer Courageously

Conquering Breast Cancer Courageously

Julie Eichholz is a warrior for women everywhere facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

Eichholz’s journey started after she felt a hard lump near her armpit in June 2016. Although she has had lumpy breasts since her 20s due to fibrocystic breast disease, she knew this lump was different.

“This is a little weird, probably should get it checked out. It’s a little harder. It’s in a little different position,” Eichholz thought. “Because generally my lumps were in the front of my breasts, and this particular one was closer to my armpit, and it was harder. So I decided to get it checked out.”

She had a mammogram in June and, with her history, Eichholz’s doctor decided to keep an eye on it and have it rechecked in January. In January 2017, they rechecked her breast, did a biopsy, and determined she had stage 1 breast cancer.

“So that’s where we started the journey,” Eichholz recalled. 

Hearing the news

The pathologist called Eichholz after going over everything with the radiologist and consulting other people on the case.

“I was on pins and needles waiting for the information to arrive and just sort of in the back of my mind knowing that this was probably going to be a little different than what I’ve experienced before,” Eichholz said.

Eichholz was working for the Air Force at the time as a government contractor. She worked with trauma care doctors and nurses, so she pulled one of them into the office with her when she took the pathologist’s call.

“I’ve got some news that is going to be a little difficult to hear, but we’re going to be here to walk you through it,” the pathologist reassured her. He then told her that it looked to be stage 1 breast cancer, but she needed to follow up with a breast surgeon. He recommended Dr. James Clanahan of Lincoln Surgical Associates and medical director of The Harold & Dixie
LePere Breast Health Center at Memorial.

Treatment and surgery options

Eichholz researched surgeons and agreed that Dr. Clanahan was the right one for her.

“I have an amazing support system,” Eichholz said. “From the trauma care nurses and doctors, they pulled me in, and they did research with me, and they pre-positioned my questions.”

One of her colleagues even accompanied Eichholz, her husband, and her mother to the first appointment with Dr. Clanahan. Armed with a long list of questions for Dr. Clanahan, Eichholz remembers that first meeting. “He was very patient,” she said. “He did not seem put off by all of our questions, because there are so many questions once you find out about this diagnosis. We actually went through the long list of questions, and he went through and patiently answered every single one of them. He continues to be that way today.”

When it was time to discuss treatment options, Dr. Clanahan said Eichholz could have a single mastectomy or a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. Eichholz and her family decided on a bilateral mastectomy.

“Even though there was no cancer present in the right [breast] at the time, I thought I would just take away the opportunity for that to happen and give myself the gift of no more mammograms,” Eichholz said.

An unexpected twist

Eichholz went through bilateral and reconstructive surgery believing everything was fine. About two weeks after surgery, the final pathology came back: It was stage 2 cancer. This changed everything.

“Chemo and radiation was back on the table,” Eichholz said. “Although they don’t typically do reconstruction prior to chemo and radiation, that’s the boat that we found ourselves in at the time.”

Eichholz went to the Siteman Cancer Center (formerly The Cancer Treatment Center/IOL) for chemotherapy, and Dr. Clanahan’s staff walked her through the entire process. “I have to tell you, [Dr. Clanahan] is the trifecta,” she said. “He is a skilled surgeon; he’s compassionate, patient, and caring; and he makes himself accessible to his patients in a way that many surgeons don’t. So, I will tell you I could not have received any better care than with Dr. Clanahan and his office.” 

Following chemotherapy, Eichholz had radiation therapy with Dr. Susan Laduzinsky at The Harold & Dixie LePere Breast Health Center. Unfortunately, she could not finish the radiation treatments due to an allergic reaction resulting in burns.

“The good news is I’m in remission and well on the path to healing,” Eichholz said.

The recovery process

Once Eichholz had surgery, completed chemotherapy, and stopped her radiation treatments, she started the recovery process with Memorial’s physical therapy team. 

Physical Therapists Kelley McClinton and Peggy Heise set up a care plan to help Eichholz regain the full function of her arms. After breast surgery, it’s hard for patients to lift their arms. “Your muscles are compromised, and it can be very painful, at least initially,” Eichholz explains. “The physical therapy process is teaching you how to lift your arms, how to recover some of your muscle, so they’re teaching you how to recover some of your mobility.”

Eichholz also stresses that physical therapy is a very intimate experience, which many people probably aren’t prepared for. “You really have to develop a level of trust with your physical therapist because they are manipulating the muscles on your chest, and it’s a really humbling experience,” she said.

“I could not say enough about the therapists and office staff at Rehab Services,” Eichholz said. “Peggy and Kelley took extra effort to ensure I was taken care of, often coming in early to meet me before work. This is caring above and beyond.”

Becoming a warrior

This journey has given Eichholz a new focus in life: “My goal is to move out into the world and let women know that they are in charge of their story and how they present,” she said.

“One of the things I remembered as I was going along this journey is that a lot of women felt alone and isolated, and that’s a very dangerous place to be,” Eichholz said. “It’s very scary to go through this process, and I think what I developed was a mission out of this to empower and encourage women and to let them know that they’re not alone. And one of the things that I did was write a presentation called The Warrior’s Guide to Navigating Change.”

Through The Warrior’s Guide to Navigating Change, Eichholz has reached a number of women by speaking at local events. “It’s exciting. I would encourage women to form a narrative,” she said. “I had a very smart person tell me early on, ‘How you experience this is how your family will experience this and how your friends will experience this, so it’s very important for you to decide what your message is going to be.’So I took that to heart, and I decided that I was going to approach this not as a victim but as a warrior.”

One thing Eichholz did to feel like a warrior was take part in a photo shoot. “I was looking for ways to feel powerful,” she said. Eichholz worked with Dawn Corwin Photography to bring
her visions to life. “We shot one that was raw, scars and all; then we went to the Botanical Gardens, and that was a glamour shot. That was in a princess gown, and we shot some with the wig, some without the wig and some very, very powerful shots. I would encourage women to not only form their narrative but explore ways they can feel beautiful and powerful
and bring meaning to the small things that touch their lives.”

If you would like Eichholz to bring her message of positivity to your event, you can contact her at [email protected]

Breast Cancer Resources

Eichholz found these free resources for women with breast cancer extremely helpful:

  • Hope Blooms support group
  • Cancer Survivor Network
  • Look Good…Feel Better®
  • Yoga for Wellness
  • Tai Chi for Wellness
  • Journey to Wellness