Profiles- Meredith Bruner
Photographer & Founder, Pink Lemonaid
How did you discover you had cancer?
I was an avid self-checker for years. My mom passed away from breast cancer when I was 18 and my father is an OB/GYN, so I knew the importance of breast health. Even though I never expected to get cancer, I was always very aware of checking. I had no idea what I was looking for per se, but I knew my tissue well enough to know when something was different. In December of 2014, I was laying in my bed and I happened to rub the side of my chest and felt something different -- something that I hadn’t felt even several weeks prior. It had a marble like texture and was definitely a small lump.
I didn’t think too much about it at first. My husband and I went out of town for the holidays and when I returned it was still there. I remember having him feel it and I think that was when it got into both of our heads that I needed to check it out.
Making a long story short, I was referred to a clinic to get an ultrasound done on the lump. I found out that it was not only abnormal, but there were two lumps -- one in my breast and one in my lymph nodes. Within a few hours, I had a mammogram, an ultrasound and two biopsies.
How did you feel when you found out?
As unorthodox as it sounds, with my Dad being a physician, I wanted him to hear the results before me so he could ask the right questions and understand the medical jargon. Results don’t come for several days -- testing had been done on a Friday and I was supposed to be in NY that Monday where I would meet my husband, Andrei. I remember when I landed in NY, I got out of the taxi and received a text from my dad asking if I was with Andrei. It is a heart dropping call to anticipate -- good or bad. My Dad gave me the news that evening -- I had invasive ductal breast cancer and it had already spread to my lymph system. We had a good long cry that night -- and that was the only time I ever cried about cancer. My Dad said to me “you have a long year ahead of you, but you have to stay focused.” I never forgot that. Looking back, there are days when you lose focus for sure, but you have to consciously be aware that your attitude can affect your treatment.
How did you handle your diagnosis?
I think I handled the diagnosis the best out of anyone. I’m kidding of course, but in all honesty I didn’t take it as a death sentence -- rather a big bump in the road. On my very first visit, my surgeon said to me “well you have decades to live, so let’s get this taken care of!” And I never forgot that either. That kind of encouragement was essential and it gave me the perseverance necessary for treatment.
How long was your process before treatment?
After diagnosis, I had a week straight of testing, scans, appointments, etc. I would say I began treatment about two weeks after diagnosis...and about five weeks after I had initially felt the lump. I did chemo for about five months, followed by surgery, radiation and hormone therapy.
How did you feel as a woman with your physicality changing?
Full disclosure -- I struggled big time with hair loss. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my hair to make me feel feminine -- it’s funny how much of our identity is in the way we perceive ourselves physically. To this day, if anyone compliments me on my short hair, part of me immediately wants to say “I didn’t choose to have this hair cut.” We worry that others perceive us differently because we are perceiving ourselves differently. Luckily, I did treatment in Ohio during the winter months so wearing a knit cap wasn’t out of the ordinary. And when I would return to LA, I just looked like a hipster in my wig and beanie -- so the knit cap worked most of the time. I know a lot of women, my own mother included, who struggled with the physical changes of mastectomy scars, etc. I think our generation has a different mindset -- it was way easier for me to have physical changes from surgery than to lose my hair. It’s funny to even admit that.
Why Pink Lemonaid? Why did you want to do start this organization?
There are so many reasons why I wanted to do this project. I was healthy before my diagnosis. One of the most difficult parts of treatment was that I didn’t feel physically sick, yet I was getting treatment that made me sick. I eat very well, I take care of my body (even more so now) and yet I had cancer. I knew I couldn’t sit back and not do anything. I would be laying on the couch last year after chemo and just try and think of all the ways I could help other women who are going through this -- or try to help women NOT have to go through this.
I am blessed to be a photographer and work in an industry that uses fashion to speak to people. I got a group of my close friends together and they helped combine our resources to develop this organization and brand. I was extremely private during my year of treatment because I didn’t want to be treated different than normal. Now that I am on the other side of treatment, I want to help as many people become comfortable with talking about cancer (of any kind) and how to prevent it. I can’t stress enough how essential it is to be proactive and to be conscious of your body, how you treat it and what you put in and on it. I discovered my own cancer before I was technically allowed to have a mammogram. Early detection is so important, but prevention is even better.
My hope is that every time someone is wearing a Pink Lemonaid product, a conversation can get started about breast cancer awareness. As much as it is out there, I feel like it is still very taboo-- especially among young women. I want to help change that. I knew there had to be a reason I was diagnosed at 32-- and I was going to spin it to be a positive reason. I mean, when life hands you lemons, you make Pink Lemonaid. ;)
Why did you choose the Cleveland Clinic to be Pink Lemonaid’s first donee?
The Cleveland Clinic is a nonprofit hospital and they have the resources to make a difference. I chose the Cleveland Clinic for my own treatment because of their quality of care and their reputation. I wanted the best care in the world and I believe I received that. I have only the BEST things to say about the hospital, the staff and the treatment I received. I want to give back to an organization that I believe is making a massive impact.
If you could give any advice to someone that has just been diagnosed, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are so many changes that happened to my body (especially while in temporary menopause) that no one talked to me about and I was a bit embarrassed to ask questions. It would have been much easier if I would have been more vocal.
Most importantly, STAY FOCUSED. Cancer sucks. Chemo sucks. I got off of social media for several months because it was often discouraging to see people’s perfectly curated lives while I was going through treatment -- and this is something I wanted to avoid. Everybody handles a diagnosis differently, but I can tell you that attitude is everything. My husband and I tried to keep things as normal as we could. He continued to work and travel while I would go back and forth between Ohio and LA. I would work when I could and found that having that distraction was the best thing for me, even though I was going back and forth between two very different worlds. My year with cancer was one of the best years of my life -- I was able to meet people I would have never met, spend more time with family and friends and watch an incredible amount of Law and Order SVU. ;) I learned more about myself, my amazing husband and our priorities. I was given an amazing amount of grace in a difficult situation.
If you could give any advice to women about staying proactive with their breast health, what would it be?
Take care of your body. Educate yourself. Eat well. Exercise. Be aware of what you are eating, what products you are using, what solutions you clean with, etc.
Lastly, check yourself. I know it is hard to not know what you are looking for, but if you get to know your body well enough, you will know when something changes. Last year, I was shocked at almost every woman's response to my diagnosis: "I am so scared to check myself or get checked -- I don't want to find anything." Truth is, if I wouldn't have checked myself, my cancer stage could have been way worse -- it had already spread. Don’t be scared, knowledge is power.