First introduced to us as very stylish and fashionable, Hope Erlenborn Meushaw set the record straight by saying, “I definitely wouldn’t label myself as having a good eye for fashion, but I can tell if something just does not look good on me.” That’s why, shortly after her wedding, when she was diagnosed with stage 3b triple negative breast cancer at the age of 28, she was quick to acknowledge that two things would not work for her when she lost her hair due to chemo: wigs and most hats.
Hope was living in Atlanta pursuing her masters degree at Emory University when she was diagnosed. With a nursing degree and an understanding on the workings of her own body, Hope thought twice when the first radiologist she saw responded to her ultrasound by saying, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing. See you when you are 40.” And two weeks later, she thought twice again when a nurse practitioner and surgeon told her she had nothing to worry about. “I did something I didn’t expect,” Hope shares. “I broke down in tears in the surgeon’s office and begged her to take another look at the lump. I didn’t care if it was a mammogram, an ultrasound or an MRI. I just knew this mass wasn’t normal for me, and I wanted to know what it was.” After what Hope describes as a barbaric and incredibly painful (whether you have a massive tumor in your breast or not) bilateral mammogram that showed nothing, she was given another ultrasound that was followed with the recommendation of a biopsy.
She was shopping at Costco when she got the call from the surgeon’s office with the biopsy results. “I don’t know who would ever be ready to hear the words, ‘It’s cancer,'” she tells us, but after sharing the results with her husband, mom and little sister, she went into battle mode. “I became like a machine, and my whole family did too, in a way.
“Once we found out it was stage 3b, we knew we didn’t have any more time to waste and that we’d be moving in with my parents in Nashville. A good friend got my records to my oncologist here at Vanderbilt, who quickly made an appointment for me to see her. She scheduled a CT scan, my port placement, two more biopsies and my first chemotherapy infusion all within a week. It was then I knew I wouldn’t be finishing school in December, and that every day of this fight was going to take everything I had to get through.” Hope has been fighting every day since, nearly a year later.
“When people talk about fighting cancer, you have to know that every ounce of your body is physically fighting it. Even when you’re exhausted, it’s not like you can just take a break. But the alternative is giving in, being content with the life you’ve had up to that point and letting the cancer take its natural course. That wasn’t an option for me, not when I just got married, just turned 28, and hadn’t had a chance to build my career, or have babies, or see what married life was really like. There are trips I want to take, things I want to do, goals I want to accomplish, and moments I still want to share with Greg and with our friends and families. So when I refer to going into ‘battle-mode,’ that’s the only choice I had. Staying positive is something I had to do, and if you’re going to beat cancer, you absolutely have to stay positive. I’m not saying you can’t break down, or feel the emotions you feel every day, but find time for those emotions to have their space, and let them go there.
As Hope’s hair began to fall out in the shower and she looked at herself in the mirror with half a head of hair, she knew it was time to shave it. Her husband Greg, who shaved what was left, shared the emotional moment with her. “My bald head was definitely something new to get used to, and some days were harder than others — a theme throughout this entire journey, but then it was fun finding ways to artfully accessorize,” she tells us.
With her younger sister and a collection of scarves from her late grandmother, Carol Mastrapasqua, Hope began playing dress up. “It was like we were 5 years old again,” Hope says. In an effort to look less … bald, Hope and sister Tess were looking for something other than hats, or bows taped to Hope’s head. The artist in Tess began crafting intricate (and beautiful) designs with the scarves. After trying bows and knots, they found easy ways to wear the scarves that wouldn’t take much time and effort. “It really just takes a minute, a little longer than throwing your hair up in a ponytail, to style the scarf the way I wear it, and that’s what I was looking for. There are hundreds of ways to style headscarves you can find on Pinterest, but each woman has to find what works for her — whether that’s wearing a hat, a wig, a scarf or just showing off the beauty of being bald,” Hope tells us.
Not only did the scarves work as a fashion accessory, they gave the sisters something to laugh over. The time spent crafting designs for Hope to wear meant time together for Hope and Tess. Dressed in a loose t-shirt, jeans and a scarf tied as a headband atop her hair that is slowly growing back, Hope holds back emotions as she expresses gratitude for the time the disease has given her with her family. She has been able to see her much-younger brother in his daily life, spent time with Tess, develop her relationship with Greg and spend time with her parents. She doesn’t take a moment of this time for granted. And while the scarves only enhance Hope’s style and personality, they are just a thing she used to cope with cancer and her changing body.
“Beauty has a different meaning to me than it did a year ago, and it’s something I’ve struggled with a lot over the last nine months. When your body changes as much as mine has in the matter of months, you have to find a way to like the new you. While some things changed, a lot has stayed the same, and the strength I found I had, with my sense of humor to keep me honest, has made me appreciate the physical changes. The uncomfortable swelling from the boatloads of steroids they pump you full of through chemo can take a hike, but the scars and burns (once they heal and stop hurting) are all part of the new me. They’re literally my battle wounds, and I’m proud of them and proud of myself for getting through this. And I think I’ll keep the new ‘haircut’ too,” Hope says with a smile.
As I sit across from Hope in her mother’s home in Nashville, she is making plans say goodbye to the childhood bedroom she has being sharing with her husband for 11 months. Her main takeaway from this time is the importance of being with people who matter most to you. “Tell them you love them every day, and don’t waste time being angry. Remember to find the humor in things, and take care of yourself first! I say that last, and emphatically, because I have the hardest time following that advice.”
Before wrapping up our short but treasured time together, Hope set the record straight on some common misconceptions about breast cancer, which include:
- You do not have to have a family history of breast cancer to develop it. “Sometimes this awful disease just takes residence in your body and we don’t know why,” she says. “It can happen to the healthiest people you know without any warning at all.”
- There are many different types of breast cancer, making treatment types very different. “It’s important to know the type you have and discuss all the treatment options available with your oncologist.”
- Breast cancer doesn’t care about your age. “It’s important to know yourself, and learn how to properly do self breast exams early!” And if you know that something isn’t right, then keep pushing until you get the attention and answers you need to be satisfied.
Thank you a million times over to Hope for letting us share her story. We wish her health and happiness as she continues her journey.