October 24, 2005 12:00 PM

It seemed like it came on quickly. In the summer of 2004, I felt something in my right breast that didn’t feel normal. They always describe cancer in terms of a pea, right? Well, this was more like several rocks strung together. I thought it was probably scar tissue related to my breast implants. So I let it go—for a long time.

I got my saline implants six years ago. It was just something in my head that I thought I needed to do for self-esteem, to balance myself out. Before, I was a large A-cup, and the implants changed me to a small C-cup. I always thought I was kind of a flat-chest, round-butt kind of person. I didn’t think my parents would have understood. Can you imagine lying to your mom about not having bigger boobs? I was like, “Oh, it must be the shirt.”

At the time I noticed the lumps I didn’t have insurance, which was a big part of why I didn’t get it checked immediately. I went on the Internet and thought, “It is scar tissue. No big deal.” But a year later, I felt another lump right in the center of the breast and something in my right armpit. I saw a surgeon who said, “I’m pretty sure you have breast cancer.” After a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, it was confirmed—stage III.

I’ve been healthy my whole life. I didn’t feel bad the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I don’t feel bad today. It’s strange to know you can be walking around, feeling fine, and have something like this inside you. Fortunately, my sister Kim goes with me to everything; she helped me go over my options. One doctor wanted to do chemotherapy to shrink the tumors. Another was adamant that I have surgery right away because, if I did chemo first, there was a chance the tumors could stay or even metastasize. I opted for a modified, radical bilateral mastectomy on Aug. 29 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. A surgeon removed both my breasts and 29 lymph nodes. Sometimes, I just let myself be upset about it. I don’t hold back, and it’s usually when I’m by myself. If you can take that time to kind of grieve, I think it helps a lot. If I didn’t do this, I think it would eat me up.

It took a good three weeks to really look in the mirror. The first thing that came into my head is, “What has happened? I’m butchered!” I had already decided to have reconstruction. After my mastectomy, a plastic surgeon put in “spacers” to expand my chest muscles to make room for the new implants—smaller silicone implants this time. A second operation Oct. 5 completed the process.

My new implants have been a huge boost to my spirit. It’s still summer here in California, you know, and I’m in a short-sleeved shirt and I can’t imagine what it would be like completely without anything underneath it. Right now, I am about the size I was before the original implants. And it feels good. In a week or so, I start a four-to six-month course of chemotherapy, followed by tamoxifen, a drug designed to prevent a recurrence. My doctor has warned me I may stop having my period and go into early menopause. That’s tough because I haven’t had kids yet. I’ve always thought about adopting, and my boyfriend, Brian Smith [who competed on The Amazing Race with his brother Greg], and I both have adopted siblings. But seriously, five months after we’ve been dating, to have to ask him if he will consider fertility treatment? He said it’s something we can work through. Brian is only 28 and I’ve had to put some big stuff on him. He has not faltered. I’m very lucky.

Being on Survivor has helped in every sense of the word. My doctor told me, “You have beautiful hair, and you’re going to lose it.” But Coby Archa, the Texas hairdresser who was in my Survivor tribe, says he’s going to shave my head for me—and shave his too. Survivor taught me there’s an end in sight. As hard as it is, it will be over, and you have to appreciate everyday.

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