On her own terms: Breanna Bortner tells her story of cancer bravely, beautifully

Published 8:15 pm Monday, June 17, 2024

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Generally, people regard mosquitoes as an aggravation, irritation and annoyance, but for Breanna Bortner, her view of the insect has changed somewhat.

It’s because of a mosquito that Bortner became aware of something that would change her life drastically.

After returning from her family’s cabin in June of last year, Bortner was coping  with the by-product of time spent at such a retreat — mosquito bites.

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“Itching all over,” she said. “I started itching a place on my breast and quickly realized it was not a mosquito bite, but a lump.”

After going through the process far too many are familiar with, Bortner received the news nobody wants to hear in July of 2023 — cancer.

“Obviously, all of the things that were running through my mind were this doesn’t run in my family. No one in my immediate family has had anything like this. I’m super young, very healthy my whole life. It obviously came as a shock.”

Bortner was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer called triple-negative breast cancer. What makes triple-negative breast cancer so unique is that the cancer cells don’t have strong estrogen or progesterone receptors or a protein called HER2. The challenge that follows is that many of the more common treatments won’t work. Triple-negative also tends to grow and spread quickly.

All of this came as a blow to Bortner, who was 29 when she was diagnosed and is now 30-years-old.

“That was something that was kind of scary when they did describe this type of cancer, triple-negative,” Bortner said. “They use the terms rare, aggressive, fast-growing. On the flip side, cancer treatment has come a long way, especially with this triple-negative (diagnosis), even in the last decade.”

Bortner followed a routine of treatment, including 16-rounds of chemotherapy over the course of five and a half months: September 2023 to February 2024. Then in March, she went in for a double-mastectomy.

However, this is where Bortner’s narrative shifts somewhat. Despite the dire news, despite knowing what kind of cancer she had and despite the threat the disease posed, Bortner became determined to control her own narrative.

Brave, Beautiful, Boobies

Like most, Bortner was left stunned by the news that she had cancer. Initially, she kept the news to herself aside from letting family and close friends know.

She pulled into herself more, didn’t travel as much, wasn’t as visible on social media and canceled events she had planned, including a 30th birthday party in August of last year.

However, in the face of this fear, she realized a growing desire to not be another unfortunate story.

“I realized how much I wanted to share with people and how many people in my family were left out in the dark,” Bortner said. “It’s really stressful for the whole family. I don’t want to be another sad story. I want to create something that’s my own.”

With the help of a friend who works in branding, Bortner created Brave Beautiful Boobies, a blog that allowed her to share not just her story, but also everything that was a part of the process of fighting cancer.

It was good for Bortner, and she found that it opened her up to a whole new world.

“Once I started sharing these articles, I was shocked how many people reached out to me. I realized it was a vessel for people. ‘Hey, mom is going through this. Hey, my neighbor is going through this. My cousin’s friend is going through this. Can I share this with people?’”

Not only did the blog give Bortner a creative way to process what she was going through, it gave her a connection that allowed her to reach outside of her own isolation.

Brave Beautiful Boobies was launched in November and currently has over 3,000 views.

Her posts are part update of her journey as well as her overall story as blog posts include her medical processes, time spent with family and milestones.

“It was my journal in a way. My diary in a way. Sometimes to use sarcasm, to sometimes laugh at myself. To make fun of the doctors,” Bortner said. “I’m going to forever be able to look back at this, which is kind of cool. A lot of people were genuinely interested in what was going on.”

More than a diary

What started as a way to reach out and connect, however, it has grown into something else. 

It’s now part of a vision, Bortner said, that she wants to use as a platform to help other people and it will come in two more phases.

Just this past March, Bortner introduced merchandise, something many had been asking for. She hopes that this merchandise can be a way to make people going through their own challenges feel comfortable.

“It’s not something I had originally planned, but at this point in my life, I’m just kind of rolling with the punches,” Bortner joked. “I have nothing to lose.”

Akin to that is a third phase: creating a nonprofit. Unlike the merchandise, this is something that Bortner has had on her radar from the beginning.

“I’ve always wanted to do something a little bit bigger than myself and I never knew exactly what that was,” she said. “By sharing this, I think we all can get a great understanding of what cancer patients go through. We can also advocate for better treatment options.”

While the exact nature of the non-profit is still in the early stages, one of the areas that Bortner hopes could see a benefit is letting people know about something called cold-capping — an option that helps reduce the risk of hair-loss during chemotherapy. 

It’s something that Bortner swears by.

“That’s why you’re looking at me as someone who went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy as someone with a full head of hair,” she said.

Through cold-capping, the blood vessels in the scalp are constricted. The consequence is that less of the drugs used in chemotherapy get through to the vessels, increasing the chances that people can keep their hair. 

Unfortunately, cold-capping is an out-of-pocket expense and not covered by insurance. Bortner envisions a non-profit that could help people with this morale boost.

“My initial thought is to raise funds for other women and men who want to do this cold-capping,” Bortner said. “It’s not something currently covered by insurance. It’s something that is very important for your mental health.”

“I just know personally I’ve had a very unique cancer experience because of it and I know I want to be able to help other women and men who are young be able to get this resource,” she added.

Living in the moment

Bortner’s story, her blog and future plans, have allowed her to live in the moment of everyday life, accept those things she can’t control and to simply take in the picture laid out before her.

Throughout this journey, Bortner understands that even something like a mosquito bite can carry weight. And when a team of friends came together to jump in her honor in this year’s Plunging for Pink, she came to realize the significance of a life well lived.

“There’s been a lot of things in this journey that I look at as this is just not a coincidence,” Bortner said. “When you slow down in life and you’re not working and you’re not worried about these things and not caught up in traffic, you have these moments to slow down. And when slowed down I have noticed things I know are not coincidence.”

“I try to take as many lessons as I can from it,” she added.

If you would like follow Bortner’s journey, visit: www.bravebeautifulboobies.com/. Merchandise is also available by visiting: www.bravebeautifulboobies.com/shop