At 36, and with no family history of cancer, bad news after a mammogram wasn't anywhere on Emily Chandler Westergreen's radar. But she received the harrowing phone call right before Thanksgiving.
"They found three tumors," she said. She starts six months of chemotherapy soon, and will then have a double mastectomy.
To start her journey on a positive note, she held a New Year's Day "chop-off" party to bid farewell to her shoulder-length hair. About 50 loved ones came, and a friend produced a touching video from the event.
"Today’s my first day with no hair," she said on Monday. "My hair has always been really, really long."
The new style feels a little weird, but Emily is filled with gratitude. Her condition was discovered almost by chance.
"I had scheduled a breast reduction," she said. "I went to a really good surgeon in Atlanta who said, 'You need to get a baseline mammogram beforehand.' Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even scheduled a mammogram."
American Cancer Society breast cancer screening guidelines recommend that women begin yearly mammograms by age 45, and can change to having mammograms every other year beginning at age 55. It notes that women “should have the choice to start screening with yearly mammograms as early as age 40 if they want to.”
That would be four years from now for Emily, a former flight attendant for AirTran, then Southwest Airlines, who now operates a designer fashion business. She and her husband, a Southwest pilot, live in Newnan with their 5-year-old daughter.
"It's an absolute miracle that I scheduled that reduction," she said. "I'm super, super lucky."
Knowing what was on the horizon made for a different holiday season.
"I think it’s actually made it more special," she said. "I feel like every year there’s so much hustle and bustle. It just kind of put everything in perspective: let me do the things that really do matter. I feel like I appreciated the holidays and took the time to enjoy it more than I have in past years."
Here's the video of her "Hair Chop" party. The ending is especially touching: