A brunette woman stands outside wearing oversized sunglasses, hoop earrings, a black t-shirt with the word "survivor" in light pink text. She is holding a light pink beverage tumbler.
Breast cancer survivor Meghan Richbourg. Photo provided by Kim Hawks, Photographer.

Meghan Richbourg has always loved October and what the fall season brings – the flavors of pumpkin spice and the opportunity to use spooky decorations. But during the past year, things changed for Richbourg, and this October will be a little different.

The Chapel Hill resident will still put up her favorite Halloween decorations and enjoy her pumpkin spice latte, but this fall, Richbourg will be embracing a new tradition and the new rhythms of her life.

A year ago while working out, Richbourg, now 34, noticed a small lump on her breast. Concerned, she saw her doctor, who arranged for Richbourg to get a mammogram.

“I was quite anxious all day leading up to the appointment and knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “I prayed a whole lot, and when the appointment was taking longer than expected, and when the technician’s face looked concerned, I knew it wasn’t good news. I immediately started to panic — the purest form of shock, fear, and anxiety I have ever felt. All I can remember thinking was ‘I’m too young for this, I have three little kids at home.’ ”

On Oct. 30, 2019, she learned she had breast cancer. Halloween, always a favorite holiday, felt a little different for Richbourg after that. Fortunately, her mother was flying in to celebrate the day, but Richbourg said she was just “going through the motions” and trying to remember how to breathe while her family was dressing up and trick-or-treating.

Beginning the treatment journey

Richbourg’s initial shock was tempered somewhat by the support of a friend from her church, Emily Ray, MD, MPH, a physician on the breast cancer oncology team at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger. She met with Richbourg and talked her through her treatment options and made suggestions about her care team.

“I can still remember her saying, ‘this is the team I would use if I were in your situation.’ Within weeks, I was getting my first chemotherapy treatment, and with that, my journey began into beating early stage breast cancer at the age of 34 with no family history, and no genetic factors,” Richbourg said.

After chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, all during the COVID-19 pandemic, Richbourg said her tumors have “melted away” and she is finally able to share her story and even mentor other young women going through similar diagnoses.

Making connections and finding support

“I’ve met many young women along the way that were a few steps ahead of me, many steps ahead of me, or just beginning their navigation of diagnosis,” she said. “I consider myself lucky to know each of them, as they provided a different level of support along the way.”

Richbourg also found inspiration and hope through her faith and through a generous community that supported her during her cancer journey.

“When people hear words associated with treatment they are often scared, and I was as well, but I completely changed my thinking and was so very thankful for advancements in breast cancer treatment, and by God’s great glory, that the treatment was working to kill my cancer,” she said. “It’s pretty neat to look back through my journal and see my faith journey weaved throughout all the notes, questions and prayers.”

Paying it forward

In addition to meals and child care, friends and family supported Richbourg financially, something she hopes to pay forward this October, in honor of breast cancer awareness. She is partnering with Buru Clothing Company to raise money for the UNC Breast Cancer Clinical Fund at UNC Lineberger. Richbourg said the funds will go to clinical program and patient needs, as well as funding innovative research through the Lisa Carey Fund for Breast Cancer Innovations.

“I am passionate about the chance to raise money for a cause that hits so close to home for me. I would love to give back to the amazing hospital that treated me, breast cancer research in general, and patient funds for those that are diagnosed with this disease and might not have the financial ability to treat it,” she said.

Photo provided by Kim Hawks, Photographer.

Richbourg said while this October will look a little different for her, she has opted to see the month as an opportunity to do some good.

“I’m choosing to celebrate my life and advocate for others,” she said. “I think of it as a family birthday for me. 2020 seems to be stealing a lot of our celebrations, but we can still find moments of true joy and thankfulness in the slower pace we have been forced to live.”

Richbourg’s Halloween celebration will happen this year with a new outlook on life, but she’ll also be celebrating putting cancer in her “rearview mirror,” something her Comprehensive Cancer Support Program therapist would often say to her.

“October is a month I will never forget. I will force myself to look back and guarantee that October will not steal my love for fall, warm lattes, pumpkins and my favorite holiday, Halloween!” she said. “I don’t view it as counting specific years post diagnosis, but more as a life celebration for getting through something that took every single support system I had, every single ounce of strength I had physically, and emotionally, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”