‘I looked out at my husband and 4 kids swimming. They looked so happy and free. But I was in prison, writing my goodbye letters.’: Woman shocked by breast cancer diagnosis after getting second opinion, urges us to ‘trust our intuition’

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“I was certain I had another benign breast lump. After all, I’d had two before and had a family history. Those pesky little things were easily removeable.

But I was wrong this time.

It started with a tender area in my upper breast that became even more tender from wearing my seatbelt and cross-body purse. I called my gyno and made an appointment.

She agreed we needed to check it out. So, I had a mammogram and ultrasound. Two days later, I got the results: come back in six months. We just need to monitor the lump.

Courtesy Rachel Garlinghouse

I was incredibly relieved. But a few days later, after getting out of my car and feeling the familiar soreness in my breast, I called the doctor back. I asked for recommendations on a breast surgeon. I needed a second opinion.

The breast surgeon agreed to biopsy the lump and see what the pathology results showed. I had the biopsy and headed on vacation with my family of six. Of course, I was a bit worried, but with my history, I fully expected an ‘all-clear’ with the recommendation for removal.

On the day of the results appointment, I walked into the office sipping iced coffee. I even took a few selfies in the exam room, while I wore the breast-cloak. I was gearing up to announce my relief of a positive result on social media to my followers.

The doctor came in, iPad in hand. She asked me how vacation was, and I nervously told her it went great. She settled on a wheeled stool and cleared her throat. Then she said, ‘I never want to tell patients this, but it’s breast cancer.’

Just like in the movies, I went into a fog. Did she really just say I had breast cancer?

I left her office armed with brochures and printouts. I remember her saying things about an MRI, chemo and radiation, mastectomy or lumpectomy, genetic testing. She had rattled off statistics that I couldn’t remember.

The only thing I could focus on was the fact that I had cancer in my body at that moment, and was I going to die? I had four kids under the age of eight. They needed me. I needed them.

I was only 35 years old! Cancer is for older people, unhealthy people. But I was wrong. 5% of women with breast cancer are under age 40, and I was now one of them.

The first thing I did was pick up my two youngest kids from the sitter and pretend like nothing was wrong. The sitter kindly inquired how my appointment went, and I said, ‘OK! I need more checkups at some point.’ I was in shock, of course.

The following six weeks were exhausting and terrifying. I found a new doctor at a well-known cancer center. After a breast MRI, I was given two options: lumpectomy and radiation or a mastectomy. The good news was that the cancer didn’t appear to be in my lymph nodes and was contained in my breast.

I couldn’t use the word cancer, so I called it the ‘problem.’ And for a week, I agonized over the choice between a lumpectomy and radiation or a mastectomy. I made a pros and cons list, did a ton of research, and then prayed—relentlessly.

One day, during this deciding period, I looked out the kitchen window to see my husband and our four kids swimming. They looked so happy and free. But I was in a prison. Me and my cancer were trapped together—and I wanted it gone. I didn’t want my family to be without me, and the mastectomy seemed like the most drastic, but also most hopeful, option.

My doctor called me a few days later to ask what my decision was—and I told her I wanted the mastectomy. Even though my genetic testing was negative, and I have no family history of breast cancer, I wanted the best odds. She agreed with my choice and sent me to meet with a plastic surgeon.

Courtesy Rachel Garlinghouse

After meeting with the plastic surgeon and agreeing to have the mastectomy and immediate reconstruction (called ‘direct to implant’)—I had to wait for three weeks to have the surgery. Those days are a blur—full of dread, tears, and hope.

Two days before the surgery, I wrote a letter to each of my kids and my husband. They were goodbye letters. Just in case. These were necessary but terrifying to write. Tears streamed down my face as I composed a sacred note to each of the five most precious people in my life.

On the morning of my surgery, we headed to the hospital at 6:00 a.m. I wanted it over with ASAP. I was so tired of the relentless anxiety. I put on a brave face and did everything the nurses asked me to do. My surgeons visited me, asking if I had questions, and offering their empathy for what I was about to do. My plastic surgeon used a Sharpie to mark all over my chest, then she headed to the OR to scrub in.

The nurses came to take me into surgery, and I asked them to give me a moment. My husband and I pulled the curtains around ourselves, and we prayed and hugged. And then he was gone.

I remember moving from my bed to the OR table and the people surrounding me—and then everything went dark.

I spent the night and the next day in the hospital. I was OK until the initial surgery meds wore off. Then I was throwing up and moaning in agony. My surgeon came in early that morning and prescribed a more aggressive pain medication.

Courtesy Rachel Garlinghouse

It took me a solid eight weeks to recover from surgery. Everything was difficult: showering, moving my arms, getting out of bed, getting into bed. I couldn’t lift anything or anyone—including my infant—which was heartbreaking. She was just a baby and couldn’t understand why mommy wasn’t holding her.

Two weeks after surgery, I got a call from my doctor’s office. My pathology showed previously undetected invasive and aggressive breast cancer. I had made the right choice to have the mastectomy—and I had the surgery in the nick of time.

I had consultations with radiology and oncology—and yes, it was traumatic. Even when you get good news after a cancer diagnosis, the trauma layers upon itself, and it’s incredibly difficult to break free.

It’s been two years since my mastectomy, and I am a cancer stat. One in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. Despite the hurdles and the trauma I am haunted by, I feel it’s my duty to tell others about what happened to me.

Courtesy Rachel Garlinghouse

I tell them to always trust their intuition. I tell them to get second opinions. I tell them to advocate for themselves. I tell them to fight.

Cancer has changed me. I’m both stronger and weaker. Some days I am joyful and peaceful, while other days, cancer haunts me like a monster. My prognosis is very good—and I try to be mindful and thankful for this.

But I’m certainly not ‘over’ or ‘past’ the cancer journey. It’s imprinted upon me forever. And I’m learning to live with it.

Luckily, I am living.”

Courtesy Rachel Garlinghouse

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rachel Garlinghouse. Follow her journey here and here. Submit your story here. For our best stories, subscribe to our free email newsletter. 

Read more from Rachel here: 

‘When our daughter was six months old, two black women approached us. One said, ‘Your baby’s hair is dry.’ I was taken aback, offended and embarrassed.’

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