“How would you describe yourself?
This is a common question I got asked several times throughout my life — essay prompts for school admissions, job interviews, first dates, icebreakers, etc. Every time I got asked this question, I remember having a hard time answering eloquently since I was still in the midst of finding myself and my purpose just like any other young woman.
My elevator pitch was basic and went something like this: ‘My name is Michelle Kang. I’m Korean-American. I’m an INFJ. I’m a Christian. I live in New York City. I manage a cancer center. I love to travel in my spare time.’ My answer used to stop there until my life took an unexpected turn on July 17, 2019, the day I got diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in my late twenties.
Here’s my story in a nutshell:
My boyfriend, Paul, and I were traveling to South Korea. We woke up early in the morning, and we both felt a bump on my right breast while being intimate. Did I freak out? Yes. A million thoughts were running through my mind because I work in a cancer center where things like bumps are taken seriously.
Since South Korea has universal healthcare, I stopped by a primary care office that took walk-ins. The doctor felt my lump and told me it was eczema-related. To take precautions, he referred me to a dermatologist. My instincts told me the primary care physician was wrong. I listened to the primary care physician’s so-called advice and then dropped by a dermatologist’s office. The dermatologist told me not to worry and sent me off with some cream. My instincts also told me the dermatologist was wrong. I ultimately chose to follow my gut and made international calls to set up appointments in the United States upon my return.
After diagnostic testing in New York City, I was scheduled to see my breast surgeon and hear my results: ‘You have breast cancer.’
I help cancer patients for a living. I could not believe I was going to become one. No one in my family ever had cancer. I was extremely healthy. I was in my late twenties. Words cannot express the level of shock, fear, and darkness I felt. After my breast surgeon finished explaining everything, I remember just staring blankly into space, perhaps retaining at most three things she had mentioned. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. Tears automatically came rolling down my face, and they wouldn’t stop no matter how hard I tried to keep them in.
My appointment was coming to an end, and my breast surgeon sent me seven floors down to get an MRI of my breasts so my care team could obtain a better understanding of my disease progression. I felt a bit of relief knowing my instincts in South Korea were right. If I had listened to the ‘professional’ advice of the primary care physician and dermatologist in South Korea, I probably would not be here right now. Despite having an answer to my mysterious lump, I felt a complete wave of utter darkness hit me.
I planked, face down, for approximately 45 minutes in the claustrophobic MRI machine where I was forced to be alone with my thoughts. Prior to my diagnosis, I kept myself extremely busy and only used my tiny Upper West Side apartment for sleep. I was always at work, out with friends, and exploring the city. I now realize this busy lifestyle was a coping mechanism for all the underlying issues I did not want to face as a young woman in her late twenties. I can say, without a doubt, being in the MRI machine was the moment I felt the most alone, helpless, and fearful in my entire life.
As I look back and reflect on this time, I can conclude my diagnosis was my first real, personal hardship. I am a second-generation Korean-American living in the United States. My parents sacrificed their entire lives in South Korea and started anew in the United States to ensure my sister and I had a fulfilling life. So yes, I am quote-unquote privileged. However, my parents never handed things to me on a golden platter. They taught me to work hard in all aspects of my life.
Therefore, my diagnosis was really hard for me to accept because everything in my life, prior to my diagnosis, went the way as planned due to my hard work and determination. I got accepted into my dream grad school. I moved to New York City. I met the love of my life. I had a fulfilling job. I traveled internationally for fun. Then, BOOM! Breast cancer. Per Drake, my life went from zero to one hundred, real quick.
My life officially changed on July 17, 2019.
Shortly after my diagnosis, my cancer journey took off in full throttle. I underwent extensive diagnostic testing, froze my eggs, said tata to both my tatas via bilateral mastectomy, shaved my head, had port placement surgery, underwent 14 rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, had port removal surgery, got breast implants through plastic surgery, and saw a physical therapist two to three times per week for a year. After completing chemotherapy, I began my 10-year hormone therapy journey to hopefully prevent a recurrence.
Overcoming breast cancer in my late twenties was the fight of my life. Absolutely nothing about it was easy. Throughout my cancer journey, I felt like I never stood a chance to win. It felt like a loss after another loss after another loss and so forth. A new side effect would appear, an unexpected complication would occur, my care team constantly delivered bad news, bills started to pile, and the list of invasive medical procedures never seemed to end. As losses kept happening, wins seemed harder and harder to achieve.
I will never forget the day I looked in the mirror and saw sprouts of hair growing from the top of my head. This moment was what felt like my very first win since hearing the words, ‘You have breast cancer.’ Shortly after, the range of motion in my right arm was back to normal thanks to the rigorous physical therapy I underwent. Shortly after, I was cancer-free. Shortly after, the horrible exhaustion gradually disappeared. Shortly after, I completed my first one-mile jog since my diagnosis. Shortly after, I returned to work. Shortly after, I was back to creating meaningful memories with my loved ones. Everyone’s cancer journey is so different, but in retrospect, I can say my cancer journey looked and felt something along the lines of this: loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, loss, win, win, win, win, win, win, win, WIN. I got so stuck in the midst of the overall trauma I forgot to remind myself to have faith in the light at the end of the tunnel where many positive things awaited.
I lost count of the number of times I’ve been pricked, sliced, scanned, medicated, and infused. I lost my hair. I lost my breasts. I lost a year in my twenties. Despite this, I never lost my resilience and gained far more than I could have ever imagined.
· Cancer taught me to never let temporary setbacks and negative people stop me from living my best life.
· Cancer taught me to be fearless and not sweat the small stuff.
· Cancer taught me to respect myself and live unapologetically.
· Cancer taught me what true friendships look like.
· Cancer taught me to be more empathetic.
· Cancer taught me to be grateful and not take things for granted.
· Cancer taught me how to turn struggles into strengths.
· Cancer taught me it’s okay to cry as long as I pick myself up and keep fighting.
· Cancer taught me to love my body, thank everything it has gone through, and view my scars as beautiful battle wounds.
· Cancer taught me how to adapt to any circumstance thrown my way.
· Cancer taught me how to ask for help and lean on others.
· Cancer taught me about faith and strengthened my relationship with God.
· Cancer taught me to advocate for myself and speak up.
· Cancer taught me to follow my instincts and heart.
· Cancer taught me what to focus on as an oncology administrator and how to pay it forward to the cancer community.
· Cancer taught me to be vulnerable and use my story to spread awareness and most importantly uplift other young women diagnosed with breast cancer.
· Cancer taught me what I am truly capable of.
· Cancer taught me to be present and live each day like it’s my last.
In essence, cancer taught me what matters in life and ultimately helped me find myself.
When someone asks me to describe myself, I now end my elevator pitch with Breast Cancer Survivor — three words I never thought I’d use to describe myself, three words that define who I’ve become, three words that encompass my newfound purpose, three words that embody what I’ve been through, and three words that I proudly represent.
How would you describe yourself?”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michelle Kang from New York, NY. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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