‘When I was 18 years old, I felt a lump in my breast. I made an appointment and was quickly dismissed. This didn’t happen to women my age.’: Young woman shares harrowing breast cancer journey

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“My name is Tatiana Konovalov and I am 27 years old from Santa Barbara, California and I have breast cancer.  My story didn’t start last year or even the year before, for me we have to rewind to 9 years ago in 2010.  When I was 18 years old I felt a small lump in my breast, I immediately made an appointment and was quickly dismissed, young women my age didn’t get breast cancer, it was identified as a cyst and that was the end.  For the years following I told every doctor and OB/GYN about this lump. It was poked and prodded and then promptly ignored. I was told, ‘If it was cancer it probably would have killed you already’ and ‘Why would you put yourself through an unnecessary surgery?’ But in 2018, I noticed significant changes to something I had come to accept as part of my breast. It was sensitive to the touch and you could see the definition of the lump through my shirt.

Young woman smiles in selfie as she wears LA Dodger's hat
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov

My partner had been traveling for 2 months for work and when he came back, he was shocked by the difference.  That week I went to my doctor for a consult, she seemed unconcerned but I was insistent; I wanted it out!

Woman who found a lump on her breast stands outside home smiling beside boyfriend
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov

I met with a breast surgeon who sent me for an ultrasound, and when she received the results she insisted while abnormal, it could not be cancer. As a precaution we took a needle biopsy but scheduled the 15-minute outpatient removal for 2 weeks from that day. It was Saturday September 15, 2018, a day I will never forget, when I got the news. I had just arrived at work as a Food and Beverage Manager at Four Seasons Biltmore and was training a new manager. I was discussing our day to day when I saw an alert that my doctor had messaged me. I opened the message while I was still talking and then I stopped mid-sentence as I reread the words over and over, ‘We are so sorry, but you have cancer.’

The manager I was working with probably thought I was crazy. Still mid-sentence, phone in hand, I mumbled something unintelligible to her and walked out of the office. Obviously, I work at one of the most hospitable places on earth and everyone always stops you and says hello and asks how you are doing and all I could think, all I wanted to yell was, ‘Not great, today I have cancer!’ I called my boyfriend first who didn’t pick up and then I called my parents, who had guests over at the time. They answered and I asked them to step out of the room and it was the first time that I said out loud I had cancer, I immediately started crying. My parents describe that phone call like a punch to the stomach, but there really is no easy way to tell someone that news.

The next weeks were a blur of doctors’ appointments, at least one a day, sometimes more. I met with surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, geneticists, case workers, the list goes on. I had every scan out there and was poked and prodded and naked from the waist up more times in two weeks then I had been in my life.  This should be the time I tell you, I have always had small, small breasts; easily the least interesting thing about me and now it was the part everyone focused on. I opted to have a lumpectomy with a sentinel node biopsy two weeks after diagnosis. While not the traditional route, this procedure laid out all the information on the table, my doctors post-surgery knew what they were dealing with. My tumor was a grade 3, I did have lymph node involvement (which bought me radiation), and my surgeon was able to get clear margins. All indicators showed that I had stage 2a disease, which when there was so much speculation, this was a relief in itself.

The whole process was intimidating and overwhelming. I was suddenly faced with questions I had never considered at 27; the biggest decision of them being my fertility. At 27, my boyfriend and I were talking future but kids were something we would go back and forth on. The possibility of not having the chance at all made me suddenly want children. We met with a fertility specialist in Beverly Hills who was ready to start the process immediately, which we were grateful for, as everything was moving very quickly.

Two days after my surgery I started fertility drugs. Talk about overwhelming, the cost of fertility hit us by surprise.  It was not something we were anticipating and for a bit we were worried that we may not be able to afford it.  The thought that finances would get in the way of us someday having our own biological children was devastating. But we did something very personal and we reached out to our friends and family, and we will forever be grateful for the hundreds of people who reached out to help us afford the opportunity to have children. Through a Facebook fundraiser we were able to raise over $20,000 in less than 24 hours. We are so incredibly blessed and lucky (and to all those out there, thank you, thank you). The fertility process moved very quickly, I am young and for all intents and purposes, healthy. We harvested 13 eggs which amounted to 8 healthy viable embryos.

A few weeks later, I had recovered enough to start chemotherapy. This was what truly terrified me in the whole experience. I had so many unknowns in regards to chemo. The world paints a very ugly picture and I felt fine, the cancer was gone, why should I have to get sick to get better? I spent many hours ugly crying in front of the computer as I googled every known side effect of chemotherapy. I would be hairless, bloated, confused, and exhausted, my nails would fall off, I would throw up all the time…the list goes on. But, I had to put my fears aside! My port was placed in and 5 days later I started an aggressive course of chemo and two antibody drugs.

Woman smiles as she lays in hospital bed awaiting chemotherapy
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov

The first two courses went better than I could have expected, hard but after 10 days in each course I started to feel normal. My hair did fall out, but my boyfriend, who shaves his head by choice, helped me shave before it started to really come out. It was liberating and exciting and I still don’t mind the bald head. The third round of treatment hospitalized me with high dose chemo neutropenic fever. My counts dropped to zero and I was in the hospital for a week, I had never felt worse in my life but my nurses were absolute angels and made the whole experience a lot more comfortable. My fourth round of chemo was delayed, as my blood counts were too low and I was severely anemic. As a result my doses were adjusted so that I could get through the rest of chemo without severe issues. No doubt going through chemo was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Living in a 21 day cycle of feeling ill and then preparing to feel ill again is no joke. But having made it out the other side I can confidently say that my imagination was far worse than anything I had to experience.

Man smiles in selfie in hospital bed beside wife who is undergoing chemotherapy
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov
Woman smiles as she sits in hospital chair going through chemo holding up number six
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov

Now, I am getting healthy enough to have a double mastectomy in a few weeks, and radiation after which will be followed by several reconstructive surgeries. I am looking forward to when I can close this chapter. I, however, am grateful for cancer in a way. I have never felt more beautiful or more empowered. I have tapped into a strength I never knew I had.

Bare chest of woman with scars on it after having surgery
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov

I have spent more time with my family and loved ones than I have in years. I have shifted my perspective and have identified what is truly important in my life. I am so grateful to my partner Erik who has shined through this whole process. He has been to every blood draw, every appointment, every surgery, he has slept in uncomfortable hospital chairs and held my hand through my darkest days and has not once faltered. We are looking forward to starting our life with cancer as a distant memory and have both taught us a lot about patience (I told him he couldn’t propose while I was going through chemo…wink, wink babe) and perseverance. If you are reading my story, and going through something similar, or someone you love is, take heart, you will get through this and you will be okay. You are not defined by cancer; you are defined by the grace and positivity you use to get through it.”

Woman who is finished with chemo smiles as she takes mirror selfie with husband in background
Courtesy Tatiana Konovalov

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tatiana Konovalov, 27,  of Santa Barbara, California. Follow her journey on Instagram here . Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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