The Moment Of Diagnosis
“’Hi, how are you? …So you have breast cancer.’ I’ll never forget those words or the way they were delivered. I felt frozen in my seat in my surgeon’s office.
I’m sure my mouth had fallen open. I couldn’t think or speak. I could barely process what he had just said.
I have breast cancer?! How?! I had just turned 36 days before.
Aren’t I too young? I have no family history. Are you sure you have the right file?
He had the right file. After all, cancer doesn’t care who or how old you are.
I don’t remember much else from that appointment. I was given a treatment plan and was soon on my way home, sobbing in my husband’s arms, calling my parents, and telling my friends.
I sat on my couch at home all day crying and feeling completely alone, confused, lost, shocked, and scared. So scared.
Journey To Breast Cancer Diagnosis
It all started about a month earlier. I was lying in bed in the morning when my two daughters, who were 6 and 4 at the time, ran into my room and jumped on the bed to make sure I was awake. I reflexively grabbed my breasts to protect myself from the two jumping gigglers.
That’s when I felt it, a hard lump in my left breast. It was as big as a jumbo gum ball and just as hard. It felt as if it had appeared overnight.
How could I have missed this massive lump?
My husband felt it and agreed I should get it checked out. Neither of us thought ‘breast cancer.’ That was so far from my mind. It was surely just some kind of benign cyst.
I knew I’d have too much anxiety if I waited for a doctor’s appointment, so I went to the emergency room at the hospital that same day. The doctor who examined me felt the lump and said it was likely a blocked milk duct.
Apparently you can get a block even years after breastfeeding. I felt relief but still had a niggling feeling that there was more to it.
Thankfully, that emergency doctor sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound. He listened to my concerns and took me seriously (something I’ve learned isn’t always a given. I’m lucky I was seen and heard as many people aren’t). So, a week later, I went for a mammogram and ultrasound. Another week or so later, I went for a biopsy.
It wasn’t fun. In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing but a small part to this whole saga. But at the time, it was a lot.
I felt so vulnerable lying there, and so alone and scared. I remember after that appointment, I walked back to my car and just sat there crying. Something, I’ll find out soon, that I would do after almost every appointment to come.
Before long, I was sitting in my surgeon’s office being diagnosed with breast cancer. I still can’t believe it sometimes. I’m still shocked.
A Turn For The Worst
This was all happening in the summer of 2020. We all know what that means: the good ol’ pandemic.
I had to go alone to all my appointments. I had to ask all the questions and advocate for myself the whole time, something I’ve never been good at. I never once saw anyone close to my own age at those appointments and it was very isolating.
Just when I was going through all of this, when I thought this is the hardest and saddest thing to happen, my father-in-law died. It was unexpected and broke our hearts. He died the week I went for my biopsy.
My husband had to deal with losing his father while supporting his mother and sister, explaining tragedies to our young children, helping with arrangements, dealing with my appointments, and parenting. It was a lot on his shoulders.
I’m forever grateful for his strength and care. I genuinely don’t know how he did it.
My treatment plan was surgery first, followed by possible chemotherapy and radiation. The only way I could deal with all the decisions and anxiety was to focus on one thing at a time. So, I poured myself into researching all about the different surgery options I had.
I didn’t think about chemo or radiation. I’d get to that when it came. For now: what surgery do I want?
I had decided I would like a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. All in one surgery. Just get it all done.
That sounded like the best path forward for me. However, I wasn’t able to do that. In order to have reconstruction, I would have to meet with a plastic surgeon first and I only had two weeks until surgery.
There wasn’t enough time, so I was back to square one. I then thought maybe I’ll do a double mastectomy with reconstruction later, when I’m done with my treatment. That sounded great.
My husband and I googled ‘double mastectomy’ to see what my body might look like after surgery. It was important to me that my husband and I both know the reality of what was happening and to have him on board. He was completely supportive (as he has been this entire time) and just wanted me to do what felt right.
When we looked at the photos, he was totally fine. He again reiterated that he wants me to do what is best for me and he’ll be there no matter what.
Me on the other hand… well, I had a panic attack after seeing those photos. It was too much and sent me reeling. I didn’t think I could do it – this surgery I don’t want, but need to have.
It sucked so hard and I just felt like I was slowly losing myself. I told my surgeon how I felt and he suggested we just focus on my cancerous breast. So, I finally chose to have a single mastectomy.
At a later date, I would have my other breast removed with reconstruction. As soon as we landed on that as my plan, it just felt right.
I had that first surgery in early September 2020. I’ve never been so scared or worried as I was lying in the hospital before surgery. I was alone again, unsure of who I would be after surgery. Would I still be me?
It seems like a dramatic thing to think, but it was my biggest fear. That somehow losing my breast would change me. I’d lose not only my breast, but a piece of my identity. A piece of my puzzle.
Surgery went very well. I’m so grateful. I got a call a few weeks later from my oncologist.
He was so happy and excited to tell me that I was Stage 1A, the lowest possible stage you can be, and I didn’t need to do chemotherapy. I was N.E.D. (no evidence of disease); the cancer was gone.
I remember that call so well. My parents were over for dinner and I just started crying after I hung up. I looked at my dad and said, ‘I’m stage 1. I don’t have to do chemo. The cancer is all gone.’
My mom shrieked from the kitchen, ‘What?!’ My husband gave me the tightest hug. But it’s the moment I looked at my dad that is etched in my brain.
His face being so expressive, complete worry and concern, and then the biggest smile and disbelief after hearing the news. I hope I always remember that moment.
Grieving My Father
It was less than 7 months later that I lost my dad, just 9 months after losing my father-in-law.
My daughters lost both Grandpas in less than a year. My mom lost her person of 46 years. My brothers and I lost our wonderful, dramatic, compassionate, creative father.
He died in April 2021. It was unexpected and completely devastating.
He actually died two months to the day after my Grandmother, his mother. She died in February 2021.
Those are the four hardest times in my life so far, and they seemed to happen back-to-back. My father-in-law, my diagnosis, my Grandma, and my dad. All within 9 months.
The grief is constant. It hits in ways and at moments I never see coming. It’s all too much sometimes.
I’ve learned that there are certain things I need to do to help myself through. The best thing is just being kind to myself and understanding that I’ve gone through a lot in the past two years. That if I need time and space to myself, I should take it.
It’s not being selfish or unloving to put myself first. It’s necessary so I can be the mom I want to be to my girls, the friend I want to be, and the partner my husband deserves. I take it day by day and do what I need to grieve.
Preventative Care & Finding Acceptance
It’s been two and a half years since my diagnosis and I’m thankfully doing very well. I’ve been doing hormone treatment, and have had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed as a preventative measure. I’m in menopause now and that comes with its own challenges and issues.
I’ve grieved my breast and ovaries. Grieved that the choice to have more children has been taken from me. And I’ve come to peace with my mastectomy scar and new body.
I’ve decided against reconstruction and am currently waiting for another surgery date. In hopefully my last surgery due to breast cancer, I’m having my other breast removed. It’s my choice and completely precautionary.
It’s what I’ve wanted all along, after all. To have both breasts removed. I just won’t be having reconstruction.
I’ll be having aesthetic flat closure and feel so good about my choice. It’s an extremely personal decision and there’s no ‘right’ way to do this. It’s whatever feels best. And staying flat is what is best for me.
I’ll be on hormone therapy for 10 years and will be seeing my doctors throughout the year for checkups. But after this surgery, I’m hoping I’m all done. At least with the surgical part to all this.
The physical and mental load will always be there, I’m sure. The trauma of the past two years and this diagnosis won’t just go away. Life won’t go back to normal, not really.
Making A Difference Through Photography
What has helped me heal the most during all of this is sharing my story. I’ve been documenting myself through photography and sharing as much as I’ve been able to. I’m a photographer, so this was a very natural step for me.
I didn’t realize just how therapeutic posing topless and telling my story would be. I’ve posed for other photographers, as well as taken many self portraits since losing my breast. I wanted to put photos out there of young women with scars, something I didn’t see much of when I Googled it.
The images I saw were of older women and they were all clinical and cold, which is likely why I had a panic attack.
I now know that I won’t lose myself during this process. I’m still me. I might be a slightly different version of myself, but I still have the same heart.
I still have a big smile and happy eyes; I got both from my dad. I trust myself more, I know myself more, I have more confidence, and I have learned to truly love myself. I’m still me.
Please check your breasts and chests regularly. Self-exams are so important. Know your body, so you know when something feels off.
You’re not too young.”
Read more stories like this:
Do you know someone who could benefit from reading this? SHARE this story on social media with family and friends.