I’m Leslie Almiron. I usually split my time between being an accountant and a full-blown princess diva. However, in May 2016 I had to put my princess career on hold while I turned into a cancer fighting ninja.
A few days before I turned 23, and about a month before I was set to graduate from undergrad, I found myself on a very long, cold table getting a needle biopsy for a lump I accidentally found in my left breast days before when the pendant on my necklace fell off. As I reached for it inside my bra, my hand brushed against something hard. At first, I thought nothing of it, but something told me to check again.
My mom told me it might be a gland, but that I should go to the gynecologist anyway. I did, but mostly to renew my birth control and get a pap smear. After the typical gyno stuff, I told him about my “gland”. He felt around and under my arm. After I got dressed, he told me he did feel something so he wanted me to get an ultrasound. He proceeded to call the closest ultrasound provider and made the appointment for later that day. When I returned two days later, he opened the ultrasound report and said: “Okay they’re saying it looks bad. I need you to take this report and go to the breast surgeon for further testing.”
Even at this point I had no clue what “bad” meant. I just nodded my head and said sure. I took my piece of paper, called the surgeon, and went to work. At work, I decided to finally open the report to try to decipher from the medical jargon what “bad” meant. There was my name, address, and DOB followed by two lines:
- Right breast unremarkable
- Left breast – BIRADS 5 – Strong evidence of malignancy
I must have flipped that page back and forth a million times looking for more – I even googled malignancy to make sure my brain was not just imagining that it meant cancer. I have no clue how I made it to the breast surgeon, but I did. When she saw me on the verge of tears, she told me to calm down because I was only 22 with no history of cancer. She needed to do more tests because sometimes the ultrasound technician is wrong. The surgeon felt around and said the lump felt more like a cyst. She sent me across the street to a friend for a needle biopsy under ultrasound guidance.
The doctor had his technician set me up on the table. She was supposed to do the ultrasound and mark me for the biopsy, but she excused herself from the room and came back with the doctor, who explained to me that instead of performing a biopsy on one mass, he wanted to biopsy the FOUR masses he saw and a lymph node under my arm. I STILL did not think there was any possible way it could be cancer. Halfway through the biopsy, with a huge needle in my breast, I lost it on the table. I calmed down enough to finish the procedure and the doctor promised to put a rush on the results so I didn’t have to be anxious too long. He also said I did need to prepare myself, because it didn’t look good. AGAIN no one used the word cancer. While helping me get dressed after the procedure, the technician gave me what remains to this day been the best advice I have ever received: “The internet is a wonderful tool to find doctors and treatments, but when you’re scared or anxious, stay really far away because it is also a very dark place.”
The following Monday, as I was driving, I got the call: “I’m sorry, but the pathology came back positive in all the masses and the lymph nodes. I need you to come back to the office right now for further testing and to meet my superior, who will be taking over your case.” I pulled off the highway and completely lost it – crying, screaming, punching my steering wheel. I didn’t know what to do.
I was officially diagnosed Stage 3 Carcinoma of left breast metastatic to auxiliary lymph node. The next weeks passed in a haze of tests, machines, meeting chemotherapy oncologists, radiation oncologists, breast surgeons, reconstructive surgeons, and fertility specialists, and getting my DNA tested. All of my genetic testing came out negative. (My doctor still highly suspects it’s genetic and the specific gene just hasn’t been found or linked to cancer.) The tumor was big, 10 cm, and had probably been there for a few years. It was oddly shaped and placed back against my chest wall, which is why I had never been able to feel it – not that I checked often.
This brings me to the most important point I want to make: Ladies, check your breasts. Right now. Like stop reading this and check yourself right this second and if you feel or think you feel something, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist. My having called my gyno the next day is contributing to how well my treatment is going. When I was diagnosed, I was already stage three. If I had done regular checks, I may have been diagnosed earlier. What’s the difference? If I had caught it before it spread to the lymph nodes, I wouldn’t have lost my hair or needed chemotherapy, to freeze my eggs, a mediport in my chest and a tube running from it to my neck, or to feel like I got hit by a truck two days after chemo. Every time. Please get tested.
My care team was cherry picked by my breast surgeon without regard to hospital alliance, which means I got my dream team. It also meant that I had my surgery at Lenox Hill, chemo at NYU, and radiation at a private practice. At every appointment, my doctors would have a conference call with me to discuss the next steps, so at any given point I had the opinion of four doctors. They agreed on most aspects of treatment, but all overwhelmingly wanted me to freeze my eggs before any treatment. I didn’t know if I wanted to have kids anymore, and even with the knowledge that I have 26 eggs stored somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, I still don’t know if I want kids, but my doctors made sure that I had a CHOICE, unlike many of the other choices that were dictated by my cancer.
I don’t regret taking the time to freeze my eggs, but I wish I had known what that decision actually meant: Waking up every single morning at 6am to reach the fertility clinic by 7am to have my blood drawn to check my hormone levels; injecting myself with hormones multiple times a day EVERY DAY in my stomach and then my thighs when my stomach got too bruised and painful; having an ultrasound EVERY DAY for two weeks; and keeping my phone on loud at work to make sure I got the calls telling me at what time to inject myself. After a truly horrible two weeks, I was finally given the green light to come in and have my future babies frozen.
After that, it was time for chemo. My biggest worry pre-chemo was the hair loss. I held on to hope that I may not lose my hair, but that hope was shattered about ten minutes into my very first conversation with my oncologist. I went to my hairdresser and told her what was going on. She was incredible. She tied my beautiful long hair into a pony tail, grabbed the biggest scissor she had, and chopped it off with all the anger and intensity that I was feeling. After my second round of chemo, my hair started REALLY falling out. In a moment of intense anger, I thought “I need out of this”. I still had the choice to cut it all off before it fell out. That might not seem like much of a choice, but when you’re already feeling like you’ve lost control of your body, making the choice to cut all my hair off before it came out felt like the most empowering move I could make.
The next morning my boyfriend came over with the clippers and the most nonchalant look on his face. As soon as he turned the clippers on, I started crying. My boyfriend made jokes throughout the entire process. As he was leaving, he told me I was beautiful and tucked me into bed. I found a lot of strength in that moment and in my moments of weakness about my appearance, I look back on that day and remember the jokes and him lovingly calling me a cue ball. My suggestion to anyone out there considering cutting their hair off before it falls out? DO IT.
After the hair loss, came the more debilitating aspects of chemo. I had 16 rounds of treatment. The first four rounds were Adriamycin. It’s red and nasty and I haven’t been able to eat red Jell-O or paint my nails since. Adriamycin is injected into your IV. As it’s injected, you taste and smell it. It was disgusting and made me constantly want to throw up. Then came the 12 rounds of weekly Taxol. Thankfully, Taxol didn’t taste like anything and because of the side effects and risk of allergic reactions, I was given a good dose of Benadryl beforehand. Taxol made me a lot weaker and, at this point, I finally stopped working and spent a lot more time walking my dog and trying not to catch the flu. During Taxol, I had some of my darkest moments of isolation and despair. It never seemed like it would be over. The pain was so much. There were days I stayed up praying to a God I no longer knew if I believed in to please just let me make it through the night.
Following chemo, I had a month off before surgery. I elected to have a bilateral mastectomy with a DIEP flap reconstruction. I didn’t get implants because I still had radiation to go through and didn’t want to worry about changes from that, and because of my age my implants would have needed to be changed multiple times throughout my life and I didn’t want to have to deal with that. I chose bilateral because a DIEP flap can only be done once, so if I only reconstructed one breast and later needed to do both, I would need to have an implant in the other or a different. What was a choice for visual preference ended up probably saving my life. During surgery, they removed a mammary gland on the right side of my chest, which was later found to have microscopic cancer cells. If it has been left inside, my chances of recurrence would have skyrocketed.
After surgery, I had 33 rounds of radiation. I lay on the cold table with my arm above my head and watched as the three-foot-thick, six foot wide “door of doom” closed behind the technician. I’m not a claustrophobic or anxious person, but in that moment, I felt fear and anxiety like never before. Here I am in a room where clearly no healthy person should be. Radiation was not so bad at first, but towards the end I had a huge radiation burn that was worse than a really bad sunburn.
About a month after I finished chemo, I got my first round of post-treatment blood tests and was officially declared in remission. Cue the champagne and balloons. Except the hardest part of being diagnosed with cancer for me was going from constantly being in the hospital to “see you next month”. Your doctors don’t prepare you for what comes next. It’s hard to talk to anyone and explain to someone who wasn’t literally at death’s door that you sometimes think it would have been easier to just go. Yes, I’m incredibly thankful for all the work my doctors did, but when we were talking about saving my life, they were referring to saving my body– not my personality, not my relationships. No one ever told me I would not be me when I came through on the other side.
It seems like post-cancer everything is supposed to be rainbows and butterflies. There’s this pressure to be a super survivor because not everyone gets to live. I keep my dark days at bay by letting myself feel my feelings and by not apologizing for them or feeling ashamed. I let myself go to the dark corner of “holy fuck is this really my life right now” and I let myself dwell. Someone once told me to change the way I think about my dark corner by not making it a corner. A corner is like a cave; it gets deeper and darker and if I let myself go into a cave, then I might get lost. Instead I think of it as a tunnel. The tunnel can be as long and as slow as Midtown during rush hour, but there’s only one way out and that’s through. Once you’re through, let life go on without that pressure. There is no obligation to be a super survivor. Today I wanted to make my survivorship mean something to someone else so I wrote out my story and if I can help one person through this story, every dark tunnel I’ve crawled through will have been worth it.