Diagnosed in July 2013 at age 34
July 11, 2013 — one of the best and worst days of my life. I was happily married, starting a new job and reproductively challenged. My husband Luis and I were trying to start a family despite two and a half years of countless negative pregnancy tests, the diagnosis of infertility from three doctors, and a lot of tears. Luis was the optimist, still hopeful we could do it on our own, and I was the realist exploring the process of adoption. I was scared to take any fertility drugs, given my mother’s history of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer. We sold our apartment and were about to move in with my mother in New Jersey, with the intent to save money for a possible future adoption.
About two months earlier during my breast self exam, I noticed a large, long cord that felt like a rubber band in my left breast. I knew it hadn’t been there long because I perform regular self-exams given my family history of breast cancer. I thought it was a simple breast change with my menstrual cycle, but after a week, I realized it wasn’t changing or going away. Still, I wasn’t too worried since it wasn’t a lump, but I made an appointment to get a mammogram a few days later.
I remember the anxiety that surrounded me in the waiting room that day — yet none of it was mine. I remember feeling pretty annoyed I had to stop life for this appointment. The mammogram was negative, but the nurse practitioner recommended a breast biopsy anyway. When the doctor came in to perform the biopsy, she agreed that it wasn’t a lump, did a quick ultrasound and confirmed it was only a vein. I was diagnosed with Mondor’s disease, which is inflammation of a vein in the breast. She cancelled the biopsy, recommended warm compresses to the area, and told me to return in 3 months if things didn’t improve.
During the next few weeks, the vein started to shrink. It eventually disappeared, but left behind a lump. Soon after, my breast started to hurt, I had trouble moving my left arm one day while exercising at the gym, and I noticed discharge from my right breast. As a physician assistant, I knew something wasn’t right and despite the instructions I was given only 6 weeks prior, I made another appointment with the breast center right away.
On July 11, 2013, I was scheduled for a breast biopsy and my mother insisted on coming with me. The fine needle breast biopsy was easy and the doctor said we would have the results momentarily. When he returned to the room he said the words, “This is something” and left the room quickly to arrange more testing. My mother’s face changed and I could see her getting upset. I started to regret bringing her along. As a breast cancer survivor herself, she was probably assuming the worst and re-living her own experience. I reassured her I didn’t have cancer and calmly explained I just needed more testing to determine what it was. As the doctor re-entered the room, my mother said, “Doctor, will you please explain to her she has cancer. I think she is in denial.” Before I could even open my mouth to explain her reaction, the doctor interrupted with the words, “Adele, you have cancer.” At that moment, I was humbled at how much I needed my mother at the age of 34.
There was an urgency to get an MRI that day but before having the MRI, I had to take a pregnancy test. The nurse returned stating the test was “weakly positive” for pregnancy and that I would need a blood test for confirmation. The biopsy results I received only fifteen minutes ago were shocking, but this news made the whole situation seem surreal. The blood result was a low number, which could possibly reflect a three-week-old pregnancy, but was still indeterminate. The MRI had to be cancelled and suddenly my news of cancer took a back seat to the possibility of a little miracle. I knew it was God’s way of helping me deal with the tough journey ahead. I wanted to deliver the news to my husband in person. When he came home from work that day, it was a rollercoaster of mixed emotions, mostly of joy. Two days later my blood test result doubled and our pregnancy was official. I couldn’t be more grateful that my husband Luis always believed in our baby. He taught me to never lose faith, and that no matter what the future had in store for us, we would face it together.
There were many appointments and opinions that followed until we found my team of doctors that were comfortable dealing with the complexity of my case. My genetic testing was surprisingly negative given my strong family history of breast cancer. I remember a moment of shock and breaking down in one appointment when I realized in a few short weeks, I would be big, breast-less and bald! I couldn’t imagine how much our world was about to change. The word bittersweet took on a whole new meaning.
At six weeks pregnant, I had a double mastectomy without any breast reconstruction to minimize anesthesia time. As I lay there recovering from surgery later that evening with my sister, the OB resident came into my room for my post-op ultrasound. I will never forget how we cried together when we saw the baby’s strong heartbeat. It was one of the most emotional moments in my life. A sense of peace came over me and I knew everything would be okay.
Once we made it to the second trimester, I had a PICC line placed in my arm and twelve weeks of chemotherapy began. My sister came to every chemotherapy session with me and our relationship grew closer than ever. My husband Luis kept me strong every step of the way. He took several part-time jobs since I wasn’t working, and was able to handle my pregnancy food cravings while knowing how to just be with me when the fatigue and pain set in from the chemo. The outpouring of love I received from him, family, friends and acquaintances was overwhelming and definitely fueled my strength.
When I first reached out to the organization 5 under 40, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Jennifer Finklestein personally called me and arranged to meet me and my mother for lunch before one of my appointments in the city. We all shared our stories and for the first time, I met someone who understood the challenges of fighting this disease as a young female. The organization 5 Under 40 was always one step ahead of me on my journey. At first I didn’t think I wanted a wig, but I found myself unexpectedly insecure in public, not to mention facing a cold winter bald. 5 Under 40 put my insecurity to an end with a happy day of wig shopping and smiles. The organization has led me to meet many amazing young women fighting breast cancer, most especially another new mommy with breast cancer younger than me. The two of us formed a special bond given our similar stories and being neighbors in New Jersey. In fact, in the middle of our treatments, she took the time to walk me through a baby store and teach me all I needed to know about baby products. I was swiftly referred to lymphedema specialist Cynthia Shechter by the organization when I noticed my hand had swelling and needed attention. The edema has been under control thanks to her excellent care, which was key during my radiation.
On March 10, 2014 our baby boy arrived healthy and safe. The ladies of 5 Under 40 shared in our joy and I received many messages of love and best wishes from them. Radiation followed for six and a half weeks, which was hard to juggle with a newborn. I anxiously await my journey to be complete when I am able to have my breast reconstruction surgery. The happiness that prevailed in my “less ideal” situation should not be kept a secret. By sharing my experience, I hope to remind others not to lose their faith when facing their own challenges. I have learned how to find the love in every situation and how to receive love even from strangers. I want to show women how important it is to know your own body and trust your own instincts. I hope my story of keeping faith will bring strength to other women along their own unique journeys. And now, our miracle baby boy Constantino is the new “Big C” in our lives.