Diagnosed in July 2012 at age 28
I was diagnosed in July 2012, at 28 years old. It all started when I suddenly felt a lump in my left breast one morning. Through the insistence of my husband Jay, who is a lung doctor, I went to get a breast sonogram, which led to a needle biopsy. I’ll never forget that day that changed my life forever – July 9, 2012. It was a sunny Monday morning and I had anxiously been waiting for my biopsy results for over a week. I came into work and tried to pretend it was just a normal day. Around noon, Jay called the radiologist’s office for my results because I was just too nervous to make the phone call myself. I remember staring at the computer and trying to hold on to those final moments of normalcy, knowing that the next phone call I received could potentially change my life forever.
After what felt like an eternity, my phone rang. It was Jay. “Baby,” he said, as he tried to keep his voice from cracking “your test results were abnormal. You’re going to need surgery. I think you need to leave work and come home.” As I was driving home, I knew that it was time for me to speak to the doctor myself and hear the exact diagnosis. When I called him, he kept using words like “abnormal,” “malignant” and “invasive” to describe my biopsy results. I interrupted him at one point and said “Do those words mean that I have cancer?” “Yes, you have breast cancer,” he answered. I took a deep breath and asked “Have you ever had any patients like me, in their twenties, with breast cancer?” He paused and said “I’ve only had one other patient in her twenties. She’s ok, and you will be ok too.” And at that moment, as the radiologist was delivering news that was shattering my world to pieces, that’s when it happened. A feeling came over me – a feeling that blocked that horrific “C” word he had just used to describe my condition – and that feeling was hope. His other young patient is ok, and I’ll be ok too.
The next few weeks that followed continued to be full of disappointing and life shattering news. Normalcy had officially ended and I found myself living in a parallel universe. It was a new world of MRI and PET scans, endless IV sticks, painful biopsy procedures and countless doctors’ appointments. I also found out that I had Triple Negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease. When we finally settled on the breast surgeon that I would be using at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I had the difficult decision to make regarding the type of breast surgery I should have to remove the tumor. I’ll never forget what my husband Jay said as we sat in my breast surgeon’s office. “You need to get a double mastectomy and lower your chances of recurrence as much as possible. I don’t care if they cut everything off. I don’t care if they only leave your head. I’ll carry you in my bag and I’ll just be so happy that you’re right there next to me.” And just like that, the decision became easy. I decided on a double mastectomy that day, which was scheduled to happen three weeks after the date of my diagnosis.
The double mastectomy was only the beginning of my challenging journey. I woke up after the surgery to find out that 26 of my lymph nodes were removed, which meant that I would have to worry about a lifetime risk of Lymphedema, a chronic swelling of the arm. When I met with my oncologist after the surgery, I found out that I would definitely need 4 months of chemotherapy and an additional 5 weeks of radiation. Chemo would result in constant feelings of nausea and flu-like symptoms, extremely high risk of infection, and the loss of my hair, including my eyelashes and eyebrows. I also had to immediately begin the process of harvesting my embryos, because chemo had the potential to rob me of my fertility. And right as I started chemo, I received more devastating news that my genetic testing had shown that I was BRCA2 positive, which meant that my ovaries were at risk as well.
As my world was falling apart in front of my eyes, I did anything I could to hold on to that feeling of hope. I would read other survivor’s stories and find inspirational quotes. My favorite one was, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” I promised myself that was how I would handle the journey ahead of me. And if I looked hard enough, there were reasons to dance all around me. As news of my story spread, other young breast cancer survivors contacted me to share their own story. They told me that my life would soon return to a new normal and I would even come out of the experience stronger, healthier and more appreciative of life. They warned me about the side effects I would experience during treatment and they cheered me up by sharing some of the positive side effects. “I didn’t have to get a bikini wax for 6 months. Do you know what a relief that was?!” they told me. I bought myself a glamorous wig and I wore bright lipstick and bright necklaces to my chemo and radiation sessions. I found joy in my mom’s homemade chicken soup and the gifts that she surprised me with after I finished each of my chemo sessions. I always remembered to smile and I never lost hope.
After withstanding the long road to recovery, I returned to work in May 2013. My hair slowly grew back, my energy level returned and I began to feel more like myself again. My life somehow returned to a new normal. I often think back to my life before I was diagnosed and sometimes I do feel sad for the things I’ve lost – my youthful innocence, my breasts, my hair, my ability to relate to other carefree people my age. But I am so grateful for the things that I’ve gained during this experience. Through organizations like 5 under 40, I’ve formed a whole new network of courageous, kind and truly special young breast cancer survivors who have become the guiding force in my life. I’ve seen my husband live out his wedding vows and teach everyone the true meaning of unconditional love. I’ve learned to be my own health advocate and I know that health is a gift that I will never again take for granted. I’ve also gained a tremendous amount of clarity as a cancer survivor. Do I still have moments of fear and worry? Of course I do. But it is that feeling of vulnerability that reminds me to be more present, more appreciative of each moment, more focused on myself and those I love. It is a constant reminder that I’m here, I’m alive and that’s all that matters. My journey is still continuing and still has its challenges, but I feel so proud to call myself a survivor.
In the spirit of hope, I want to leave you with one final quote. “Hope is like light… Even the tiniest bit guides us through the darkness.” My connection to 5 under 40 helps keep that hope alive – the hope that together we will fight hard and beat this disease and the hope that one day we will find a cure and live in a brighter world without cancer. I truly believe that it is my mission to help other women battling breast cancer and ignite the same feeling of hope within them that has helped me win my own battle.