Today it has been officially 8 months since I underwent a double mastectomy to fight the cancer that unexpectedly decided to take root in my body. On a Sunday night in December while lying on the couch, my husband Nico felt a lump in my right breast and by Monday afternoon I was sitting down with a radiologist who told me I needed biopsies and to see a surgeon immediately. I was diagnosed two weeks later, just a few days after Christmas while in Italy with my parents and Nico’s family. It was one of the most shocking and scary moments of my life. Everything seemed surreal, as if it was happening to someone else and I was watching from outside my own body. My surgeon at NYU Langone initially told me that it was stage 0 DCIS, which meant my treatment would not need to be as severe. But with cancer, I knew that all treatment options were in fact pretty severe, especially to someone who’s never even broken a bone, had a cavity, and who rarely even gets sick in the wintertime.
When we returned from Italy I met with my surgeon who told me I would need to undergo a mastectomy of my right breast. I also asked to have a genetic test to find out if I carried any of the BRCA gene mutations. While I hoped with all of my heart that the test would come back negative, I also felt that if it were positive, it would at least be a reasonable explanation for why, at 33 years of age with a healthy and happy lifestyle, I could possibly develop breast cancer in the first place. We are so accustomed nowadays to getting answers, to knowing why, and demanding explanations. We struggle with uncertainty and I am certainly no different. But life so often doesn’t make sense and isn’t fair, and while I’ve always known this, I have been forced to confront this truth head on, relying on faith to give me peace when there were no answers to be found.
Waiting those two weeks for test results to come back was very hard to say the least. I did all that I could to quiet my mind, and keep my thoughts from leading me down the rabbit hole of fear. When fear and anxiety started getting the best of me, I learned what it meant to leave them at God’s feet. It turns out that I do not carry any of the high-risk genes, and for that I am so very thankful…but it also means that for the rest of my life, I will have to work on surrendering my desire to know why this happened to my body.
Following all of the results, it was then time for me to make the most difficult decision of all: whether or not to give up one breast or both. This was by far the most difficult decision I have ever had to make. In life we become attached to so many things, our possessions, our partners, our family, our jobs…and our bodies. It took an incredible amount of prayers, tears, meditation, council and ultimately courage to surrender control and attachment to my own body. What will I look like? How will they feel? Will my husband still find me attractive? When I finally become a mother, how will it feel to face the fact that I will not be able to nurse my children? These were some of the frightening and painful questions that I faced. But eventually I began to truly understand that “I” exist, my soul exists beyond my body and that 2 breasts were a small price to pay in order to gain a longer and healthier life. The decision was still extremely sad, and I was scared to face such a serious surgery (my first surgery ever) but I knew that I was strong enough to do it, that God would stand by my side and that the love and support of my amazing husband, friends and family would ultimately get me through the storm one day at a time. There were also so many women to whom I was introduced, who have gone through this and who were willing to speak to me about their deeply personal experiences, even though we had never met. These amazing women gave me a dose of the courage they had found, and helped me through the decisions, the surgery and what to expect on the other side. Without their strength and experience, it would have been so much more difficult to fight through the fear, the pain, and all of the confusion that this journey brings.
The day of my surgery, I was very calm. I knew that I was ready. I had done the work to prepare myself emotionally and had visualized myself in the operating room surrounded by my doctors. I even visualized waking up and hearing the doctors say that everything went perfectly. Nico had told me a few days before, “I can council you and prepare you for battle, but on February 5th, you will have to enter the Colosseum and fight on your own.” And so I did. I walked into the operating room with a smile on my face and told my doctors that I was ready to face the next step. First I had to endure the battle between my mind and my heart, and now it was time to let my body lead the fight.
When I woke up from surgery my surgeon was stroking my forehead and she said that everything had gone perfectly. I knew it would. I had visualized it already. And when the anesthesia wore off, my mom showed me picture after picture of so many friends and family members all dressed in pink. It was one of my favorite things and it lifted my spirits more than you know. I am so deeply grateful for this and for the cards, the gifts, the flowers, the prayers and for all of the love that cut through the clouds like a ray of sunlight after the storm.
The weeks post surgery were some of the most difficult of my life. I’ve had to rely on Nico and my mom for literally everything from getting dressed and undressed, brushing my teeth and helping me in and out of bed. But each day got a little bit easier than the one before and I found so much strength in myself, coupled with a profound humility, having to rely on others to get me through small tasks that I had always taken for granted. This experience has taught me the true meaning of unconditional love and service and has given me an even deeper sense of gratitude for the incredibly supportive family that I have been blessed with.
After the final pathology report came back I was upgraded to Stage 1 because some invasive cancer was found. My oncologist recommended 5 years of Tamoxefin and so I underwent fertility treatment to freeze my embryos just one month after my surgery. Ultimately, I decided to decline Tamoxefin and have since set out on a path of mind and body wellness, using diet, exercise, supplements and spiritual healing to help me stay cancer free for the rest of my life.
I will never know why this happened to me, but I have learned so many beautiful lessons throughout this process that I will be eternally grateful for:
- First and foremost, it is amazing the strength that you can find within yourself when you need it most.
- Secondly, as Grandma has always taught us, there is nothing in the world more important than family. When health fails and shit hits the fan, your family will pick you up off the floor and get you walking again.
- Thirdly, live every single moment like it is your last. Life is so unexpected but each day we have an opportunity to be brave, to go after our biggest dreams, and to extend our arms in love to someone who needs it most.
I have naturally been forced to evaluate my life throughout this ordeal and I am fortunate enough to say that I am happy with most of the choices that I have made. I am so deeply in love with my life and the people in it. But I’ve learned that I have a mighty lioness inside of me and that I need to let her out more often than I have. There is no time to be timid. And I want to do more to use all of the blessings that I have been given in my life to help others. Music is one of the greatest sources of joy in my life. How can I use this gift more fully?
Each and every one of us has so much love to offer people in this world. Let’s look for more ways to shine light into the darkness. Let’s be grateful for every moment, recognize the beauty of silky sheets when you get in them at night, really feel them against your skin. Hold your partner’s hand tightly and feel the warmth that it gives. Never be afraid to express your love for someone or say that you are sorry. Savor a delicious meal or a glass of wine slowly. Reach for your dreams no matter how much they scare you. And LOVE your body. Don’t look at what you think are your imperfections. Love yourself and every inch of the body that grants you the ability to move through this beautiful world. There may come a time when you need to say goodbye to a part of it, and in that moment, I can tell you that you will wish you had loved it and appreciated it with all of the light inside of you.
And finally, my beautiful Grandma once said that choosing a husband is the most important decision you will ever make in your life. A year and a half ago when Nico and I said our wedding vows, “in sickness and in health” I never imagined that sickness would be just a year around the corner. But Nico has been my steady rock, the guardian angel by my side since the very first moment we heard this scary news. He has held me up, wiped my tears, taken care of me, called my family to keep them informed, he never once let me see his fear, and has assured me every step of the way that after all of this is over, to him, I will be even more beautiful. Very early in our marriage, we have truly learned what it means to be partners, and I have been profoundly moved by the depth of his love and the power of his strength. He is by far the best thing that has ever happened to me, the best decision I’ve ever made and our relationship has become even stronger through this challenge.
Attached are some pictures of my journey through surgery. I hope that my experience can help remind you of how lucky we are to be alive. Challenges will come our way without a doubt, but they can be tremendous opportunities to wake us up from our slumber and help us learn what we’re really made of. So embrace them, allow them to shape you for the better and refuse to retreat or surrender. As I now say, “Cancer is the worst and the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Thank you to all of my friends and family for getting me through the most difficult fight of my young life.
“Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
But don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go out and make a joyful sound.”