By Elina Golbin, diagnosed at age 28  

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28, I spent the first few months reading other cancer survivors’ stories. I was searching for some hope and meaning in the diagnosis that had turned my life upside down. Some of the women I read about described their cancer as a “gift” — a gift they would never give back. I remember wondering if I would ever feel that way about this horrible disease that had already taken so much from me.

It is now four years later, and while I am grateful to have reached this milestone, I would never call my cancer diagnosis a “gift.” If given the choice, I would choose to have never heard those four words, “you have breast cancer,” during what should have been the peak of my youth. Without question, I would have traded my cancer journey for a smoother path — a path that didn’t involve multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. And I would have chosen a more certain future — one that didn’t include a heightened sense of every ache and pain, worrying if I’d ever have to hear those four words again.

There is, however, one thing that I would never trade — the women whom I’ve been so lucky to meet in the years since my diagnosis. They are my gift.

‘Outliers’ in the World of Breast Cancer

An interesting thing happens in the young adult breast cancer community. It is almost like an underground society. We are women in our 20s and 30s who are outliers in the world of breast cancer. According to statistics, breast cancer should never have hit us so young — but yet it did. When we meet, it feels comfortable and safe. Our vulnerability allows us to open up to each other instantaneously. We understand what it means to hold on to life, and we help hold each other up. We know that sometimes the only way to get through the painful moments is to laugh at ourselves. We joke about our awkward hair phases and our fascination with nipples. We talk about our fears, and we give each other pep talks before our oncologist follow-ups. When we’re around each other, we feel less alone.

Kinder and More Compassionate

Forming such deep bonds has definitely changed my life for the better. I have met most of my new survivor friends through 5 Under 40, the organization for which I’m honored to serve as brand ambassador. The other brand ambassadors have become my best friends and soul sisters. As other newly diagnosed women are referred to 5 Under 40, I have the privilege of guiding them through their treatment and helping them adjust to their “new normal” after treatment ends.

People sometimes ask whether being so involved in the lives of women going through breast cancer is difficult or draining – if I ever just want to move on with my life. I patiently tell them that after a cancer diagnosis, you never just “move on.” I explain that these women help me just as much as I help them. They are the people I relate to most and they make me feel understood. They remind me of what’s important in life and they teach me how to be a more compassionate person.

I often reflect on the collection of moments throughout the past four years since my diagnosis. There are days that I do miss the old me, wishing I could go back to a simpler time when breast cancer wasn’t part of my daily vocabulary. But lately, I am realizing that the new me may actually be an even better version. I am now kinder and more patient with people. I take the time to remember that everyone has their own struggle in life. I am also kinder to myself: When I look in the mirror, I try not to focus on the scars. Instead, I focus on the body that has carried me through treatment and has bounced back stronger than ever — the body that my husband repeatedly tells me he loves more than ever.

Coming Full Circle

There have recently been moments when I’ve realized that I’ve finally found the hope and meaning I desperately searched for during those first few months after diagnosis. A moment like the one that happened a couple of months ago at my plastic surgeon’s office. I was having pre-op testing for my fourth surgery — this time it was a revision reconstruction surgery. As I stood at the front desk, handing in my paperwork, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a young woman named Ashley whom I had never met before.

“Are you Elina Golbin?” she asked me. I told her that I was. “I can’t believe you’re standing here in front of me!” she said. “I recognized you right away from the 5 Under 40 website. I memorized your entire story and it brought me so much comfort during my own diagnosis. Wow, look at you! I can’t believe how long your hair has gotten!” As we spoke, I realized that my life had come full circle. My own story had become a source of hope for other women searching for the light at the end of the tunnel during the darkest times of their diagnosis.

This young woman who was once a stranger at my plastic surgeon’s office has become a friend. When we had lunch recently, I was again reminded that my breast cancer experience is so much bigger than myself.  It has the power to touch other people’s lives and empower them with the determination they need to keep going. If they see that I came out on the other side of breast cancer, they start to feel reassured about their own future. If they see that I still look feminine and youthful and that my hair has grown back, it helps remind them that there is life after breast cancer.

Finding Meaning by Giving Back

Last month, I attended a 5 Under 40 meeting where we rolled out our new peer match program. Ten of us sat in the room — all breast cancer survivors diagnosed under the age of 40, strategizing about the best ways to help newly diagnosed women. After all, that is the essence of 5 Under 40 — giving back to the women who come after us and providing them with the knowledge and support they so urgently need.

As I looked around the room at this group of kind, passionate and vibrant women, I knew at that moment that I was in the exact place I was meant to be… in a room of young survivors doing what we do best — listening to each other’s stories, joking about nipples and reassuring each other that our hair had grown so much since our last gathering.

Breast cancer may not be a gift, but moments like these are definitely my silver lining.