On Breast Cancer At A Young Age: My Story, And Why We Need To Be Proactive About Seeking Medical Attention
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
I am 31. I am settling into the news that my cancer surgery was successful. And, I am waiting to hear back on whether or not I need chemotherapy.
When I was first diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, I was so mad at the pink ribbons. It gutted me to see something soft and delicate paired with my newfound illness, especially as time passed and I observed everything I was afraid of coming into fruition. Slowly, slowly, things have shifted.
I am a Warrior Woman.
Grateful every day for this body my soul was given and the many lessons we continue learning together. Grateful I paid attention to this nagging feeling I’ve had since I was a kid that I need to be on the lookout for breast cancer. Grateful to the other people like me who reached out to me after my diagnosis. Grateful for those who have dedicated and who continue to dedicate their time, energy, and resources toward disappearing this awful thing. Grateful for those in the medical profession who have learned to treat people like me with the respect and dignity that we deserve as we face some of the most difficult choices a person can be asked to make.
In time, I have come to see that the advancements, the life-saving measures we have now, the options for a semblance of normalcy afterward — all of that may not have reached the place it is these days without those who spread awareness.
This means it feels imperative for me in this moment to acknowledge the uniqueness of a breast cancer diagnosis at a young age. Often, people like me get missed. In fact, a gynecologist found my tumor over a year ago during my annual breast exam, but she dismissed it as a fibroadenoma and told me we didn’t need to do anything about it. I believed her.
Still, the spot she had pointed to, instructing me to feel it in its fibroadenoma likeness, lurked in the back of my mind in the months that followed. I could not feel the tumor myself until it grew; this past May, I discovered it in meditation. Believe me or don’t, but I had been praying for perfect health. I asked to be told whatever I needed to know in that moment. Immediately, I developed an itch by my left armpit, which I scratched and I scratched, until I realized my fingers had found my lump.
The fact that I went from not knowing what my doctor was talking about last year to feeling this hard, immovable thing this time led me to pursue help. In doing so, I was told again this year by a different doctor that my lump was likely benign. Apparently, I am too young.
I heard this even though my lump had several key characteristics of cancer: it was hard, it was immovable, and it was located in the area of the breast that has a higher likelihood of cancer. And, in a year, it had grown.
I was told once more that it was nothing to worry about, but we could look into it, if I wanted to. So, this time, that is what we did.
Moving forward, I heard from every medical professional I interacted with that my lump would be benign. The radiologist’s office had even decided not to do a bilateral mammogram the first time around, because everyone was so certain this was nothing. Goodness, did I long to hear those words, but I knew when this started that they would not be true.
The tone changed on my birthday. It was the only day there was an appointment available that did not conflict with my work schedule. Within a few minutes, the radiologist burst in unexpectedly on my ultrasound. He told me that we needed to proceed with a biopsy. Though this can be a normal progression of events that still yields a benign result, I knew from his demeanor what was happening. I thought two things in that moment: the first was, “Someone knows what I know,” and the second was a heartfelt four-letter word. Happy Birthday to me.
I got a letter from the radiologist in the mail immediately after that ultrasound. It said that I did not necessarily need to work with his office, but I did need to seek medical help. Then, my doctor called to tell me things weren’t looking so benign anymore. After my biopsy, it was officially confirmed that I had cancer on July 17, 2020. And, I learned in the time that followed that I had a second area in the same breast to contend with, too.
Every time I catch myself wondering what things would have looked like if we had just looked into things back in 2019, I think, “What if we still hadn’t looked into things this time?”
I share this story so that other people my age know that whether or not the results are favorable, we NEED to be brave and look into it.
There may be fewer of us who are diagnosed annually, but in order to be treated, we need action. I do not want anyone else’s providers to find tumors they do nothing about the first time around. I do not want anyone else’s providers to encounter that same tumor a second time and feel inclined to dismiss it, either.
See the process through until you hear the word “benign.” And, if you hear “malignant” instead, then I hope that you are lucky enough-like me-to have the most wonderful people show up for you and cheer you on while you go to battle. Because I did this, I can assure you that I will be one of them.
Did I want to hear I had cancer?
NO, but I pushed so I could face this thing and leave it in my dust. I may not be through the wave just yet, but I am honored to have my whole life ahead of me after this.
Update, a couple months later: by some magical stroke of luck, I did not need chemo. We got to move forward with my five years of hormone suppression to prevent a recurrence. I will be finishing up with my breast reconstruction over the next few months. So far in my cancer-free life, I am happy, healthy, and very hopeful for the future.