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Her Story: I Was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer in My 20’s


On January 30, 2013, I flew to Miami to celebrate my 28th birthday. Upon waking up the morning after my arrival, I noticed a large bloodstain all down my nightshirt, all over my bed sheets and down my left arm. I looked everywhere on my body to find a scab or even a clot, but I couldn’t find anything.

Since I was on vacation and didn’t want to put myself into a panic, I decided it must have been a nosebleed. For months after, I continuously kept seeing small blood stains on my shirts or bras, but when I looked for a cut or a scab I still couldn’t find a source.

Then on the morning of April 20, I woke up with a feeling that something wasn’t right in my body. I felt fatigued and I had no appetite. I decided the only way to feel better was to take a hot shower and soak up the steam. After standing in the shower for nearly ten minutes I looked down and saw that blood was streaming from my right breast nipple. The bleeding wouldn’t stop, and I was so terrified that I thought I was going to have an anxiety attack. As my mind kept racing, I kept asking myself, “How didn’t I catch this sooner?!” At the same time, a part of me was relieved to find the source after all these weeks of finding blood on my shirts.

Immediately, my boyfriend rushed me to the emergency room, where they ran many blood tests, including on the blood from my breast. They couldn’t find any abnormalities. The next day I saw a breast specialist, and after a negative mammogram and ultra sound the doctor assured me it was a benign growth called a papilloma that was causing the bleeding. Nevertheless, she wanted to be certain and on May 8, 2013, I had surgical biopsy of the right breast nipple.

On May 14, 2013, my boyfriend insisted that he come with me to the doctor’s office for my biopsy results. I told him it would be a quick appointment and that he wouldn’t be necessary, but he wanted to come anyway. I was sitting on the table, all smiles, to show the doctor how well my incisions were healing and how I wasn’t bleeding anymore. However, when she walked in, she wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm; in fact, she seemed to feel the opposite. I don’t remember much of that appointment except hearing the four words that had never occurred to me: You have breast cancer.

After nearly fainting, I couldn’t even grasp those words and identify them with myself. To make matters worse, I live in Los Angeles, and my entire family lives in Pennsylvania. My grandmother had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma the week before.

I had a million questions going through my head: How?! I’m healthy. I’m young. It doesn’t run in my family. All of my tests were negative and there was no lump! How do I tell my friends?! More importantly how do I tell my family?! Wait… how do I tell my mom?

I looked up from the table into my boyfriend’s eyes. I could tell he was holding back the tears as his eyes became bloodshot and glossy. His face turned grey and then white. It was like a dagger went through him. I reached for his hand, and he sat quietly being my rock as the tears were rolling down my face. Immediately after I left the hospital, I broke down. My life flashed before my eyes, and all I could think about was whether I was going to survive.

I called my aunt Julie, my mother’s oldest sister, who is like a second mother to me. She beat lymphoma in April, and I needed to talk to someone who could relate to me. My mother called me for my results that same day. My heart stopped when the phone rang. She was still digesting the information that her mother had lymphoma, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her only child was now fighting breast cancer. I also needed to make sure I had enough information and a plan of action so I could assure her that I would be all right. A few days later I had an MRI, which showed abnormality throughout the entire breast and my doctor told me I had no choice: I had to have a mastectomy. It was then that I called my mom and told her.

In the meantime, I closed my Facebook account and told only five of my closest friends. I assured them I was going to be fine before they had a chance to react because I was too afraid to see their emotions. It was so hard to wake up and go about my day without thinking about my diagnosis. The longer I kept it to myself to try to come to terms on my own, the harder it was for me to bear. I felt so alone and scared. I didn’t know anyone my age who had been through or was going through cancer. I had no one to relate to, and when I searched online, the stories I read were so depressing that they made me feel worse.

On July 7, 2013, my grandmother lost her battle with lymphoma. My doctors had allowed me to fly back to PA the week before to say good-bye. For four days I sat by her side while she was put on hospice. It was the first time in over a month that I didn’t think about my diagnosis. I had to be strong for her and, at the same time, she was being strong for me.  It was very surreal knowing that we both had gotten diagnosed with cancer around the same time. I cherished every moment up until the day I had to tell her good-bye. It was so hard seeing someone I loved so much losing a battle that I was fighting myself. During our last few minutes she told me how brave I was and how she was so proud of me and that she loved me very much. She then gave me her emerald ring that was on her finger and put it on mine. I knew I had to stay strong and fight for my life.

On July 18, 2013, I underwent a unilateral mastectomy with the removal of three lymph nodes. Immediately after the mastectomy, my reconstruction/plastic surgeon reconstructed my breast with an empty expander, which basically looks like an empty implant. My doctor said that if I had waited any longer this tumor would have reached my lymph nodes and I only would have had a few months to live. My life flashed before my eyes again, and I felt like I dodged the biggest bullet of my life. I stayed in the hospital for five days with two drains under my armpits. The pain was excruciating. My boyfriend was able to sleep at the hospital with me, and my mother was able to fly here and stay with me for a month. 

One month after my mastectomy, my drains were removed, and I was able to start getting expanded. When you get expanded, the doctor takes a large syringe filled with saline solution and injects the implant with 20-40cc of the solution at a time. This stretched my skin and pectoral muscle, so it took multiple weeks of injections to achieve the size I wanted. On October 22, 2013, I had my first reconstruction surgery to replace the expander with an implant. I had another surgery January 20, 2014 to augment the left breast so it would look symmetrical and to also recreate the nipple of the new right breast. I wish I could say by now I am finished, but this month, I will be undergoing a final reconstruction surgery to finish the symmetry of the left breast.

I’ve had countless doctor visits, blood tests and scans to figure out why this happened and how to be proactive about reoccurrence. My oncologist referred me to a genetics specialist who ran a DNA gene panel of 18 different genes. In August 2014, I completed one round of IVF to freeze my eggs to prepare for my next step of treatment. My next step is still to be determined because of they found an abnormality within one of my genes that could conflict with treatment and cause another type of cancer. In the meantime, I see my oncologists every three months for blood draws, and I get a mammogram and an MRI every 6 months to check for reoccurrence.

After my diagnosis I was advised to take a medical leave from work and to return when I was fully recovered. When I initially met with my doctors I was told each surgery took two to three months to recover and I would be back to work within nine months after my mastectomy. Were they wrong! It’s been a little over a year and I’m still not able to work. I still have multiple doctor appointments a week. I have chronic fatigue and pain in my upper back that makes it hard for me to function.

In the beginning, I tried keeping an active social life, but unfortunately not a lot of my friends could grasp that I couldn’t go out all night or understand how easily I get tired. Most of them compared my mastectomy to a “boob job,” and it was hurtful that they could be so ignorant. It was like I had nothing in common with any of them anymore. While they were telling me about the crazy night they had or their amazing vacation, I was telling them about my “wild” nights in the hospital. I hated seeing their deer-in-the-headlights face and the disconnection in conversations.

I decided to start focusing on myself. I decided I had to teach myself how to live again and find a new normal. Since January, I’ve completely accepted myself for who I am and what I can and cannot do. My health has become my full time job. I lost interest in most of the things I used to find joy in, but I found a new love for other things such as cooking, yoga and meditation.

Even though I will never be the same after my breast cancer diagnosis, I believe in some ways it was a blessing. I learned a lot about myself, and I appreciate my second chance at life. I learned who my real friends are and also gained new amazing friendships with other breast cancer survivors. It’s the quality, not quantity, of friends that matters. Cancer really took a toll on my emotions and my mind. I had to learn to accept what I couldn’t change and focus on the things I could. I learned a lot about wellness and how important it is to be aware of what I put in and on my body and to be aware of any changes.

My cancer may be gone today, but it will always be in the back of my mind that it could come back tomorrow. Knowing that reality, I’m grateful to wake up every day. I live every day to the fullest, and I don’t sweat the small stuff. I cherish the people in my life and have purged the people who were toxic. My relationship with my boyfriend is stronger than ever, and I’m grateful that he’s been by my side through everything. I’m proud of my scars. They remind me everyday that life is tough, but I’m tougher. I’m happier because I learned what matters, and I stand taller because I’m a survivor.

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