Did you know that about 10,000 “young” women will get breast cancer this year? I do now. I am one of them.
It all started while my boyfriend and I were away for a long weekend to celebrate my 29th birthday. We were lying in bed and I reached my arm across my body. There it was — a lump, in my breast. It was big, and it was bumpy; it felt like a mutant cauliflower had taken root in the soft tissue of my otherwise pillowy breasts.
This was new. Three short months earlier, I had had a breast exam during my yearly OB-GYN exam. My doctor didn’t feel a thing. I had always been hyper aware of my breasts, ever since an ex-boyfriend found a 2 cm jelly bean (which turned out to be a harmless fyberadenoma) and my doctor had told me that I should pay attention to it and watch for changes.
That jellybean was my first of what would be many biopsies.
As soon as we got home the next day, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor. This would be one of the first “lucky” things to happen. Later, we would learn that the cancer had already spread to my bones but luckily, nowhere else where it could do real damage. If I had waited, or brushed it off, or been too scared to get it checked, or even if my doctor had dismissed it as nothing, told me to “watch it” and come back in a few months, my story might be a very different one.
But none of those things happened. For that I will always, always feel blessed.
I left my job at a really cool startup to start my chemotherapy treatments. I was lucky to be able to make the decision to do chemo first, as it only very recently became an option for breast cancer patients, and which ultimately saved me from having a large and unnecessary surgery where half my breast would be removed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the cancer quite soon enough. I learned later that the cancer had already spread to my bones by the time we discovered the lump. The good news — and again, I am so lucky — is that a trip to the emergency room led me to discover this fact a full two months earlier than I would otherwise. People can live with what my doctors call “bone disease” for years and years and years, and my prognosis is even better because we found it when it was so small. I can have a mostly normal life, until they can find a cure, which will hopefully be soon.
Here’s the thing: as much as the chemo sucked, and the cancer sucks, and the fact that sometimes I barely have the energy to get of bed sucks, and I really miss my hair, most of the time I think that this sickness might be both the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to me. My story, and stories like mine, has the potential to inspire many other young women to start checking their breasts, and I can only hope, catch things early, when it’s still treatable. There’s still no good way to check young women’s breasts— the breast tissue is just too firm for mammograms to be effective before 40. If just one girl, who wouldn’t have otherwise, notices something early because of me I will feel like all of this was worth it.
I also feel blessed for the people whose fear I have helped to abate. Everyday I get messages from young girls who are facing their own diagnosis, about how scary it was Googling their condition. The internet can be a terrifying place when you are sick, let alone facing chemo. All these girls were just reading about all the terrible things that happen when you’re being “cured.” I’ve been there too — it was awful!
Chemo sucks. But it didn’t suck as bad as everyone had made it out to be. I had every side effect known to my doctors and nurses, and some incredibly rare ones that they had never experienced before, and I still don’t think it was as bad as I thought it was going to be in my dark little head before all of this started.
Yes, my hair fell out. I miss it every single day. But as I tell my boyfriend regularly, “If I look this good with no hair, barely exercising and eating nothing but carbs for six months, just think how hot I am going to be for the rest of my life. This is about as bad as it’s going to get.”
I am so blessed to be in San Francisco in 2013 when the most incredible “science magic” is coming from places like Genentech, UCSF, and Stanford. I made the decision to trust my doctors. I mostly resist the urge to Google, but I’m only human.
That’s what we do, right? Something comes along and ignorance is scary, and so we turn to the internet, where nuggets of useful information are hidden among the most extreme cases of both success and failure.
Right now, I have a lot of time on my hands. I’ve used my OCD internet researching skills to figure out how to be as comfortable, and feel as beautiful, as possible. I refuse to let cancer take anything else away from me — and that include my desire to sometimes just be a pretty girl. I refuse to let cancer make me feel less beautiful. I just want to look cool and be the best person that I can be, is that too much to ask?
When my eyelashes and eyebrows fell out, I meditated on all the blessings I had (like my amazing friends) and then instead of freaking out, I reached for the brow kit I had already hoarded in my chemo kit for just this occasion. I drew on my eyebrows with a little stencil. I went to see my friends. Nobody noticed my eyebrows were gone.
I have learned some very important lessons from Hurricane Cancer, lessons which I think have made me a better person. Would I have chosen to learn these lessons another way? Absolutely. Do I think these lessons will be mean less if I don’t get on my soapbox and share them with you? Absolutely. I have always believed that bad things happen for a reason, even if you can’t understand them right away. It has helped me more than I can say to take what happened to me and use it as a way to help other people.
Dena Stern blogs about her cancer treatment and recovery on her blog Dameazon.