Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Annette’s story Age at Diagnosis: 33
I married a wonderful man in 1999. He was my best friend, and I couldn’t have been happier. In 2000, we faced one of the hardest challenges a young couple can; he was diagnosed with leukemia. When we were given the diagnosis, I was in the middle of my residency, which of course meant that my work environment was already stressful. Now my home life would become stressful as well.
My husband was in remission in 2002, and we were excited and started thinking that having a family could still be a reality for us. That year, I conceived my daughter. We hadn’t been trying, but she was a wonderful surprise. In 2003, he relapsed and underwent a stem cell transplant seven weeks before our daughter was born. I finished my medical training and began working as a family physician. I was the family’s main source of income during this time, because my husband was still recovering from his stem cell transplant. For our family, this situation worked. I loved my job and caring for my patients, while my husband was home and able to care for our daughter full-time.
In 2006, I was 33 and my life was in a great place. I had a fulfilling career, a loving husband and the child I dreamed about. That year, we planned a trip to the Philippines to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. Then, while on that trip, in the shower, I thought I felt a lump on my left breast. I’d just had my well exam with my obstetrician/ gynecologist (OB/GYN) a few months before and knew this lump was not there then. My first thought was it could be hormonal; I would just watch it and wait.
When we returned stateside, the lump had not gone away. It was time to have it checked out. I scheduled a mammogram. As a professional courtesy, the radiologist explained my films to me and showed me the images during that appointment. I knew I needed a biopsy and scheduled an ultrasound-guided mammotome biopsy the next week. It was done on a Wednesday. That Friday afternoon, while I was sitting in my office planning to see my afternoon patients, I received a call telling me I had cancer. I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), stage 2A, estrogen positive (ER+), progesterone negative (PR-) and Her2+. Sitting at my desk, I broke down and cried in disbelief.
I decided to have a unilateral (single) mastectomy on my left side, followed by chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and hormonal suppression therapy. In an effort to move quickly and reduce my time off work, I chose to not have reconstruction right away. It was something I felt I could leave for later.
I was a doctor, with a husband who had been dealing with leukemia for several years. I understood the vocabulary. My concern was explaining it all to my little girl. I didn’t want her to be afraid. A friend suggested the book, Franklin the Turtle: Goes to the Hospital. The book had a sweet way of describing the experience of going to the hospital and a positive message that the hospital is a place to get better. I told my daughter that, like Franklin, mommy was hurt and needed to go to the hospital to get better. The three days I spent in the hospital were some of the hardest of my life. It marked the first time I had ever been away from my daughter for that long.
Coming home wasn’t any easier. I had a two year old, and she wanted to be picked up, held … and I couldn’t do either. It broke my heart to see my child’s feelings hurt. To have her think I didn’t want to hold her was so painful. I settled on the couch and invited her to cuddle with me. It was a wonderful moment for us both.
Six months later, my husband relapsed two years after his stem cell transplant. My breast cancer experience would now take a back seat to my husband’s fight. I turned my attention to his battle. I gave all of my energy to my hope that he would be okay. He needed to beat this; my daughter and I needed him. I remember being at MD Anderson Cancer Center, loathe to be away from him longer than need be. My problem was that I needed my last does of Herceptin. I was at a major cancer treatment center. I thought “this should be easy,” but I encountered red tape. I am grateful I was able to eventually get that last dose without leaving my husband’s side for too long. He passed away one day before our daughter’s fifth birthday.
I couldn’t have faced this long journey without the support I found on the Young Survival Coalition community bulletin boards. When I was feeling my lowest, when I was physically exhausted, I could turn on the computer and find understanding and friendship. The YSC bulletin boards were a truly safe place for me to let out my emotions and be honest about how I was feeling. It was a place I could talk to other young women who were going through similar challenges.
For me, the journey is not over. I haven’t yet had my reconstruction, and I’m not sure what my plans are regarding that. I do know I was fortunate to have nine incredible years with a man I loved, who helped me see the better side of life and believed everything would be okay. I have a beautiful little girl, who was given the gift of knowing her father, and I have very special friends who continue to support and inspire me.