Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Jennifer’s story Age at Diagnosis: 36
I was married in August of 2009. I was a newlywed, and my husband and I were loving our life together in New York City. The next year brought challenges to my family that would change all our lives.
In January 2010, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My family didn’t have a history of cancer, so we didn’t know much about it. My mom immediately thought the worst and was terrified. We were all terrified. My father became immersed in learning the vocabulary of the disease so he could better understand what was happening, and I joined him. I read everything I could get my hands on and spent hours looking things up on the internet.
As my mother began treatment, she kept her diagnosis quiet. She didn’t tell many people, nor seek outside support. I watched my parent’s struggle in a self-imposed isolation as they worked tirelessly to survive this awful experience.
Later that year, I thought I felt a lump in my own breast. At first I said to myself it wasn’t possible, I was too young — women my age didn’t get breast cancer. I thought I was being hypersensitive because my mom was battling breast cancer. I decided to call my gynecologist and have it checked out. When I told my doctor that my mother had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, it was suggested I have a mammogram.
At that same time, my mom was scheduled to have a unilateral (single) mastectomy. She was scared, and I wanted to be with her. I already had plans to fly back to California, so I postponed my mammogram until I returned.
When I got back, I went for the mammogram. The tech felt the lump and also conducted a sonogram. The original tests took place on a Friday afternoon; I was back Monday morning having four core biopsies performed. At the end of the appointment, I was told I’d get the results in a week. Just one day later, I received a call from my doctor, who said, “We found a little cancer,” and I’d need to schedule a surgical appointment immediately. My diagnosis was invasive ductual carcinoma (IDC), stage 1C, estrogen positive (ER+) with lymph node involvement.
In a matter of weeks, my focus went from helping my mom battle cancer to the realization that I’d now have to battle my own breast cancer. I called my husband and told him I needed to see him. He met me on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 58th Street in Manhattan. I told him right there, standing on the corner. I wasn’t sure what else to do.
After I told him, I needed time to process the news. I needed a little space. I bought a journal and found a nice spot in Union Square Park to start letting the news sink in and began making a list of what I needed to do next.
When I got home that night, I called my brother. I needed to figure out how to tell our parents. They were already dealing with my mother’s diagnosis, and my mom was struggling with radiation treatment decisions that were overwhelming and difficult. We were understandably cautious about how to deliver this news.
Telling my parents was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. My parents were afraid that this meant I was going to die and they might lose me too. As a family, we were still viewing breast cancer as a dark thing. Something you were sure to die of. It was, after all, cancer. My mom was determined to be with me when I had my bi-lateral mastectomy. In September, she was given medical clearance to fly to New York. In addition to my husband, my parents, especially my mom, were with me every step of the way.
My mom found a new direction as a result of my diagnosis. She could now place all her energy into getting me well. She left behind the darkness of the feelings she had about her own cancer to help me battle mine. In October, during my two-week check-up after the surgery and scheduled drain removal, cancer in my central nodes was discovered. This meant more surgery and that I’d need to have the drains for another month.
Through every turn, my family and husband were with me. I appreciated their love and support so much but also felt that having breast cancer as a young woman was putting challenges in front of me they just couldn’t fathom. I got back on the internet to investigate what type of support existed for young women facing breast cancer and found Young Survival Coalition (YSC). I attended my first support group meeting and instantly felt connected to the women in the room, who let me know I was in the right place. They became the sisters I never had.
I spent the first year after my diagnosis rediscovering who I was as a daughter, wife, sister and professional. Just months after my diagnosis, an opportunity arose for me to apply for the position of YSC’s chief executive officer (CEO). I possessed all the necessary background in nonprofit management and had just spent the last few months embracing the YSC community as a new member. It seemed the timing couldn’t be better. In the Spring of 2011, I was appointed CEO of YSC, just nine months after my diagnosis. My journey with breast cancer was coming full circle. I was presented with the biggest opportunity I could imagine to give back to the organization I’d become so intimately involved with and that had changed my life.
The same year, I had the pleasure of throwing out the first pitch at the Congressional Women’s Softball game, a charitable game played by female members of Congress and the Washington Press Corps to benefit YSC. In addition to being a wonderful event that promotes awareness and education for the cause, the game did something else in 2011. Each year, a picture is taken of the players with all the volunteers and survivors. My mom, who was still not comfortable telling people that she had breast cancer, suddenly got up and said, “I’m a survivor!” and she stood right next to me in the photo. From that moment on, my mother and I have stood by each other as survivors.
Now in my second year as CEO of YSC, I’m having another first. This year, I decided take my body back from cancer. I’m going to get on a bike and ride more than 200 miles for YSC’s Tour de Pink (TdP) East and West Coast rides. Last year I was so moved by the men and women who ride TdP, with their sense of community and support, that I’m now training for the ride and chronicling the experience on YSC’s blog. And my mother will be there every step of the way as I take this next step in my journey.
I am proud to be able to lead YSC, its staff, constituents and all of our supporters. I take stock every day of the ways that breast cancer has changed my family’s life. From the shock, came calm. From the fear, came hope. From the tears came triumph ... and I will always remember that my mother and I saved each other in 2010, and we are surviving breast cancer together.