Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Terri ’s story Age at Diagnosis: 30
Young, determined and career-minded is how I saw myself. I was working as a tech recruiter in Vancouver, Canada, and my world revolved around high-powered clients and candidates. For five years, I managed over 300 clients and candidates, all at the senior and chief officer levels. I loved my job; it was fast paced, and I was always on the move. I managed training and development programs and was constantly attending networking events to support my clients better.
My work life was busy to say the least. My schedule was unpredictable, not leaving much time for a serious relationship. I worked 60 + hours a week and was almost totally consumed with work. With the intense work schedule I was keeping, I didn’t allow myself much time to focus on life outside of work.
In 1999, my family was one of the first to be tested for the BRCA gene in Canada. I was 19 years old. In the 80s my father’s mom and two of her sisters both had ovarian cancer, and my father tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. It turned out I also was BRCA1+. By 23, I was enrolled in an aggressive cancer screening program at British Columbia Cancer Agency (BC Cancer Agency). The program was the first of its kind and required me to have a mammogram and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) every six months beginning at age 23. As a young woman, I wanted to focus on work and career, not the possibility of developing breast cancer. The doctors encouraged me to think about having children while in my 20s and reminded me they thought the best course of action was a prophylactic double mastectomy . In fact, my oncologist asked me at every six-month visit if I had decided to have the surgery yet.
By no means was I ready to elect a prophylactic double mastectomy. I went through my 20s, focusing on work and trying not to let the potential for breast cancer side track my career. In June of 2009, during my annual MRI, the technician detected something that caused concern. Two months later, I had an ultra sound, and a tumor was discovered at the far left side of my breast against the chest wall. In September, I underwent a biopsy. The results came back benign, though my radiologist scheduled a follow-up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) biopsy the next month, just to be thorough. From the results of that biopsy, my doctor had me see the breast surgeon the next day. It was decided I would have a lymph node dissection and a lumpectomy. My tumor turned out to be one that was grade three, triple negative.
When I heard the diagnosis, my first thought was, "I hope I won’t need chemotherapy." I wanted to get back to work and certainly didn't want everyone to know I had cancer, which they would if I were bald. Not only was I going to have chemo, but my oncologist asked me not to work for up to six months afterwards. I couldn't imagine this. I didn't know who I was without work.
Turns out I was so much more than what I did for a living. During my time off work, I took the opportunity to travel. I’d saved up air miles from business travel and decided to burn them up. Get out of my cancer world and travel. Have an adventure. My first trip included Croatia, Slovenia and Turkey. When I returned to Canada, I knew I couldn't go back to my old life. I wasn't yet sure what my new direction would be, but I didn't want to live just for my job and be consumed with the stressful environment that it bred.
I read an article by Martha Beck that suggested making a New Year’s resolution to select three words that represent feelings, not just do a certain thing in the New Year, but to feel something. I knew immediately my three words: inspired, healthy and loved. I was getting healthy again, felt loved by family and friends, but I wasn't feeling inspired. I wanted to travel but do more than that. I researched organizations that would allow me to volunteer and make a difference while overseas.
I found a group called Cross Cultural Solutions. This organization allowed me to travel to Africa and to volunteer my time in an orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa for six weeks. Those six weeks were an amazing experience for me. They taught me how lucky and fortunate I really am. Not only was I able to give back to people who really appreciated my time and efforts, I never had to worry about being asked, “How are you today?” with an implication of “How are you doing dealing with cancer?” To the people I was helping in this village halfway around the world, I was just Terri, not Terri with cancer.
The trip infused me with a new vitality for life. It encouraged me to draw others into the experience. I wanted to let people know what I had done and how it had helped me. So I did what every computer savvy person does these days; I started a blog called A Fresh Chapter. I wrote about what I had done on my six month trip and that I’d been able to volunteer on almost every continent. I discussed my travels and the people I’d met and helped. Thanks to my fresh chapter, I learned who I was. I even began working to start a foundation to help others join me on this journey.
Today, I help other cancer survivors find a way to give back, outside their community or even in their country. I work to bring hope through volunteerism and create an opportunity for cancer survivors to find healing (of their spirits) through service to others.