Young Women Can and Do Get Breast Cancer
Tina’s story Age at Diagnosis: 34
I was in the shower one Sunday morning and thought I saw what appeared to be a lump sticking out of my chest (between the top of my breast and my collar bone), on the left side. By the time I got out of the shower and showed my husband, it had recessed. I remember my husband saying,” I’m sure it’s nothing” (since it was no longer protruding), but I remained concerned. Because of the location, it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be breast cancer.
Since the lump was hard, I thought it would be best to just have it checked out. I was shocked when my doctor said it might be breast cancer. I was subsequently diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), Stage 2, estrogen positive(ER+), progesterone positive (PR+) and Her2 positive. The mass was eight millimeters and on my chest wall.
I didn’t understand how I could have breast cancer in this odd spot on my chest, but I learned that what we typically think of as a breast (what goes into your bra cup), is not the only part of your body that’s considered breast tissue. It expands up to the collar bone and over into the armpit. With the location of my tumor, my doctor told me that even if I opted for a bilateral (double) mastectomy, I would still need to have a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. I decided to only have the lumpectomy, which was followed by hormone therapy that put my body into early menopause.
I was scared. I didn’t want to have cancer. I didn’t want to think about dying and I certainly didn’t want to face losing my hair. Losing my hair meant I couldn’t hide from the cancer. At first, I refused the idea of chemotherapy. I didn’t want to be sick. I didn’t want to look sick. Looking sick would make all of it real. My husband begged me to reconsider and think of chemo as a way to beat the cancer and to still be with him and my daughters as they grew up. I knew he was right and I’d need to face this demon head on and with anything possible to beat it.
When I was diagnosed, my daughters were only three and five years old. I was concerned about how they would react to mommy being sick and not with a cold but something big and scary. My husband and I wanted to be honest with them (to the extent you can be with small children) but we didn’t want to scare them either. We told them mommy had this bad bump called cancer, that she had to have it removed and I’d need to take medicine that would make my hair fall out.
My five year old asked me if I would then be okay. All I could say was I didn’t know, but we’d pray hard and I’d fight hard, to help me be okay. Then she turned to me and said, “Mommy, I think you’ll still be pretty without your hair.” I’ll never forget that! I had long hair, and as I realized that I was going to lose it, I chose to make it a moment of strength. I let my daughters cut my hair short, and then my husband buzzed the rest of it off.
As part of my journey with breast cancer, I grappled with my self-image and how that might impact my daughters. I wanted to be strong in their eyes. I didn’t want to be sick, but I had to face the cancer head on. To help me feel better, I sought out a wig to wear during my treatment. When I went to buy my first wig, I was overwhelmed. There was a lot more to know then I ever could have imagined, and the staff wasn’t compassionate toward a young woman struggling with this part of her journey.
I not only decided to buy a wig myself but looked to find several I felt good in. The wig, an item I didn’t initially want anything to do with, was becoming my favorite accessory. I wore one every day. I started to have fun with my wigs and embrace the various styles and colors I could wear. I never had another bad hair day.
A few years later, one of my dear friends, Laura, was diagnosed with a third recurrence of breast cancer. She’d gone to a local wig shop and also found a lack of compassion. The staff at the shop was evidently not used to working with young cancer patients, especially those who needed extra support during the experience. Laura was frustrated and asked me to help her find a wig.
Inspired by my wonderful friend, I decided I was going to use my experience and interest in wigs as a way to give back. I wanted to show not only friends, but also others battling cancer, that this was the least scary part of their journey … in fact, it could be fun! With my husband’s help and support, I opened a wig boutique called Wigged Out. I hit the pavement, going to doctor’s offices, cancer centers and community health fairs to let people know that not only was I the owner of a wig shop but I was also a cancer survivor. I understand the stress and emotions that are involved with making treatment decisions and embracing the reality that your body is sick and I’m a compassionate ally in helping a survivor face this part of their battle.