Elizabeth, diagnosed at 24

When I was 24 years old I found a breast lump. I was very worried and immediately went to see my doctor. I have no family history of breast cancer but I was anxious just the same. I was referred to a surgeon who performed a fine needle aspiration and reassured me repeatedly that my chances of having cancer were extremely low. I was later informed that the lump was a fibroadenoma which is benign and common in young women.

A year and a half elapsed and I was more and more worried about the lump which now seemed to be two adjacent lumps. Finally I went to a different doctor (because I had different insurance) and was immediately referred to a surgeon. She said it should be removed regardless of what it was due to its size. I had my first mammogram and ultrasound. When the ultrasound technician called the doctor into the room I could see in their faces that something was very wrong. They started asking me lots of questions. I remember looking at the Impressionist painting next to the examining table and feeling like I was falling. It seemed less and less real. Then some encouraging words were offered- "there's still a chance it could be benign"... Later I sat staring at the mammogram thinking how the mass looked like a great big snowball.

When the day came for the mass to be excised I remember feeling under my arm for the first time and realizing that there were lumps there too. I remember telling the surgeon this as they wheeled me into the operating room. With the surgery done, I felt relieved and enjoyed Thanksgiving weekend (I was in nursing school so I'd scheduled the surgery for when I had time off). When I awoke Monday morning I thought to myself, why did I wait so long? I felt so much better that the lumps were gone. Later that day, I went to the drugstore to buy, of all things, a hairdryer. When I got home my roommate was holding the phone and handed it to me. It was the doctor's office. The doctor identified herself and said, "Elizabeth, this is cancer." I screamed, sat on the floor and cried that I was supposed to be getting married and I went on to ask if I would be able to have children. No real answers. She told me to come into the office and explained that I would need a mastectomy, chemo and radiation.

The following day I went back to school and told my nursing classmates that I had cancer and would be undergoing treatment. I told them that I wanted to stay in school and I wanted their support. It made a huge difference. My surgery was scheduled to take place over the winter holiday break and I began chemo in January. I was diagnosed with stage IIIA ductal carcinoma and had 10 positive lymph nodes. Surprisingly, my tumor was hormone receptive. I was faced with a decision about whether or not to have a stem cell transplant. I ultimately decided against it because I couldn't see a clearly established survival advantage for those who had a stem cell transplant versus traditional chemo and I was unwilling to give up the possibility of having children. I had been engaged since the summer. My fiancé seemed very crushed and overwhelmed by what was happening (he was also in school). We went about life as usual which was good and bad. This "normalcy" allowed both of us to complete the school year with flying colors yet when it ended, things fell apart between us. He started expressing more and more doubt about getting married, citing cancer-related reasons. I was crushed but I could clearly see that he wanted out and I was the only person who could give him that. The most difficult thing I've ever done was end our engagement. I handed back the ring and we sat in silence for at least 5 minutes, both of us completely shocked. I have never seen him since that day, but that was not the end of the work I had to do.

I had initiated a lawsuit and what would follow was extremely hard for me. I was alone, 1000 miles away from my family, newly single after my 5 year relationship, at the end of my student health insurance and preparing to start a new full time job as nurse as well as ready to start my radiation treatment. When I started my job, I had no hair anywhere on my body and I wore a wig. I was torn about how much to tell my boss and co-workers. On the one hand I worried about the possibility of discrimination and wanted to make a good impression, on the other, I couldn't keep what was happening to me a secret.

I will flash forward to the present now. It has been about 2 years since my diagnosis, and I am cancer-free. Six weeks ago I underwent a gluteal free flap breast reconstruction. I am returning to work tomorrow. In the past year, I resumed competitive swimming, was in a Nike commercial, grew in my job and I have realized more and more how lucky I truly am. When I was diagnosed with cancer I thought I would never be happy again. I've come to realize that we can adjust to anything. I've also learned that sometimes what is in store for us is better than we can imagine.

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