Heather Diagnosed at 36
I call it “the miracle cyst.”
Months of bloating and constantly getting up at night to pee had me fearing the worst: ovarian cancer. I took my suspicions to my ob-gyn, who promptly ordered an ultrasound of the ovaries and a baseline mammogram, as well. “Your family history is crappy,” she said, looking over my chart. Paternal grandmother: breast cancer. Deceased. Paternal great-aunt: breast cancer. Deceased. Paternal aunt: inflammatory breast cancer. Deceased.
I fully expected horrible news about my ultrasound, but that was fine. A benign complex cyst had become a squatter on my right ovary. But the mammogram? That opened a huge can of worms. Microcalcifications on the left breast, an imaging technician who looked more than a little devastated, a radiologist who kept saying, “There’s a lot I find suspicious about these images”—I knew in my heart where this was headed. As for me, I wanted to head to Mexico and forget all about this. Just me and a beach and an umbrella drink.
Sure enough, on October 2, 2013, after a breast ultrasound and three biopsies, I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, or cancer in both breasts at the age of 36. I had none of the telltale signs of breast cancer experts always warn you about: nipple discharge, dimpling of the skin, a lump—nothing. All I can say is, thank God for that cyst. I would have never ended up in my doctor’s office otherwise. Subsequent testing would also reveal just how lucky I was: positive for a BRCA2 mutation. Turns out my dad didn’t just give me his baby blues and sense of humor!
And thus began the whirlwind of treatments: double mastectomy, immediate DIEP flap reconstruction, 4½ months of chemotherapy, a total hysterectomy and oophorectomy, nipple reconstruction and areola tattooing. I managed to cram almost all of this into a single year. Never let it be said that I’m not motivated! It wasn't easy, but thanks to a strong support network of family and friends, I managed to work and still be there for my two young children.
Also during this time, I began my role as breast cancer advocate. I started chronicling my “cancerventure” on my blog, Breaking Breast Cancer, which helped me keep my sanity while providing a safe haven for my obscenity-laced diatribes (usually directed at cancer and my insurance company). But more importantly, the blog allowed me to be real about the whole breast cancer experience, from the perspective of a woman diagnosed under the age of 40.
Today, I’m a New York State Leader for the Young Survival Coalition (I found YSC’s Newly Diagnosed Treatment Navigator great for answering lingering questions and organizing the “War and Peace”-sized stack of medical paperwork I had accumulated) and will be riding in my first Tour de Pink 200-mile bike ride in September 2016.
So to all the newly diagnosed young ladies out there, know this: There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to traverse what seems like a long and bumpy road to get there. But you will get there. Promise.
Are you a survivor, spouse, friend, or caretaker with a story to tell? We'd love to hear from you.