Cecilia, diagnosed at 24
I found a lump in August 2013, but I waited because I’ve had cysts before. I was only 23, so what could possibly happen? I had been applying to graduate school programs and was busy. At my annual exam in January 2014, my gynecologist examined the (rather large) lump and referred me to my local breast care center. On Monday, January 28, I got a call as I was leaving work. I was 24 years old, and I had breast cancer.
I was originally diagnosed Stage 0 DCIS, but that would soon change. I drove to my boyfriend’s office and cried. I wasn’t really sure what everything meant. My only experiences with cancer were death sentences. I mean, my dad died at age 37 of a brain tumor.
I went in for an MRI and exams, and I met with a breast surgeon and plastic surgeon. I decided on a nipple sparing unilateral mastectomy with immediate DIEP/TRAM flap reconstruction. I apparently didn’t have enough excess fat on my belly for a double mastectomy, which was honestly how I made that important decision. I wanted my new boob to be my own and I didn’t want implants. Plus, the side benefit of a flat stomach seemed like a fair trade for having breast cancer at 24.
The recovery was painful. I slept most of the time for four days. Luckily, I had a recliner because I could not straighten my body completely for about five weeks. I watched everything on Netflix and any new movie someone sent me. In a painkiller-induced state, I decided to attend Northeastern University in Boston. (The full tuition scholarship definitely made that decision rather simple).
About two weeks after surgery, I got a phone call from my breast surgeon. I was bumped up to stage I invasive ductal carcinoma. They found lots of little focuses of invasive cancer around the DCIS tumor, which was 4 centimeters. I was finally referred to an oncologist.
My oncologist recommended 12 treatments of weekly Taxol and a year of Herceptin, because I am so young and my cancer was aggressive (grade 3, Ki-67 of 30%). She explained that Taxol is the “lightest” of the chemo drugs and Herceptin is virtually without side effects. This is when I start thinking “I can do this. I’ve got this.” (She also told me not everyone loses their hair on Taxol and I immediately perked up. Priorities, I guess.)
I decide to move home during chemo so I don’t have to work. (At 24, I’m still insured under my parents’ policy. Yay!) Unfortunately, I did lose my hair and also found myself with chemo-induced acne, bloating, bone pain and exhaustion. I even had to pull over while driving to vomit out of the side of the car.
So now I'm here! Done with chemo. My hair is just starting to grow back and most of my acne is gone. I'm no longer bloated and puffy. The bone pain is gone. So are the random nose bleeds, diarrhea, constipation and nausea, as well as the tingling and numbness in my fingers and toes.
My nails hurt, and my eyelashes and eyebrows are gone. But I'm here. I’m starting to get my energy back and I'm working on getting healthy again. This whole thing has really opened my eyes and made me face my own mortality. But I know I will get through this and become even stronger. I insist on sharing my story as much as possible to let others know that they're not alone; that there are other young women in their 20s going through this; and that they, too, can be strong and survive. I share my story for others to read when they aren't feeling their strongest and are overwhelmed by the struggle. I share my story to remind myself that I can do this, I can get through this and I can look good doing so.