Frances, diagnosed at 33
I had no family history of breast cancer. I was active and worked out often. One night in 2010, when I was sitting on the couch after I had been to the gym, I adjusted my sports bra and found a lump on the side of my right breast. I wasn’t sure what it was, but knew it wasn’t there before. During my shower that night and again before I went to bed, I checked, and the lump was still there. I work at a company that manages insurance physicals. A few days after I found the lump, I asked one of the women I worked with, who was a nurse, to take a look at it. She suggested I get it checked out, since it hadn’t been there before. I let a few more days go by before I made an appointment to have it examined.
The doctor told me many young women have fibrocystic breasts and most likely it was nothing to be concerned with, but decided I should have it checked just to be safe. I was sent to the imaging center that night for an ultrasound. The tech told me there was definitely something there, but I’d need a biopsy to be certain what it was. I had the biopsy done at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. A week later I received a call at work, asking me to come back as soon as possible. I was subsequently diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and told my cancer was estrogen positive (ER+). My first thought was I couldn’t possibly have cancer. I work out, eat healthy and am way too young for breast cancer. I told my co-workers what was going on and then called my sister. I needed my sister’s strength to help me focus and tell my mother. Then I took some time to regroup and finished my work day. I knew when I went home; I would have to tell my 15-year-old daughter.
I was a single parent and had always played the role of both father and mother to my daughter. I am the type of parent that kept my emotions private from my child, in order to always appear strong to her. When I told my daughter I had breast cancer, I told her I was going to do everything I could to beat it and asked her if she had any questions. Then I went into my room and cried in private. I initially went to all of my appointments on my own. I’d always been very independent and didn’t want to impose on anyone, even now. I drove myself to my chemotherapy sessions and even continued to go to work every day. As a single parent, my first concern was my daughter. I was focused on keeping my job, being able to support my child and beating the cancer. My daughter had just experienced the loss of her paternal aunt to breast cancer, and I didn’t want her to think she was going to lose me, too.
I chose to have a unilateral (single) mastectomy, and right before my surgery I changed my mind. It was important to me to give myself the best possible odds of not facing a recurrence, so I opted for a bilateral (double) mastectomy and implants for my reconstruction. For me, this was the decision that made me feel the most comfortable. Even though I felt I had to be strong for my family, I knew I needed to find some support. I had been given a book at the doctor’s office, but at the time I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t process it. Then while speaking with my boss, I found out her husband had been diagnosed with cancer. She had been referred to Young Survival Coalition (YSC) for support for herself. She told me about the organization, and I called.
My first call to YSC was answered by Jennifer Johnson, the Executive Director for the Kansas City area. Jen was warm and caring and she freely told me her story. She made me feel like I wasn’t alone; that there were other young women like me facing breast cancer and trying to manage the same set of challenges. There were so many women present at the first support group that I attended, I couldn’t believe it. I felt afraid, confused and accepted, all at the same time. Though I did eventually discover YSC and the support of the amazing women involved with the organization, I wish I’d found it earlier in my cancer journey. The educational resources the organization’s developed, particularly the Newly Diagnosed Resource Kit (NDRK), would have been so helpful to me. I had no experience with breast cancer, let alone cancer. The NDRK outlines questions that a newly diagnosed young woman might ask and suggests ways to handle some of the more difficult challenges. I am now two years out and doing well. My daughter is now driving. Life goes on after breast cancer, and I enjoy giving back by volunteering for YSC.