Heather, diagnosed at 33
My life before all of this was AWESOME. I never thought about cancer. I certainly never thought it could happen to me. Then, one night as I was falling asleep on my back, I happened to rub my chest and felt a very sizable lump that had never been there before and certainly didn't belong there. I went to the doctor the next day and they assured me that with my family history and the fact I was so young and healthy, it was probably nothing, but they were going to do all of the tests to make sure. I wasn't too concerned, I never even thought about what I would do if it was cancer (and I'm a planner!).
I went about my busy life and was in the middle of planning my daughter's second birthday party at the time. And then, one day at work, I got a phone call and she said, "I'm sorry, it's breast cancer." It was like a bomb went off. I crumpled to the floor and don't really remember much else she said. I was panicked, thinking, "No, my daughter needs me. I can't be sick." My husband picked me up and we just sat in the car in shock for a while. I kept repeating, "What do I do? What am I supposed to do?" We were able to get in to see a surgeon that day and he told me that I was at least stage 2, but they wouldn't know for sure until surgery to see how many lymph nodes were involved. They did know that it was very aggressive and invasive, so I was going to need chemo. I was going to be bald. I couldn't have any more kids. And I was going to have to decide if I wanted to remove one or both of my breasts. That was a heck of a day.
I see it as the day my old life ended and what I call my "new normal" began. Right away, as I'm sure any mother can understand, I decided that this was not going to affect my daughter's life if I could help it. So, we lived it up for a couple of weeks and had her birthday party as planned. After the best Yo Gabba Gabba birthday party ever, I jumped into treatment. I had my bilateral mastectomy with lymph node dissection and started six months of AC-TH chemo. Throughout all of my dozens of doctors’ appointments, I started noticing that I was always the youngest one in the waiting room, by decades. The median age of diagnosis for breast cancer is 61, so the fact it was happening to me at 33 was unusual. And EVERY single doctor and nurse reminded me of that. It was like they were all in on some inside joke to constantly tell me how young and healthy I was. I'd always smile and say, "Yes....except for the whole cancer thing." Being diagnosed at my age comes with many unique issues. It's unbelievably difficult some days to see everyone else going about life as planned, having babies, going on fabulous vacations, while my entire world is rocked to its core. Most people aren't confronted with their mortality when they have a toddler that needs them. I'd lay awake at night wondering, "If I die, will my daughter even remember me?" My whole old life, that person...it's gone forever. I had been saving sick days at work to hopefully use for a second maternity leave at the time I was diagnosed. Those sick days are now spent at doctors’ appointments.
In the year after my diagnosis, I went to 100 doctor appointments. 100! My life is just not normal anymore. Even though I was surrounded by AMAZING love and support, I felt very much alone and it was hard. I found myself looking at pictures, mourning my old life and unsure of how things could ever be ok again. And then a friend linked me to YSC. Words can't express how comforting it was to talk to others in the same situation as me. Treatment is long and so incredibly difficult (although it is amazing the awful things you'll do with a smile on your face, because it's better than dying of cancer). To talk to people who had been there and got it was an invaluable resource. And it was nice to have people to laugh at all of my cancer jokes. Most importantly though, seeing other women my age who have come out the other side of treatment gave me hope. It allowed me to truly believe that my new normal could be just as awesome as my old life. And with each major milestone in my journey, each scary unknown conquered, I knew it was true. Yes, it was hard. But this past year has also been the best year of my life. Even at my sickest during chemo, I was able to budget my energy and pull it together enough to spend plenty of the special time with my family. We had a blast. I can't get this time back and there is no way cancer will take that from me.
We recently had my daughter's best ever princess third birthday party and I'm getting close to finishing up Herceptin treatments. While I know I have done everything I can to stop my cancer from coming back, the reality is that it can. This is another difficult aspect of my new normal, but one that in talking with others going through the cancer journey, I've come to let go of worrying about. I've found that I now have such a deep appreciation of every minute on this earth, I'm often overwhelmed at how beautiful life is. I always knew how lucky I was to have my daughter and wonderful husband, but now I feel an even deeper gratefulness. Someone once described it as my new, brighter life and I think that is spot on. It's hard to no longer be naive to the realities of how unfair life is, but it has given me a change in priorities that allows me to be happier than I ever thought I could be. I can let go, smile and just be. As an added bonus, I get to rock all of the super cool short haircuts that I never would have had the guts to try voluntarily. I don't often think back and reflect upon all that has happened this past year, but when I do, I'm sort of blown away. I can't believe I did all of it and life still went on as normal (even without hair, which turned out to be incredibly liberating, by the way). No matter how overwhelming and terrifying things may be, by putting one foot in front of the other, you will get though. You will fall, but you will also get back up a bit steadier than before. And if today is a bad day, tomorrow is a chance for it to be better. If I can do this, you can too.