Meredith, diagnosed at 30
In the Spring of 2010, while doing a self exam in the shower, I found a lump in my right breast. I knew what I felt hadn’t been there before. I made an appointment with my gynecologist, who said it was just a cyst and not to worry about it. I happily took this advice. I was a first grade teacher, enjoying my work and in the swing of the second half of the school year. The next month, I noticed the lump had gotten bigger and it began to hurt. I made another appointment to see the doctor. Again I was told not to worry. The doctor said it was normal for young women to have lumpy breasts and then said, “Cancer doesn’t hurt.” My doctor wasn’t concerned, and I began to feel silly for being so worried. I left the office forcing myself to believe everything was alright.
In June, another lump appeared under my arm and the first lump still hurt. When I saw the doctor again, I was again assured it was probably nothing, but I could have the mass drained if it continued to be painful. In July, I had an appointment with a surgeon to have the cyst drained. Before my appointment, I was to see my gynecologist again. Because of scheduling issues, I didn’t see my regular doctor. When the new doctor saw the “cysts” she looked concerned and wanted me to have it checked further. I had the appointment lined up with the surgeon to have the mass drained the same day and kept the appointment. I was ready to have this addressed. When I went to the surgical appointment, I was told the doctor was running late. After an hour and a half in the waiting room (I had now been in doctor’s offices for over three hours), I was seen. I felt the surgeon was rushing the appointment. The doctor wasn’t explaining anything, and I was feeling really uncomfortable. I decided to leave. I spent the rest of the summer dealing with the pain but not knowing exactly what to do about it. The doctors were all telling me not to worry, but it hurt.
That September, as I prepared to greet a new school year and class of first graders, I decided to see another surgeon. I needed to bite the bullet and have the cyst drained if it would bring some relief. The second surgeon I saw had a very relaxed demeanor. She took the time to explain the procedure to me and made sure I was comfortable with the process. When she tried to drain the mass and no fluid came out, she became concerned and suggested a core needle biopsy. I was nervous but agreed. Though I was worried about all of the tests, I was glad I was going to finally get some answers. My gut was telling me something was wrong, but I had blindly trusted my doctors as I had been raised to do. On back to school night I got the call to tell me the results of my tests. My surgeon told me the mass I had been led to believe was just a cyst, was actually breast cancer. I was diagnosed with stage2 breast cancer which was estrogen positive (ER+) and Her2 negative. After I was given my diagnosis, I was sent for a mammogram and ultrasound.
Based on my tests, my surgeon and the oncologist both wanted me to schedule surgery sooner rather than later. The tumor could be seen through my skin and they were concerned about how aggressive it might be. I told my supervisor at work I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and I would need to have surgery, a unilateral (single) mastectomy on my right side with chemotherapy. At the time of my surgery, I also thought I would have to have radiation. I had to tell them, my doctor was concerned about my immune system being in a compromised state and wanted me to take a leave of absence from teaching. Four days before my scheduled mastectomy, I ended up in the hospital with a severe infection from the biopsy. Because I was so close to the date of my surgery, I was admitted to the hospital and given intravenous (IV) antibiotics to keep me on schedule for the operation. Since it was thought I would need to have radiation, I did not immediately start the reconstruction process.
During treatment, since I was not working, I clung to an activity which brought me joy. Several years before, I had started taking lessons to learn Mexican Folkloric dance. I loved it. The colors of the costumes, the excitement of the music, all made me smile. I still wanted to be able to dance with my class or at least be a part of the performances in some way. I was able to do just that. My hair had just started to thin and the performance was scheduled for the end of the week. I just needed my hair to not fall out, to have enough hair to wear the bun and ribbons. The day was amazing. I danced and was filled with such happiness. And my hair held. I cut it short right after, but I had my moment. During treatment, I stayed involved with my dance group. Chemo was hard on me, and I was often really tired. I would plan my treatment schedule to allow me to attend practice and stay connected. Remaining involved gave me an outlet, a space where I didn’t think about cancer. It allowed me to keep away the gloomy feelings that sometimes crept up while I was going through treatment.
Today, I am back to teaching and enjoying all of the little faces of my students. I have finished my reconstruction and stated to explore putting myself back out in the dating world. It’s not easy, but every time I tell someone new I’ve had breast cancer, it gets a little easier.