“Do you have a Family history?”
“Do you have the BRCA 1 or 2 mutations?”
“What risk factors do you have?”
“I have breasts. That’s it.”
Conversations like this have become normal for me.
At 24 years-old, I had none of the risk factors. I was young, I had my children early, breastfed my babies, maintained a healthy weight and had no Family history of breast cancer. I don’t drink or smoke. I shouldn’t have had cancer.
About three months before my diagnosis, my husband and I were watching television when he said, as if he had just remembered something, “Hey, the other night I felt something in your breast.” I remember this moment with perfect clarity. He showed me where it was, just forward from my armpit. It didn’t hurt — until I prodded it for a few minutes. It concerned me enough to make an appointment with my primary care physician. I was referred to a radiologist who concluded that it was probably a cluster of simple cysts and recommended that we return for another ultrasound in six months. The radiologist also told me that it is so rare for women my age to have breast cancer that it is not fiscally feasible to send every woman with a suspicious mass to the surgery clinic.
Considering that my health care was being fiscally driven left me unimpressed and uncomfortable. Although generally not a bold woman, I stood firm and got an immediate referral to the surgery clinic.
A few weeks later I went with my husband to the surgery clinic where the surgeon attempted to aspirate the mass. She became concerned when she was unable to withdraw fluid. At this point she declared, “This needs to come out.”
In the days before this examination, I discovered that we were expecting our third child. The lump in my breast was a minor concern, but something into which I did not invest a lot of thought or energy. My husband and I, on his E-4 income, had saved our pennies and continued with our plan to take a cruise to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. The doctor assured me that delaying the surgery by a couple weeks would not make a big difference, should the mass prove to be cancer.
The day after we returned from the cruise, I began to miscarry.
The next week I went in for my lumpectomy. Since we found the lump (three months ago), it had doubled in size and felt like Halloween candy corn.
Just before I was wheeled into the operating room, a patient advocate came in and when he learned that I had just miscarried, he suggested that breasts change due to hormones. He said I could forego the surgery and watch to see how my body reacted as my hormone levels changed. I considered his words but assured him that I wanted to continue as planned. The surgery went off without a hitch and I went home to recover. It was Valentines Day 2005 — my first surgery and the beginning of my cancer journey.
How do you tell a young mother that she has cancer?
The surgical clinic called me and scheduled an appointment in their the office for Feb. 18. I assumed this was to be a routine check on the healing of the incision. My husband was able to get off work to come with me, though I didn’t think it was really necessary. Upon our arrival, we were taken from the waiting room into a typical military hospital exam room where we waited. After a few minutes my surgeon entered. She didn’t say much.
Finally, to relieve the awkwardness, I said, “Did you want to check my incision?” She nodded but only distractedly glanced at it saying it was healing fine.
Finally she said, “From your lumpectomy a few days ago, we sent the tissue to be tested by pathology and the report came back showing that there were some cancer cells in the sample.”
She started saying something else, but I didn’t hear her. I was still decoding her first words. “Wait ... are you saying that I have ‘breast cancer’?” I even made air quotation marks as I said the words.
To my husband, whose only experience with cancer had been the disease that had taken his father when he was just 10, these words were an earth shaking blow, but he didn’t show it.
Infiltrating ductal carcinoma, it was called. I didn’t know how extensive it was, but I learned that I would have to have another surgery the following week to either remove my breast or have a less invasive surgery to get “clean margins” around the site of the original tumor.
I didn’t cry. Not until my thoughts turned to my mother, sisters, and nieces. How would this affect them? Then it hit me, “Is this how I’m going to die?”
Then my mind turned to my children. Two little boys, ages 4 and 2. How do you tell your children that you have cancer? . . .
This week’s breast cancer awareness facts are:
Eighty-five percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no Family history of breast cancer (breastcancer.org)
Often your spouse knows your breasts better than you or your doctor, it is not uncommon for them to be the one who discovers it
You know your body, you must be your own advocate.
(Editor’s note: this is Part II of the series ‘Too young for breast cancer.’)