I want to encourage young women to know their body, their risks, and talk to their doctors immediately about any concerns. If you are newly diagnosed: know your options! Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
I recently spoke to a group of high school students about my breast cancer story. I don’t think a breast cancer diagnosis is harder for young women, it can be daunting at any age. What is different is because you are young, it’s so unexpected. Young women aren’t screened and therefore tumors can be more advanced and aggressive by the time they are found. For me, I was at a point where I was focused on my career, excited about starting graduate school, I was happily in a long-term relationship; and in an instant my entire world changed.
I first found the lump before Thanksgiving of 2020. I scheduled a mammogram as a precaution, but due to my age and negative family history I was confident and reassured it was “probably nothing”. With the dense nature of my breasts it was hard to determine anything. However, by December 2020 the tumor had almost doubled in size. I returned for another mammogram and this time they scheduled a biopsy.
In January 2021 the biopsy was inconclusive but the surgeon recommended we remove the 5cm tumor as it seemed to grow quite quickly. I slowly started to inform close friends and my parents that I would have a small surgery, unaware of what would come.
As a result of the pandemic, but also out of fear, my lumpectomy was postponed to March 2021. That’s when everything changed. The “nothing” I had been reassured of was actually a stage 2B phyllode malignancy. They advised a mastectomy and radiation. I thought it was a mistake.
I didn’t think breast cancer could affect me, I thought it was something to worry about in your 50s or 60s. Overnight I was hit with a wave of questions, worry, and fear. As an American there was the added stress of dealing with insurance coverage issues, and in my case, I was also navigating through a breakup. All at the same time.
Because I had already had a lumpectomy, my mastectomy could wait. This allowed me time to research different options, seek other opinions, and manage the insurance coverage side.
I finally had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction in August 2021. Eager, I returned to start my master’s program in September and began radiation, but stopped after 10 sessions due to some side effects. For me the mastectomy was the hardest part. I thrive on my independence and self-reliance and I needed a community, but my friends and family showed me you could be both. You can be strong and vulnerable.
I speak candidly about my story not to scare young women, but to encourage them to know their body, their risks, and talk to their doctors immediately about any concerns. Most importantly, if you are newly diagnosed: know your options! Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It is overwhelming but you aren’t alone! I also tell my students that through adversity comes growth, and the challenges we face aren’t our story. Breast cancer isn’t who I am, it’s just a chapter of my story.