My name is Sarah and I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 26. This is my story.
July 2017: I just finished grad school and was on top of the world! It was finally time to move across the country to be with my partner Carlos and to start my first real-adult job as a Speech-Language Pathologist. Once I get all settled in Vancouver, I decide to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic for the pain I was having in my left breast. She gives me a breast exam and explains that I’m most likely experiencing pain from a cyst and that I need to quit caffeine and manage my stress levels (as caffeine and stress can cause cysts to form). She explains that breast cysts usually go away on their own and only need to be drained if they get too big. I figure “Ok, makes sense! My family doctor back home also told me I have cystic breasts, my mom had a breast cyst before, and I have no family history of breast cancer”. I follow the doctor’s orders and quit drinking coffee immediately. Coincidentally, the pain subsides and I figure “problem solved!” (spoiler alert: the problem was not solved).
January 2018: Six months later I return to the same doctor for a routine pap test and breast exam. She doesn’t feel anything concerning during the exam (and neither do I at this point), and I’m no longer experiencing the sharp pain in my breast. All appears well.
May 2018: Fast forward to May, I find a pea-sized lump in the 6 o’clock position of my left breast (it is my non-professional opinion that this is the worst place for a lump because it is the most hidden!). My first thought is “Shit. It’s probably a cyst. I have been really stressed lately. I should go to the doctor. Hopefully it goes away soon”.
Ok listen… I know what you’re thinking. Before I was diagnosed, I would hear stories of women finding a lump in their breast and not worrying about it or not acting on it right away. I used to think to myself “How can you not be worried about a lump in your breast??”. In my defence, I was worried, but I had been told by my doctor (and my previous family doctor back home) that I have cystic/”lumpy” breasts (scientifically known as “Fibrocystic Breasts”), I had had two recent breast exams done by a doctor, and I hadn’t had any breast pain in about 9 months. All of this along with the fact that I have no family history of breast cancer meant I didn’t see a huge red flag. *rant over*
June 2018: I notice the pea-sized lump is suddenly much bigger. I start googling like mad. Google tells me that cysts grow quickly and that tumors grow slowly. I figure “Well this is definitely growing quickly so it must be a cyst). Worst case scenario, it will need to be drained” (ah, how I miss my naivety).
July 2018: The lump is still growing (now the size of a large grape) and I can’t delay it anymore. I drop everything and decide to go to the same walk-in clinic, but they tell me I would need to wait another 10 days to get an ultrasound. My anxiety gets the best of me, so Carlos and I decide to go to the emergency room. The doctor there also tells me it’s probably a cyst but refers me to a rapid access breast clinic for an ultrasound to be sure. Even as a self-proclaimed hypochondriac with an anxiety disorder, not even I was seriously entertaining the fact that it could be cancer.
July 19th, 2018: I go alone to my ultrasound (pro tip: don’t go to important appointments by yourself). When the ultrasound is over, they bring me to get a mammogram right away. I keep asking the staff if I could see a doctor. Finally, when a doctor does come to speak with me, I think it’s because I had succeeded in badgering the staff for one, and not because the doctor had life-changing news to tell me. They bring me to a small dark room (normally used for ultrasounds). The doctor looks very young and seems a little nervous. I wonder if he’s nervous because he’s inexperienced (in hindsight it’s clear why he was nervous). He explains that they won’t know for sure until they do a biopsy, but that the imaging showed all the characteristics of breast cancer.
It feels like my chest is on fire. My ears start ringing and I can hear my heart pounding in my head. It doesn’t make any sense. I feel like I’m watching a movie and someone else is sitting on the hospital bed hearing these words. The word cancer feels like it’s being seared into my skin. I burst into tears of panic. The doctor robotically puts his hand on my knee and I want to recoil from him. I’m furious and confused. I ask for a tissue. He looks around the room and hands me a towel, it feels scratchy against my face. Once I compose myself a little, I try to make sense of what he is telling me. I ask, “So how sure are you that it’s cancer? Like 90% sure?”. He replies “Yeah about 90% sure”. All I’m thinking is… “Are you just saying 90% because that’s the number I threw out there?? What the hell is going on?!”. As he continues on, he explains in detail why exactly he thinks it’s cancer. He then tells me that he will do the biopsy himself tomorrow morning and the results from that will tell us for sure. With all care for social etiquette out the window, I ask if he’s done this procedure before. He laughs and tells me that this hospital does the most breast biopsies than anywhere else in the province. Even though it wasn’t confirmed yet to be cancer, the doctor had enough confidence that I lost all of mine.
We have to wait about 6 days for the results of the biopsy. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate Carlos for literally keeping me alive through these 6 days. I could hardly eat or move for the first day or two. I lost about 10 pounds in the first week alone from stress. I just couldn’t fathom that everything I knew felt like it was being ripped away from me. But as time went on, Carlos pushed me to keep living life. We went to the gym together, we went blueberry picking, and I went to work. That’s the crazy thing, life continues on even after it feels like a bomb has just been dropped in your lap. I allowed myself to feel my feelings but needed to be pulled back to reality every once in a while (ok, more than every once in a while). I had to grieve the life I had before cancer because I knew my life would never be the same again. It’s important to go through the grieving process, but it’s also important to keep living life, as difficult as it is sometimes. My motto became “one day at a time”. Everything seemed so insurmountable when I looked at it as a whole, but I slowly learned to focus on getting through each day at a time.
July 25th, 2018: Biopsy results day. I wake up and think “Ugh, someone is going to tell me I have cancer today”. I meet with my surgeon that afternoon and lo and behold… I receive the official diagnosis of Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Breast cancer can be described in three main ways: estrogen +/-, progesterone +/-, and HER2+/-. My cancer was ER+, PR-, HER2+. My surgeon tells me that the HER2+ component of the breast cancer is a very fast growing and aggressive form of breast cancer that was considered practically untreatable up until about 15 years ago. However, now, many women with this type of cancer respond very well to treatment (thank you science!). THIS is the reason that sucker grew so fast. After my surgeon examines me, she tells me she thinks I’m very early stage 2. I think to myself “Ugh why couldn’t it be Stage 1! I could handle Stage 1”. However I wouldn’t find out my actual stage until I received a PET scan (more on that in the next post). My surgeon gives me an idea of what she thinks my treatment plan will look like, but explains that I won’t know for sure until I meet my Oncologist (and so begins the life of having so many doctors that your family and friends begin to lose track of who’s who).
I’ll have to cut it there for now, otherwise this is going to turn into a novel! I’ll talk more about the staging of my diagnosis in the next blog post (read here). Thank you for making it this far!