In some ways, I always knew I would get cancer.
That might sound like a strange thing to say, but I knew it in my gut. My mom fought cancer multiple times, and she passed when I was only 15. She was 54 at the time. And so I always suspected I would have to fight for my life. I never suspected it would happen so soon.
Shortly after turning 36, I found my tumor by accident. I wasn’t doing a breast self-exam. I was lying in bed. I had an itch. I felt a lump on my left breast, near my armpit.
I spent about a week trying not to panic, feeling it every day, and consulting Dr. Google in hopes that it was just a cyst and would fade away on its own. On October 1st, the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I received my new insurance cards in the mail from my new job, and I called my doctor.
After a blur of appointments at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, I got the phone call that I thought I would be prepared for, but it turns out no one is, not even me: “You have cancer.”
In 36 years, I had never experienced a medical illness more severe than the flu or having my wisdom teeth pulled. Suddenly, I was receiving full body bone scans, CT scans, and MRIs to see if the cancer had spread. My diagnosis was Stage 2 breast cancer, and there was a positive lymph node visible enough on the scans to biopsy, which meant the cancer was starting to spread.
I tried to focus on the positives—bone scan was clear, additional biopsy in the opposite breast was benign, my specific type of breast cancer was the most common and most treatable—but every day was an inner battle between “I’ve got this” and “why me?”
I wasn’t just the 1 in 8 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. I was a “young woman” with breast cancer, a much more rare situation. I was asked to quickly make decisions about my body, my breasts, my hair, my fertility. Facing cancer treatment is overwhelming for anyone, regardless of age. But as a young woman, married for just three years, without children, and newly hired in a full-time academic job, these decisions over whether to keep my breasts or reconstruct or go flat, try to cold cap to preserve my hair through chemo or go bald, begin IVF and freeze my eggs knowing that trying to conceive later would mean pausing therapy to prevent recurrence or accept never having children—these felt like impossible decisions to make.
I met with three different breast surgeons at three different hospitals. Choosing Dr. Alina Mateo at Penn Medicine was absolutely the right decision for my treatment. After my positive experience with Penn’s Breast Cancer Program, it was perhaps the only easy choice I faced. Dr. Mateo was kind and warm. After my initial exam, she sat with me and my husband in her office where she spoke to me like a human being, not a patient, and she laid out all my options to allow me to decide how best to proceed. When I saw her months later for my pre-surgery appointment, she hugged me and assured me I was brave. I didn’t feel brave, but I did feel cared for.
Before surgery, I received 8 rounds of chemotherapy over 16 weeks under the care of Dr. David Mintzer. I lost all my hair. I continued working because my career was just taking off, and stepping back didn’t seem like an option. I wore a wig in front of my students for several months before the weather turned warm and I was too hot and uncomfortable and exhausted to care anymore. I started wearing a scarf on my head, and none of them batted an eye at the change.
As soon as the semester ended, I had a lumpectomy and all the lymph nodes removed from under my left arm. I stayed overnight in the hospital for the first time in my life and went home with a surgical drain sticking out of my side. I needed physical therapy to regain full range of motion in my arm. I received 6 weeks of radiation to ensure no microscopic cancer cells remained. After 10 months of active treatment, I was SO ready to be done with cancer.
The thing is: cancer is never done with you. Still being in my 30’s, I’m hopeful I have decades of life left ahead of me. For the next 10 years, I will continue receiving hormone therapy to suppress my ovaries and estrogen levels in an effort to prevent recurrence. This means I’m effectively in menopause, with all its side effects including loss of fertility, hot flashes, higher risk of osteoporosis, weight gain, and changes in sexual function.
I also developed lymphedema, swelling in my left arm due to having lymph nodes removed, and I wear a compression sleeve to manage this 24/7. All these changes are permanent, and many of them are unnatural for a woman my age. While my friends are navigating pregnancy and parenthood, I’m navigating post-menopausal symptoms. Instead of running 5Ks and keeping vigorous exercise routines, I go to physical therapy and do daily stretches for my arm. The experience can be very isolating for a young woman with a disease perceived as common for those who are much older, and the span of time I’ll need to live with the side effects is, hopefully, longer than the time I lived without them.
If this all sounds lonely and distressing, it’s because it is. Breast cancer isn’t all pink ribbons and “save second base” slogans. It turns your life inside out. But on the other side of treatment I found something unexpected: the community of breast cancer survivors and thrivers is inspiring and supportive, and the organizations devoted to supporting patients, particularly young women, have lifted me up.
Penn Medicine’s nurse navigator connected me with a social worker, nutritionist, and other support services during my treatment. I attended a wellness day at Penn with other patients and survivors hosted by Unite for Her which included information about nutrition, yoga, reiki, and other ways to care for the whole self during and after treatment.
Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s support group on Facebook specifically for young women helped me feel less alone. Any side effect I was experiencing, someone in the group had been there and offered suggestions for getting through it. I’ve also reconnected with several young women from high school and college who are fighting or have fought breast cancer themselves. Having breast cancer isn’t a club anyone wants to join, but I’ve found it really does have the best members.
The number of young women being diagnosed with breast cancer seems to be increasing. This is undoubtedly a problem, but those of you who are part of this club, know that you’re not alone. There is strength in numbers, and there are so many of us ready to connect, commiserate, and carry you through to the other side. Some great places to start include: Penn Medicine’s Cancer Support Services, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and Unite for Her. The American Cancer Society can also help you find support programs and services in your area.
No matter how alone you feel, there are others out there who understand what you’re going through. Welcome to the club—we’re here to help you thrive.