I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 24—this is what it taught me
When I was 23, I had a couple of things on my mind. How I was going to stop my face from breaking out? Wasn’t that supposed to stop after I left my teens? Could I somehow swing going out for drinks when I worked at 5 a.m. the next morning.
What I wasn’t thinking about was the small, hard lump I’d found in my breast late July 2014. I also wasn’t thinking about renewing my health card or going for a checkup at my family doc. I’m young and healthy. Drinking Starbucks a few times a day is healthy… right?
By the time October rolled around that small lump had turned into a large, rock hard one and I was getting nervous. I took the leap and made a doctors appointment. My family doctor assured me: At your age, it’s likely just a cyst! Luckily, she was cautious enough to book me in for an ultrasound. When the imaging came back, I was rushed in for a biopsy (ouch). When they called me to tell me they would like me to come in on November 18, 2014 to discuss my results, I was too shy to say… November 18?! That’s my 24th birthday!
I had pancakes for birthday breakfast and told my boss at work that I was having some testing done but it was likely nothing to worry about. I remember thinking: OK, even if they did find something, I’ll take a few weeks off work, have it removed, be back for the Christmas rush. No biggie!
My mom, boyfriend and I went to the hospital where my surgeon told me the big news: Sam, it came back as a cancer. The rest of the appointment was a bit of a blur, but I remember hearing some scattered terms: chemo, losing my hair before Christmas, leaving my job immediately, surgery and radiation. I was given a letter stating that it would take a full year to beat this thing… so my battle with stage 3 breast cancer would begin on my 24th birthday and end on my 25th.
I’ll spare you all of the details. Chemo sucks. It isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be in Stepmom (for me: very little puking, tremendous weight gain). Surgery, in my case, was a single mastectomy (no, they don’t let you keep your nipple). Radiation is exhausting and the open wounds and burns aren’t easy to deal with.
No one can prepare you for the fear and loneliness that accompanies a cancer diagnosis. Your friends and family won’t understand what you’re going through but they’re going to try really, really hard. You’ll start to see everyone around you get purple circles around their eyes and you realize that you aren’t the only one fighting this battle. Everyone will be strong in front of you but when the door is closed, everyone starts to fall apart.
I’m lucky. My cancer was caught at stage 3: it had spread from my breast to my lymph nodes but it had not gone any further then that. Had I waited any longer, my diagnosis could have been much, much different. My genes were tested and my results came back negative.
I finished my radiation a week ago, and I’ve had some time to reflect. Here is what facing breast cancer at 24 has taught me.
People are really good
It’s very easy to believe that our world is full of gun-slinging, blood-thirsty villains. But when you get cancer, your small town will rally for you. I wasn’t in a good place when I was diagnosed: I didn’t have health benefits and I definitely didn’t have any money. There were bottle drives, fundraisers, charity hockey tournaments in my name and even a full page in our local newspaper. Family, friends, friends of friends, strangers, colleagues, schoolmates: everyone started sending me their well wishes. People want to help in a time of need. People are good.
Hopes and dreams are nothing without your health
I love to work. For a while, it was kind of my thing. I worked a lot: 50, sometimes 60 hours a week for the last few years. I chalked it up to good experience, getting ahead. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I realized that I was very sick. And no, I don’t mean with cancer. My mental health had suffered, my skin was breaking out, my weight was on the rise and I was tired, unable to think straight. I had not taken any time for myself in years and it all caught up to me at once. Don’t wait for something like cancer to make you take a time out. Without your health, you can’t achieve your hopes and dreams.
Physical appearances just don’t matter that much
I am a girly girl. I love nail polish and shiny things. When I went in for my surgery, they changed me into a blue robe. I wasn’t allowed any makeup, nail polish, jewelry, or even a hat. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw me for the first time: bald, pale, and not looking very Sam-esque. But… I still felt the same on the inside. I still knew I was in there, the same old me. My outer appearance was shockingly different but I knew that it didn’t matter. And you know what? My new appearance made me more relatable. People are talking to me because they are interested in what I have to say, what I think. Since I decided to focus less on the outside and more on the inside, I have made more fulfilling relationships, I have been able to focus on what makes me feel full and happy at the end of the day. Plus, I’ve saved a ton of money on hair product while I’m at it. Hobbies are fun.
Make time to do what you love
If you don’t know what you love (which is where I found myself on a cold afternoon when a reporter asked me, so what do you like to do in your spare time?) then just try everything. This winter I read a pile of books, I coloured in colouring books, I started weaving, I learned to knit, I learned to cook, I scrapbooked and art journal-ed… the list goes on. It took cancer (and a year off) for me to explore hobbies, but the creative freedom, expression and sense of accomplishment you feel when you complete something as small as a colouring book page is incredible. Make time for yourself, whether it’s a bubble bath, a book club or 5 minutes to meditate in the elevator.
Have faith in something
I don’t care what you believe in, but you have to believe in something. One night, when I was going to bed, I was crying so hard I couldn’t stop. I kept asking “Why me?” Suddenly, I abruptly stopped crying and in my head there was a voice that told me “Because you are strong enough to deal with this.”
I have repeated this to myself ever since. I don’t know who, what or why this happened but I have had faith ever since. Little, strange interventions like this happened throughout my treatments. I always did my best to approach my situation with a positive attitude. I went in to my chemo appointments with all my lucky charms: prayer beads, lucky bracelets, healing stones and the socks that I wore when I got the job I love. I’m not an overly religious person, but my best advice to you is this: You have a choice every single morning when you wake up. Stay positive. Surround yourself with only the things that will lift you up.
Like yours, my story is longer and more complicated then I can fit into an article. But here’s what I want to leave you with: Cancer can happen to you. It happened to me. I’m just a girl. Cancer can happen at any age, on any day, in any situation. You are not exempt from cancer, or for any other potentially scary thing in the world. But this isn’t something to fear. It’s something that can motivate you. Be proactive, and appreciate what you have, whatever stage you’re in.
[Image via iStock]