The statistics surrounding breast cancer are well-known and alarming. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women (lung cancer being the first) and will affect 1 in every 8 women in their lifetime. So when my best friend called me one morning last December to tell me she had been diagnosed with Grade 3 invasive breast cancer at age 30, we both choked back tears. It made me realize this is not something that only affects women over the age of 40 with established lives, this affects women struggling to get their careers off the ground, those trying to navigate the ever-complicated world of dating and those who have not yet even started to embark on building a family. Because I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking this is something women only have to worry about later in life, I asked her to share her story.
Us in London, where she now lives.
How I Found It
"My boyfriend John found the small lump in my right breast and forced me to have it checked out. I despise hospitals and doctors' offices—having lost my father two years ago I have too many painful memories and do anything in my power to avoid them. Reluctantly I saw my doctor who said because I was young it was probably just dense tissue and that I should check back in four weeks. After four weeks had passed they still thought it was of low concern but that I could opt for a biopsy if I really wanted to, which John insisted I pursue. The day of the biopsy arrived and I remember looking at the screen, squeezing John's hand, and seeing the dense mass for the first time. One very long needle, some sweet nurses and a bandage later I was sent on my way with the promise of a phone call in a few days if everything was fine. I didn't realize then that needle had left me with a memorable scar and changed my life forever."
What Was Running Through My Head
"Instead of a call I received a letter calling me in for another appointment. On December 15th, deep in the midst of holiday parties, planning to visit my family in Norway and juggling an end-of-year workload, I was told I had an early stage, aggressive grade cancer and would need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. What's more, the chemotherapy could impact my reproductive system so I needed to consider fertility treatments, and fast. Dumbfounded, I was handed a stack of pamphlets and just remember clutching John's hand hoping he wouldn't leave because somehow I had become a much bigger mess than he had originally signed up for. Not to be completely morbid but for the first time in my life, death was an actual possibility in my mind. John assured me we'd get through it together and when I saw him tear up, I began to shake. I didn't stop shaking for a week.
"Clinging to normalcy was the only thing that kept me sane."
After the initial shock subsided I told my boss. Hearing the words 'I have cancer' fall out of my mouth was so jarring I vowed then and there to keep everything else in my life as normal as possible. I couldn't stay at home and cry, the fear would engulf me, accomplishing nothing. That shift in my attitude meant I only missed a total of 10 days of work, pushed myself to maintain my regular schedule and treated my medical appointments with the emotion I typically attach to business meetings, which is to say little to none. Clinging to normalcy by eating the same food, drinking the same wine, and going out with friends was the only thing that kept me sane."
"The holidays were tense. I endured a series of MRIs, blood tests and CT scans. I was given the choice of a PICC line (a tube hanging out of my upper arm for three months) or a brief surgery to implant a Port-a-cath (a tube implanted from my neck to the right ventrical of my heart). I opted for the Port-a-cath although neither option was super enticing. On January 4th I had my lumpectomy and the lymph nodes in my right armpit removed. After just two weeks of recovery I embarked on an intensive IVF program, involving two injections a day (one to suppress my cycle, one to increase my egg production), and multiple blood tests. Thanks to having my lymph nodes removed I could only have blood drawn from one arm which meant I looked like a pin cushion. They were pulling blood from veins in my hands and forearm. It was sometimes so painful I would faint. Then came the process of harvesting the eggs, which is set off by—you guessed it—another injection. This was two days before I started chemotherapy and I had a bad reaction to the procedure. My ovaries were so swollen they twisted, causing my abdomen to fill with fluid and a pain so intense I started vomiting. After a night at the ER I was on the mend and went home to rest before heading back to the hospital at 7am the following day to start treatment. I was exhausted and scared but desperately trying to stay brave in the face of it all."
Chemotherapy And Hair Loss
"Chemotherapy was exhausting and there were many days when I felt weak, but to be honest the hardest part was losing my hair. I visited a specialist who prescribes shampoo, conditioner and a treatment to work in conjunction with a cold cap—a hat through which liquid nitrogen is pumped for the duration of each chemo session to stop the chemicals from burning your hair follicle and feels not unlike sticking your head in an ice bucket for hours. I bought a wig (they are very expensive and often take a long time if you want a custom-made, authentic one), and hoped for the best. Three weeks after my first session my hair started falling out, at first a few strands here and there, and then suddenly, all at once.
"I was no longer the person I knew in the mirror."
I vividly remember going to a nice spin studio and showering afterwards in their immaculate locker room. I screamed as a chunk of hair came out in my hand, hastily grabbed my clothes and ran into the February morning with soaking wet hair, leaving a gaggle of sophisticated spin classmates with their jaws agape. It was honestly one of the most upsetting days of my life. I was no longer the person I knew in the mirror. I kept some of my hair around my hairline but by May I had lost my eyebrows and then in June my once-thick eyelashes were gone. Fun fact: Eyelashes and eyebrows serve a greater purpose than 'framing your face' and without them everything from showering to getting caught in the rain is close to blinding. Couple that with my puffy reaction to the apothecary of medications I was taking and I looked...ghastly. On a particularly bleak walk one day (I was too tired to exercise), I grabbed John's arm and said 'How am I supposed to get in bed next to you and feel sexy?' John turned to me and said 'It's our hair, our eyelashes, our eyebrows, and we'll get them back'. Combined with his support and some unbelievable friends who showered me with compliments, well-wishes (and headscarves) I was able to stay positive."
What I Learned
"I'd love to say I've profoundly changed but that isn't really true. What I did learn, however, is that your body is unbelievably strong and you can control how you feel with your mind. Of course I don't blame people who aren't as lucky as I am for not being positive enough, but maintaining a glass-half-full attitude was invaluable for me. As I said before, the most important part of staying sane was keeping my life as normal as possible. I had tremendous support from family, friends and medical professionals. I would haggle with my chemotherapy nurse to get an extra Tylenol, I'd insist on ordering in the Indian takeout John and I would traditionally enjoy in the local restaurant every Sunday evening. I went to friends' birthday parties in bars but ducked out a little earlier than usual, I walked instead of going on a morning run. One of my friends coordinated an advent calendar of gifts from friends around the world so I'd have something to open before and after each chemo session. If that's not an unbelievably thoughtful and smart gift I don't know what is. We didn't get to have the elaborate birthday party I had planned for John, so instead we planned a trip up the California coast for when my treatment was finished. In August we boarded a plane to California with the knowledge that I was cancer free and on my way back to good health. For the first time in months we were really able to let our hair down (not literally of course, I still look somewhat like Eleven from Stranger Things) and one evening overlooking the sunset in Big Sur, John asked me to marry him. After what we've been through there is no one else I'd rather take on the world with."