It was October 1, 2003 when I discovered a lump about the size of a quarter in my right breast. I could not believe what I was feeling—this wasn’t right! I called my gynecologist and got an appointment for the next day. He tried to be reassuring as he performed a manual exam and a sonogram to check for fluid in the lump. The sonogram did not indicate that it was a fluid-filled cyst, so my doctor had me see a surgeon the next day.
The surgeon did a needle aspiration of the lump, but again no fluid was found. This is when panic set in. I just kept thinking, “Oh my God, I have cancer. I am only 21-years-old–this can’t be happening to me now.” My son Bryce was only two at the time. The fear of him growing up without me was overwhelming.
The lump was removed for biopsy on October 16. The surgeon told my husband and my grandmother that there were two tumors growing together, but that only one looked suspicious.
The biopsy results
I had an appointment for two weeks later to get the results of my biopsy. When my husband, Brandon, and I met with the surgeon, he told us that the biopsy revealed two tumors—one clean, the other malignant. When he said, “You have cancer,” I almost fell off the examination table. Everything slowed down. I could see him talking—his mouth was moving in slow motion—but I couldn’t hear him. I looked over and saw Brandon crying. Then the seriousness of the situation hit me and I began crying gut-wrenching sobs. I just wanted to go home and get my mom.
I was scheduled to see an oncologist the following week. That week was a blur but there were lots of tears, lots of fear and lots of love pouring in from everyone. After doing much research, I decided that I needed to get in touch with Susan G. Komen for the Cure –I needed their help. I live in Illinois, so I called the Affiliate in Peoria and talked to a woman named Tennille who became my care coordinator. She was wonderful! She sent me books and a care package, and answered my questions. She also put me in touch with a breast surgeon, Dr. Denise Mammolito.
I decided that I would not sit quietly and let my story go unheard. I wanted other women my age to know that this could happen to them. I contacted the Sharon Osbourne show and told them my story. They flew me and Brandon out to Los Angeles, and I did a segment on her show to promote breast cancer awareness among young women.
The day of surgery arrives
On December 3, 2003, I checked into St. Francis Hospital in Peoria for my lumpectomy and lymph node dissection. During my pre-surgery exam, Dr. Mammolito felt a lump in my armpit, and was sure that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. But the surgery was successful and she felt she had removed all of the cancer, even in my armpit, and the next morning I went home to recover. Four days later Dr. Mammolito gave me her findings: my margins were clean and two of the twevle lymph nodes she had removed were cancerous. My final diagnosis was infiltrating ductal carcinoma, stage II. She referred me to an oncologist, Dr. Thomas, who told me that in addition to chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I would take adriamycin, cytoxan, and taxol. I began my treatments on New Year’s Eve of 2003. I figured I should start the new year off with a bang!
Early in January, after my first round of chemo, I decided to have a port put in. This procedure did not go well. My lung was nicked, causing it to collapse, so I was hospitalized for three days and required a chest tube. Everything seemed to fall apart after that. I was in the hospital constantly, for one infection after another, and once for kidney stones.
When I was first diagnosed, I was concerned about losing my hair, but when that did happen, I was so sick I didn’t even care! Suddenly all of the trivial things become just that–trivial. You go into survival mode and focus on living and waking up each morning. I focused on my son and making this experience as easy on him as possible.
In April, the chemo was finally over and now I just had to get through six weeks of radiation. Compared to what I had been through, that was a cakewalk. By mid-June 2004, I was finally done with my treatment and was given a clean bill of health. I require a checkup every three months, and so far I have been OK. I will have my nine-month checkup in February 2005.
Spreading the word
I am writing this letter to let the world know that breast cancer comes to the young as well as the old. Women who are in their 20s should be aware of breast cancer and should do monthly breast self-exams, as should women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. If you feel a lump, you should go have it checked out. Don’t ignore it and don’t let your doctor ignore you. If he tells you it’s nothing, seek a second opinion. Get answers. More research needs to be done on breast cancer in women in their 20s.
The one thing I found the most frustrating was the lack of literature on cancer in women as young as I. But all that aside, I learned a tremendous amount about a lot of things. I learned that I am a strong person. I am a survivor!