“There’s ductal carcinoma in your left breast,” was first thing the doctor said.
The next words that came out of her mouth were: “It’s breast cancer.”
She said it, I know now, to eliminate any confusion, to clarify the meaning of that scary, clinical word “carcinoma,” to make sure that I didn’t have any doubt about the challenge that lay before me. But at the time the words felt harsh, cold, and hollow – like someone was doing their best to break my heart.
I was 30 years old.
And I just been diagnosed with a disease that nearly everyone told me I was too young to have.
In the United States, about 70,000 young men and women age 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer each year, and for us young survivors, the experience is somewhat different. As a 30-year-old, I was one of the roughly 10 percent of young women in this country who are annually diagnosed with breast cancer — and faced challenges, such as infertility questions, that many of my fellow patients simply didn’t.
The stares were the worst. People were just confused. They wondered (often aloud) why in the world I was in an oncologist’s office, waiting for an MRI or sitting at a support group. Was it my mom who was getting the chemo, they would ask? Breast cancer must run in your family, they’d say. When I would smile politely and tell them no — the chemo is for me, or there’s no prior history among the women in my family — they would scoot farther away from me. Or stop holding my hand as if breast cancer was contagious.
But a funny thing happened in between my mastectomy, egg retrieval, chemotherapy and losing my hair. I saw how resilient the human spirit is — and I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about my innermost circle that pulled me through. My mom sat with me during every treatment, my guy helped me out of bed, my friend took me to brunch every Sunday and a co-worker organized 16 other colleagues to serve as in-home chefs during each of the weeks that I was on chemo.
People surprised me at every turn – with their kindness, with their generosity, with their patience. And every time I had a not-so-pleasant experience — like when the last bit of my eyebrows nearly disappeared or someone told my bald-self I was “too young for breast cancer” – it was as if the Universe blessed me with a beautiful one to take the place of it, something to wipe away the bad memories and tears.
Since then, my hair has grown back. And every now and then I have flashbacks of the day I was diagnosed. They say having cancer is akin to experiencing a traumatic event like fighting in combat, and I think they’re right — sometimes it really is harder on the other side of it all, then it is while living in it.
But I try to live my life as my survivor sisters would. I think of my friends who didn’t make it to 32, who didn’t go engagement-ring shopping or see their sister have twin baby girls — for those things, I know I am one of the luckiest women in the world and I celebrate each cancerversary like it’s another birthday, another chance. And when I’m not working as a journalist, I try to make sense of who I am as a young cancer survivor by writing and connecting with as many people who were in the same boat as I was; it just makes me feel like this whole ordeal wasn’t all for naught.
And for those who are not lucky enough to have the support system that I had, I try to pay forward all the kindness and generosity and patience that I received. Over the past couple of years, I’ve helped my survivor sisters out of bed after their surgeries. And sat with them during their chemos. And cried with them on the phone after their diagnoses. To me, it’s the duty of all of us who are able to help lift up our sisters.
I recently reconnected with a long lost relative, and quickly learned that his renal cell carcinoma (there’s that word again; it’s called kidney cancer for the rest of us) had spread to his lungs. I went with him to a follow-up visit last week and we went through the drill that survivors know all-too well: We asked questions, took notes, waited for doctors, and tried to tell funny jokes while we ate bad hospital food.
And at some point, my relative — who’s 83 — starts telling a story about how one snowy day while walking through the woods, he saw a creature that he swore looked like Bigfoot. He said he tried to hide behind a tree but the creature’s large eyes followed him. So he stood right where he was. After a while — he reckons it wasn’t much longer than a minute — he watched the thing turn around and run away.
And you know what? We can all stare our creatures in the eye, too. Whether that “creature” is cancer, a divorce, losing a job or some other life challenge, we can stand our ground.
And we’ll be stronger because of it.
A version of this post also appears on The Lymphoma Letters, an amazing blog run by my dear friend and survivor sister Laura.