By Emily Anderson
You. You have cancer. Breast cancer. The C word. A super scary C word, because it’s often accompanied by that D word. Not that you believe it. How can you have cancer? You hear about it all the time, but it always happens to other people.
But now you’re one of them. One of the 266,120 who are diagnosed in 2018. One of the 26,393 under age 45. One of 33,340 in Wisconsin.
The one in eight women in the U.S. who will be diagnosed in their lifetime. One of the 12 percent.
Startled, shocked and surprised are words that come to mind, but that does not even come close to describing the initial reaction of hearing “you have breast cancer.” Denial is more appropriate. You didn’t have any history of breast cancer in your family. You’re a healthy, young 41-year-old woman with no other medical issues.
You didn’t think of anything more than making sure your ladyparts were healthy when you went to your annual gynecological exam. You were making small talk with the nurse when your gynecologist was examining your breasts. You noticed him pressing a little hard on that right breast as you were chatting about the weather. Felt a little tenderness after the exam was done. No big deal.
You didn’t think much of it when he ordered another test to be done when he said you should go in for your first mammogram; after all, you were a year over 40, which is when they now say to start getting annual mammograms. You don’t do self breast exams and you didn’t go in last year like he recommended to, because, why should you be concerned? This could never happen to you.
You weren’t even concerned when you went in for your mammogram three days later, because now that you’re over 40, this will be a routine thing. You even chuckled to yourself when you saw those “knitted knockers” on the counter at the breast center. You’d never need those; those were for those other women, the ones who have breast cancer.
You didn’t even mind when the tech placed your breast between the plastic plates and smooshed it down for the imaging; people said it would hurt, but it didn’t hurt you. You’re lucky, you don’t have dense breasts or small breasts, so the mammogram was really no big deal.
You were even calm when the tech told you to wait while the radiologist examined your films. Because at 41, nothing can happen to you of concern. Especially breast cancer. That only happens to older women.
Only when the tech came back into the waiting room and asked if you could stay for a biopsy did you start to have a little suspicion that something wasn’t right. But still, you had no fear. You had Googled lumps in the breast – 80 percent of them are just lumps. Benign lumps.
The biopsy wasn’t scary. The nurse numbed your breast and the radiologist stuck a needle in that you didn’t feel. And when he said not to be startled by the loud snapping noise when the needle grabs a sample of your tissue, you weren’t startled. Not once for the three snaps.
You went home and you waited overnight and assured your husband, your sister, your mom and your dad that it would be nothing. Because why would it be something?
You got a call the next day just after noon from your gynecologist. You and your husband were working at home that day. You were sitting on your couch with your computer on the table next to you. You felt relief because, well, you just wanted to know it was nothing.
But it was something. You have breast cancer. He just told you that you do.
You looked over at your husband sitting on the couch across from you. Well, you told him, I have breast cancer.
Yes. Breast cancer. Wait. What?
The next few days were a whirlwind. A blur. The advice starts pouring in. The condolences. The looks of sympathy. You go numb. You just exist.
You decide you want to get a mastectomy as soon as possible and be done with this and move on with your life. You discover it’s not that easy. You learn that you need to wade through pages and pages of research and get more tests done and consult with more specialists before you can really make the best decision.
You hate the waiting. You hate the learning. You hate knowing now that you’re a cancer victim and people will always associate that word with your name.
Your anxiety level goes through the roof as you learn and wait and consult and wait and learn. You discover that being young is not an advantage. Compared to older women, young women generally face more aggressive breast cancers and have lower survival rates.
You learn that this year, 40,920 women will die from breast cancer in the U.S. That’s one every 13 minutes. It’s the second leading cause of cancer death in women.
More diagnostics find a second lump. More tests discover you have a gene mutation, which made you predisposed to getting breast cancer. You have no family history, but you have a great grandmother who died at 43 and a great aunt who died at 41 of unknown causes. The PALB2 gene mutation was only discovered 10 years ago. And now you know. Your father’s lineage carried this gene.
You decide on a lumpectomy, because with most cases, it’s as successful as a mastectomy in terms of survival rates. The pathology run on the tissue taken during the surgery finds seven separate cancers. Your case is “complicated,” the breast surgeon shares. You then have to have a mastectomy. More tests and diagnostics. They find a micro metastasis in your sentinel lymph node. The cancer is spreading, but your oncotoype score, which measures all kinds of things you learn about, is only 22. You do not need chemo, but you need radiation.
Fast forward. It’s been six months. You’ve been through two major surgeries, dozens of scans and tests and procedures, and 25 radiation treatments.
You can consider yourself a “survivor,” because you are alive.
However, you won’t know if the cancer is truly completely gone for another four months, after your next MRI. And because of your gene mutation, you will need a second mastectomy next year, along with reconstruction surgery. Plus, you now have two years of hormone-fighting Lupron shots and 10 years of daily anti-hormone tamoxifen pills.
Now your magic number is 14. You have a 14 percent chance of recurrence within the next 10 years.
Your journey is moving forward, but will never end. Life will now always be divided in two: before cancer and after diagnosis. And now, dying is a daily thought.
You think about being the one in eight women who get breast cancer. You think about your seven closest female friends. You hope your diagnosis spares them.
Now, you’re the cancer survivor. One of the 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. For now. Forever, you’ll always worry it will return.
Will you become the next one? You might. The spaces are all open for new names to fill them in 2019. A projected 252,710 names of women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. next year. One every two minutes. But if you’re proactive about your health and get annual mammograms starting at age 40, you could become the one who’s diagnosed early enough to treat it successfully and have a very low chance of recurrence. If you are destined to become one of us, be that one.
Emily Anderson is a freelance writer living in Neenah. She is a breast cancer survivor; diagnosed March 8, 2018. Read more about her journey here.