I like to think of myself as a person who keeps an eye on their health—especially when it comes to my breasts—since one in eight women get diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.1 So when my husband found a lump in my chest one day, I knew it was a cause for concern.
I had always done my breast checks regularly to try and spot any irregularities on my own, but I typically did them in the shower and, at the time, I didn’t know that you should be doing a breast check while lying down or on your side. In my case, the lump was in a very awkward position where I never would have found it in the shower; it was only palpable if I was lying on my side. Even when I went to my doctor, she had trouble finding it herself.
I was 39 years old at the time, and mammogram screenings normally start at the age of 40. But I also had a family history on my father’s side, as my grandmother succumbed to breast cancer at a very early age and passed away in her 40s. So I went to have the mammogram that same day after seeing my doctor, and the suspicious lump was found in my right breast. A couple of days later, a biopsy was performed, and I got a call asking me to come into the doctor’s office and to bring someone with me.
It honestly never occurred to me that I would ever have anything like breast cancer. And I think that’s really the case for most people, they don’t think it’s going to be them until it is.
I’ve never had a doctor tell me to bring another person with me to an appointment, so that was alarming. My mother came with me for support. When I sat down to meet with my doctor, she started giving me my diagnosis—and the only word I recognized was carcinoma. When I heard that word, I knew that meant cancer of some sort and that it wasn’t benign. The doctor eventually asked me, “Do you understand that you have breast cancer?” I was simply in shock.
I was in shock and denial for a while, but I had to make some really fast decisions because it was triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). It was aggressive, and it was growing fast.
My doctors did some genetic testing and found that I was BRCA1-positive, so there was also a concern about my increased risk of developing ovarian cancer, which meant they wanted to start my treatment right away. At that point, I hadn’t had any children, and there were several conversations about fertility preservation, which—if I chose fertility preservation—would have delayed my treatment.
Since TNBC is an aggressive cancer, I knew I had to make a decision rather quickly. I could not continue to allow cancer to grow inside of my body—I wanted to do something immediately. So I opted out of fertility preservation, and sometimes I wonder if that was the right decision, but when you get a surprise diagnosis like mine, your whole world is turned upside down.
I had to take into account my current situation and decided to start treatment, which began within a couple of weeks after the diagnosis. I started chemo right away and delayed the salpingo-oophorectomy that was recommended until 2018 (four years). At that time, I made the decision to have a full hysterectomy.
Opening Myself Up to Receive Support
I tend to be a very independent person, and I don’t like to ask for help, but when it came to my treatment process, I quickly realized how much help I needed because I completely underestimated chemotherapy. I thought that I was going to continue living my life in a somewhat normal fashion, and I thought that all chemotherapy was the same.
What I did not know is that there are different chemo cocktails depending on the type of cancer you have. So, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I got to a point where you really find out who your friends are, even the ones that you didn’t know you had.
There are a lot of people who go through this process alone, and they don’t tell anyone, and they don’t get any support. I’m thankful that I did not go that route, and in turn I decided to be very public with my story.
My chemo cocktail really took a toll, and I became less able to do things. I had this huge community of people surrounding me and providing me with emotional and physical support during my chemotherapy treatment. I never walked into chemotherapy alone, and I realized that there are plenty of other people who might not be as lucky.
There are a lot of people who go through this process alone, and they don’t tell anyone, and they don’t get any support. I’m thankful that I did not go that route, and in turn I decided to be very public with my story. I participated in the Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s storytelling campaign, “Research Is the Reason,” because research saved my life. But I know we need more, especially for TNBC.
I opened up with my family, because the other component to my diagnosis is that it is hereditary since I had the BRCA1 gene mutation. I wanted my siblings to be aware and feel comfortable sharing this information with their children, but I also wanted to share my experience to inform other people to take note of their own family medical history.
Traveling the World as a Survivor
During the chemotherapy treatment, I would spend my days before every chemotherapy session at the beach in Los Angeles, which was very close to the airport. I would go there and watch the airplanes go by. I never had a passport so I’d never been out of the country, and I had visited maybe three states at that time in my life.
So as I laid there and watched these planes take off, I wondered where they were going and I thought to myself, “I’m too young to be going through this, and if I make it through it, I want to be on those planes and go see the world.”
Going forward in my journey with breast cancer as a survivor, I think it’s important that we start talking to girls about breast health at a younger age.
When I did make it through my treatment, I started working for Delta Airlines. I became a flight attendant and I set several goals for myself. I truly believe that achieving those goals—both in terms of making it through my cancer treatment and then becoming a flight attendant and seeing the world—broadened my horizons and gave me more motivation to advocate for my health, as well as to help other people.
Going forward in my journey with breast cancer as a survivor, I think it’s important that we start talking to girls about breast health at a younger age. While most breast cancer screenings don’t start until your 40s, young women should be taught how to properly check their breasts for any lumps or abnormalities so they can advocate for their own health and any concerns they may have.
There’s this whole myth that you’re “too young to get cancer,” which simply isn’t the case.
Cancer Research Helped Me Find Relief
What many people don’t take into account when they think of breast cancer is the mental and emotional toll that it can take on a person. Especially in the Black community, mental health is not something that is openly discussed, and seeking out help in the form of therapy isn’t really an option either.
Because of this, I was not very open to having therapy, and I didn’t really realize how much I needed it. Our quality of life during treatment is not something we can afford to ignore.
It didn’t come to my attention that I could benefit from therapy until I started getting calls about participating in studies. One phone call I received asked me to participate in a study that intended to look at the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and breast cancer.
I decided to participate in that study, and that’s when it dawned on me that I wanted to seek out therapy. I started going to the Cancer Support Community Center and received amazing support by participating in all of the different therapies that were available.
After that initial study, I participated in additional studies because it came to my attention that medical research led to the advancements in medicine that kept me alive when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
From there, I made the commitment that I was going to participate in any study that came to me that I felt comfortable with, so I could give back to the breast cancer community in that way and hopefully help other breast cancer patients in the future.
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