In April of 2015, I found myself alone and waiting in a sterile exam room for the results of a breast biopsy. I had found two lumps in my right breast, but the doctor assured me that a person of my age (34), and with no history of breast cancer in the family, the masses were not likely to be cancerous. When he came into the exam room he said, “Good news, the lumps were benign! Have a nice life!” This is the fantasy I often dream of still to this day; sadly that fantasy did not come true. My biopsy results revealed that I had breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma.
I remember the dread welling up inside of me as I left the hospital thinking of how I would break the news to my family. How can I drop this bomb on everyone? Suddenly it dawned on me- this is how my father felt when he was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer 6 years prior. His fate was sealed with that diagnosis and he died at the age of 57 after a short 3-month battle. I felt immense sadness in that moment- will I share his fate? Will I be gone in 3 months?
The hits just kept on coming. We thought that surely this breast cancer would be an early stage given my age and good health. My family and friends rallied behind me and with fierce conviction assured me that the cancer had NOT yet spread to other organs. Unfortunately, A PET scan revealed that not only did I have breast cancer, but I also had thyroid cancer and one tiny (6mm) nodule in my lung. A lung biopsy was recommended before starting any treatment. When my father was fighting his battle, he too had a lung biopsy which resulted in a collapsed lung and an enormous amount of pain. I knew the risks and I was terrified of not only the procedure, but also of what they would find.
We did the biopsy early in the morning and a few hours later I woke up to a massive amount of chest pain that made it difficult to take anything but very shallow breaths. My fear had been realized, the biopsy punctured my lung and I required a chest tube until the lung re-inflated. They told me it would take about 24 hours, which was good news because I would begin my chemo regimen on that following Monday.
Monday came and went. My chemo was postponed, and I was still stuck in the hospital with a tube in my chest. I felt angry that this was happening to me, sad that my body seemed to be failing me, and helpless that I couldn’t even get started with my treatments. I was still in the hospital a week later when the results came back on the lung biopsy. It was cancer: breast cancer that had spread to my lung. I was officially a stage IV metastatic breast cancer (MBC) patient. That moment was my lowest point, but I realized I had nowhere else to go but up. I eventually got out of the hospital, started my chemotherapy treatments, and began the fight for my life.
The parallels between my dad’s case and mine were very unnerving. The collapsed lung was just one of many. We were both diagnosed at a relatively young age with de novo metastatic cancer, which means from the very beginning. Our diagnoses occurred around the same time of year and we both seemed to suffer every complication possible. Every trip to the hospital brought back the hellish memories of taking care of my father through his illness.
There WERE subtle differences, however. While my dad handled his illness with grace and humility, I was only able to express anger and sadness. This difference in our attitudes bothered me initially, but as the months went on, that anger I felt served me well. I didn’t know how to help my dad, but I DID know how to help myself.
Our parallels diverged even more and as the months went on, the differences between my father and me became very apparent. I was younger and stronger, and I was responding very well to the chemo. I was never bedridden and, in fact, I exercised every day even when I felt like I would pass out from nausea. I was smarter because of my dad’s experience. I wasn’t afraid of the doctors, I challenged their strategies, I sought second opinions, I didn’t make the same mistakes. I was feisty and fearless.
At the end of 4 months of weekly chemo, the lesions in my lung and breast had disappeared which meant I had had a complete treatment response. After a lumpectomy, thyroidectomy, and 5 weeks of radiation, I had no evidence of cancer in my body. This is the absolute best-case scenario after a metastatic diagnosis. It was surreal. My only experience with metastatic cancer was death, but I had somehow been able to cheat death this time.
As quickly as I had been forced to enter the world of cancer, I felt like I was plucked right out of it and placed into some kind of purgatory between having cancer and being healthy. So how does one live their life “normally” after being told they have a chronic terminal illness? It’s been 2 1/2 years since my diagnosis and while I was fearless throughout my treatments, surviving with cancer is a whole ‘nother ball game.
Sometimes the fear of its progression looms large, but I’ve sought out ways to enjoy the life I have left to live. Part of enjoying my life means scrapping all the rules I made for myself previously. Instead of running half marathons, I now do yoga and meditation. Instead of being a strict vegetarian, I eat meat when I feel I need to. I have learned to be much more accepting of my limitations and much kinder and forgiving of myself.
Cancer gave me a glimpse beyond the smokescreen of security that nothing bad would ever happen to me or to my loved ones. It taught me that feeling “safe” is merely an illusion. None of us are immune to the pain one can experience in a lifetime, whether it be cancer, divorce, or loss of a job. Any number of bad things can happen, and the only element we can control is how we choose to respond to the adversity.
I feel lucky to have lived such a full life already – filled with lots of travel, an amazing career, and an abundance of love and support from friends and family. But there is still so much I want to do. I’m in a transitional place now in my career and I’m considering translating my cancer experience into a career that offers support and hope to other patients living with this disease. My story is not yet finished, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.