On July 4, 2016, it was hard for me to feel like I wasn’t exactly where I was meant to be in life: After enduring two major back surgeries since my first child’s birth, I finally felt healthy and strong as I hiked with my husband, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter in the beautiful southwest corner of Colorado.
Then I felt the lump.
I noticed the hard, grape-sized formation while absentmindedly itching the bottom of my right breast. With intimate knowledge of how my breasts felt from my not-so-distant memories of nursing and pumping, I instantly knew something wasn’t right.
After a thorough self-exam and confirmation from my husband that the lump seemed atypical, I tried to go to sleep as fireworks burst outside the window and a series of worse case scenarios burst inside my mind.
At the age of 28, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer that turned metastatic and proved fatal within 10 years. At 35, was I now walking that same path?
Breast cancer. Breast cancer. Breast cancer.
Until I was able to see my doctor two days later, I tried to take my mind off it. The habits of my energetic children, which I had seen as exhausting the day before, were now welcome distractions.
My husband allowed me to lead the conversation with however much or little talk I wanted. Friends offered reassurance—could it simply be a hormonal cyst related to my cycle?
Even the physician’s assistant I initially saw and the radiologist I followed up with for a mammogram and ultrasound were optimistic: Among people diagnosed with breast cancer, only 7% are younger than 40.
As I later learned, that occasionally has its downsides when it comes to reactions from health care professionals; for two new moms I met who had breast cancer, their cases were misdiagnosed as clogged ducts or mastitis and the women were dismissed before follow-up exams with instructions to take Tylenol or antibiotics. It was only because they advocated for themselves and insisted on second opinions that their cancer was detected.
For me, the lump and my family history were enough to convince my doctor to fully investigate.
My first meeting with the physician’s assistant led to a mammogram and and chest ultrasound. After a biopsy, my worst fears were confirmed.
Breast cancer. Breast cancer. Breast cancer.
The conversation immediately turned to options for treatment. My doctor estimated my case was Stage 2, which meant I could consider a lumpectomy, single mastectomy or double mastectomy.
But I wanted it gone—not just to give me as much peace of mind now as possible, but also to save me from the anxiety I knew I would experience before the recommended biannual MRIs if I opted to keep any of my breast tissue.
From there, the decisions fell into place with mechanical efficiency: I would get the double mastectomy followed by 16 rounds of chemotherapy and ultimately a hysterectomy.
Much more draining were the thoughts of how this would affect my children—both in the short-term and long-term.
Thankfully, a genetic panel confirmed I don’t have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer. But with oncological genetic tests still in their relative infancy, there’s no guarantee I didn’t pass other genes that raise the risks for developing cancer to either of my children.
I tried to shift those thoughts to the back of my mind. It was much harder, though, to ignore my immediate reality: Was I stripping my son and daughter of their childhood?
They had already seen me suffer through the two debilitating back surgeries and long recoveries. Now, with an exhausting course of treatment ahead of me, was I to be a shadow in their lives for the next year?
But I was on the train and it was only moving one direction. Surgery, chemo, hair loss, infections, more chemo—they all flashed by the window as the engine steamed ahead.
The only solace I had is that I wasn’t on the train alone.
My husband was my rock, willing to do anything and everything with little thanks.
Despite living states away, my parents, siblings and in-laws put their lives on hold to help me for weeks at a time.
My friends sat with my through chemo treatments, shuttled my kids around, provided the majority of my meals and even assumed laundry duties in my house.
And my kids. My sweet son and daughter were truly my sunshine on those dark, winter days when it seemed like I would never, could never, feel like myself again.
As exhausting as it was to raise two young children while battling cancer, I am forever thankful for the moments of joy they continued to bring into my life. Only with them were the moments where I forgot all about the diagnosis that was dictating the rest of my life.
Then, as impossible as it seemed to me during the middle days of chemo, it was over. This time the confirmation from the doctors was welcome: The cancer was gone and I could assume a new identity...
Survivor. Survivor. Survivor.
I then imparted on a new leg of the journey with expanders gradually (and painfully) put in my chest to prepare it for implants. Next week, 15 months after I found that lump, I’ll undergo a hysterectomy and receive breast implants.
In the months to come, I’ll have to cope with significant physical and hormonal recovery. In the years beyond that, I’ve already come to realize mortality will weigh much more heavily on my mind than it ever did before.
But for all that has been taken away from me, I do know I’ve received a precious gift: A perspective that helps me cherish life.
Yes, I’m that mom who really, truly stops for a moment to take in the blessings that surround me—like my son confidently running off for his first day of kindergarten, my daughter telling me stories about the friends she’s making in preschool or the both of them saying how glad they are to have Mama back beside them during adventures instead of sidelined.
There is no more taking life for granted. I just hope others don’t have to learn this in as hard a way as me. No matter how old you are and how invincible you feel, please use this reminder to perform regular self-exams of your breasts. And if you think something isn’t right, advocate for yourself.
When you do, you’re also advocating for your family.
To learn more about self-exams and how to help others this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.
Story by Heather McLeod, as told to Emily Glover.