October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and so it seems fitting that today I share this story…
Today’s My Journey With interview is very close to my heart as it’s bravely shared by Kim, one of my very best friends who I’ve known and loved for over 20 years (since high school!)
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on the 7th of July, 2016, roughly a year after I found a small lump on my right breast. Back in 2015 I had the lump checked out and was toId it was nothing, that I just had dense breast tissue and was too young to worry about cancer just yet. I was youngish, only 35 years old, generally healthy, a non-smoker, definitely not overweight and with no family history that I knew of, it didn’t make sense to me that it would be cancer so I carried on with life…
About 9 months later I noticed a tiny amount of brown nipple discharge on my bra, having been told I was fine not so long ago, and not knowing what I know now, I decided to wait a couple of period cycles to see if it was just some sort of hormonal imbalance. It didn’t go away, so I went to see my gynae.
My gynae told me I’d be fine but sent me on to a different breast clinic where I had my first mammogram and breast ultrasound. The mammogram came back with nothing, just dense breast tissue, but the ultrasound showed a small lump. Two biopsy samples were taken and I was told it looked like a papilloma, a harmless kind of skin tag in the duct, phew.
A week later the pathology results come back, no papilloma, no cancer or even pre-cancer cells. Weird. Thank goodness the doctor thought this was strange too and told me to come back in 6 weeks, especially if the brown discharge came back, which it did, 5 weeks later.
My doctor then sent me on to a surgeon to have the lump removed. He also thought it was a harmless papilloma initially, but, a week after surgery it came back as cancer in the pathology results!
I was stunned, devastated and in complete disbelief. I kept wondering if they’d not mixed up my pathology with someone else’s, especially after such a long trail of misdiagnosis, but no such luck…
What this bad news meant was that the last year has been scariest, hardest and most stressful time in my entire life.
Nothing quite prepares you for facing your mortality quite like a cancer diagnosis and I’m pretty sure nothing changes your priorities quite so fast either!
Now that you have the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you might have done differently before, during, or after, your tough life experience?
That’s a tricky question, I would say I wouldn’t have taken the “it’s nothing” for an answer that first time I went to check it out, but who hangs around looking for cancer when a qualified specialist has told you you’re fine? I practically ran out of there, happy that I’d done what I was supposed to do and had it checked out.
I would’ve insisted on a second person to take another look at the initial, incorrect, pathology too, because it really didn’t make sense that it came back clear when there was obviously something there, it might’ve bought me more time.
In the period leading up to the diagnosis, roughly 2 years, I was very stressed. I was running the company I worked for by myself and was going through a break-up from a pretty unhealthy relationship which had left my self esteem in a bad state. In hindsight I would have managed this stress better, asked for help and been less hard on myself. When I’m stressed out I my appetite goes out the window, so I don’t eat much and I tend isolate myself. I weighed 50kgs and I’m fairly tall, 1.72, not great! This unfortunately went on for about two years and I’m pretty sure the stress levels did my immune system no favours. I was young, so I thought I could handle it, not realising that this was probably making a nice cosy environment for cancer to grow.
Although my oncologists insists there’s nothing I could’ve done to have caused this, and it’s a super rare kind of breast cancer which they know very little about other than it’s just bad luck, I can’t help but wonder if they should be doing more research into the more subtle things which happen to us, we eat or we’re around, which can link to cancer?
A large amount cancer patients have a Vitamin D deficiency, I did, I work in a dark room for a living and wear sunscreen when I’m outside, so I wish I’d had that checked and known about the risks of low Vitamin D.
Dense breast tissue is a risk factor too, so too are menstrual irregularities, both of which I have. There’s a link now with even small amounts of alcohol consumption contributing to risk, except not with the subtype of breast cancer I had, the same with Soya based products… That being said it can get really confusing with all the info and fake-info available out there.
What, or who, helped you to overcome or push through this experience? A book, a person, an incident, therapy, medication or was it just simply time?
Besides the doctors, my family, especially my partner, my sister, and my mom helped me get through this in my immediate circle.
Friends too, offered an amazing amount of support, just with calling in, dropping off soup and offering to do anything that would help. My boss and his wife were incredibly supportive and understanding and gave me as much time as I needed to deal with this too, for which I was so grateful.
Talking to other women who have been through this also makes a big difference, no one else knows quite how it feels unless you’ve been through it.
I took mild anti anxiety meds for the first time for the duration of treatment, I thought I’d help myself and my stress levels (another hard lesson) as much as I could during this and make it easier on the people around me to not have to deal with a crying wreck 24/7.
There was a book which I found helpful too, Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg. Although she mainly talks about the loss of her husband, I found the book helpful for cancer too, and for anyone who wants to know how to deal with people going through trauma. Although people try to be helpful, there are a lot of things they say or do which really are the opposite in these situations. That being said, saying nothing at all can be even more hurtful.
There are some young and really inspiring women who document their Breast Cancer stories on Instagram. It sounds awful, but it actually made me feel less alone as a young woman with cancer knowing there were other women out there who knew what it was like and were trying to deal with it too.
People often avoid the hard topics because it’s “such a downer” and no one wants to know about how sucky cancer is, but, to be honest, I think people need to talk about the hard things more, it makes us feel less alone and it’s very much part of the human experience. Everyone knows someone who has had cancer, or has had it themselves. 1 in 8 women will have breast cancer in their lifetimes and, in some countries, 1 in 2 people will have cancer at some point, that’s a very big deal. We need to talk about it.
Obviously there is not always a reason for going through such hard times in life, but now that you have come out the other side of the “tough stuff” (or are further down the journey) can you share any insights or personal growth that the experience taught you?
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about cancer, I can’t help it. I expect those thoughts will always be there, even when I’m an old lady, if I get there, hopefully I will! These thoughts catch me feeling sorry for myself, or worrying about silly stuff that really doesn’t matter. Relative to how this could have gone I got extremely lucky.
Thankfully, my cancer was caught early, before it spread, unfortunately that’s no guarantee it won’t come back, despite mastectomies and chemotherapy. It’s unlikely they say although I’m not sure I trust that entirely, so this leaves me with an experience I’ll never be able to explain fully.
Having breast cancer was both a good and a bad experience for me. Bad for obvious reasons, but also good like will never have saggy boobs (I feel I’m allowed to celebrate the little things). More seriously, I now know I’m stronger than I thought I was. The worst situations can bring out the best in some people and what I saw in the chemo room – how funny, brave and strong people can be when in the absolute scariest situation of facing death itself – will be with me and and get me through the hard stuff forever.
My relationship is also stronger because of this, it easily could’ve fallen apart because we had met only the year before I got diagnosed! I now have an incredible guy to share my life with who was by my side through literally everything – chemo, surgeries, nausea, hair loss and every doctor’s appointment – without even flinching (in front of me at least). I feel incredibly fortunate to have him in my life and will never be able to thank him enough. Suffice it to say, if he ever needs a kidney, I’m his girl!
I’m also much closer to my sister because of it too and she has great green smoothie making skills now too, so that’s two positives I’m massively grateful for.
Where do you find yourself now?
By the end of November this year I’ll be one year in remission and will have had my breast reconstruction completed, which has taken about 11 months, longer than normal but it just turned out that way timing wise.
For the next 18 months I have checkups every 3 months with blood tests monitoring my tumour markers and scans. If all remains consistent then the check-ups go to every 6 months and then every year once I reach the 5 year mark. After that, the chances of it coming back are much lower, so I’m hanging in there ’til then. It’s not easy to walk this road but it keeps me on my toes and not reminds me to not take anything forgranted.
Most of us don’t think cancer will happen to us. We all think that we’ll die peacefully in our sleep when we’re 90 plus. Actually facing your mortality pushes your brain into all sorts of places just to cope. You are forced to take the fact that you might not be here next year quite seriously and that makes you reconsider what are you going to do with the time if that’s all you’ve got.
I don’t know what the future holds for me at this point but hopefully I’ll never have to deal with this again and that means I shouldn’t be quitting my job just yet!
What I do know is that life should be filled with more love, more holidays, better stress management and more focus on taking better care of myself!
Thanks so much to my special friend for sharing her story. Such a hard journey to have walked and equally hard to share but I really hope that her bravery will encourage all of you, my readers, to take your breast health and stress levels seriously… and get your breasts checked this October!
Apart from non-melanoma skin cancer, Breast Cancer is the most common cancer in women of all races, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 26 in South Africa. You can reduce your risk through regular examinations. Many breast lumps are harmless, but they should all be checked. It is important for women to do monthly breast self-examinations and to go for regular Clinical Breast Examinations.