I remember learning in university that we all carry abnormal cells but our body fights them to keep us cancer-free. I also learned that our body is like a machine; the better it is maintained, the better it will function.
I thought I was doing all the right things: I applied sunscreen every day, I didn’t smoke, I did Pilates, I ate an apple a day (to keep the doctor away, right?), I laughed a lot and I was in a very happy and healthy place in my life. I had recently started shifting to an overall healthier lifestyle – incorporating super-foods and healthier alternatives in my diet, walking every morning, even replacing my cosmetic products with natural ones.
Since I was 25 or so, I had been getting yearly breast ultrasounds, as recommended by my gynecologist. I had one in August 2017 and results came back clean as usual. February 2018, I felt something strange in my left breast. Luckily, my mother taught me the importance of self-examination early on and I had been doing my own monthly self-checks for as long as I can remember. My self-checks were so consistent that I was confident that the tiny ‘ball’ in my left breast is new and does not feel right.
1st thought: “I’m healthy, I’m 28…I’m sure it’s nothing”.
2nd thought: “I’m sure it’s nothing, I’m 28…I should get it checked anyway”.
What I decided: “I will wait until my next period, if it’s still there then I’ll get it checked”.
A month later, with daily self-checks, that little ball was now twice the size and it brought along a tiny friend.
Talk about red flags. I rushed to get an ultrasound done. The radiology team and insurance company almost did not agree to it because I had just done one 6 months ago! I don’t think I have ever been more insistent than I was that day standing in the radiology department. They finally agreed and not to my surprise, the radiologist confirmed that the lumps I am feeling are new indeed. A biopsy was requested and performed.
April 12, 2018 my biopsy report read: Invasive Ductal Adenocarcinoma.
Our brain has an interesting way of dealing with trauma. For a moment I believed that if I don’t read these words out loud, they would mean something different. At that moment anything could make more sense than those 3 words.
The next day I was getting my hair done. Sitting in that chair looking at all the women around me, I found myself wondering which one of them has had breast cancer. Looking at myself in the mirror I thought "no of course it's not real, I don't have breast cancer, look at my hair, there's no way I'm losing it". The hairdresser interrupts my thought saying: "you have such fine hair, next time you come we will cut and color to give it some volume" and I thought "heh, poor guy he doesn't know that the next time I come it will be to shave it off". There's something about humor that soothes the brain.
Fast forward a couple months, my chemotherapy sessions were going well, I was bald and I finally accepted that I have Breast Cancer. All I could think about was what if I was not doing self checks and I had waited until my next ultrasound in August 2018. In my case, an invasive triple negative breast cancer, my story would be very different and not in a great way. During these two months I realized that “self-checks” was such an unknown concept and “breast cancer” was a very hushed conversation. I heard things like:
“You’re 28! Isn’t that young for breast cancer?”
“You are so young! Are you sure it’s breast cancer?”
“What do you mean you were doing self-checks? What’s that?”
“My mom doesn’t let me get yearly checkups, not even blood tests” (Yes, in 2018)
“I never knew I should be doing self-checks this young.”
“My doctor told me I don’t have to think about this before I’m 40”
“Why would you have breast cancer?” (I admit I even asked myself this question, but something about being diagnosed with cancer makes this question okay when you ask it to yourself NOT when someone else says it to you)
P.S. this is one of the things you should NEVER say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer or undergoing cancer treatments.
Need I go on?
Several months earlier I had started an Instagram page that discusses various health & beauty topics – focused on healthy beauty; healthy lifestyle and how health and beauty measures can affect and complement each other: @matchaandmascara . On June 18, 2018 I took my story to Instagram. Even though I didn’t have a large following, that didn’t matter, I just wanted to spread influence on the knowledge of self checks, on the awareness that breast cancer knows no age, that early detection can save lives and most importantly, that talking about breast cancer, normalizing it, can actually help so many women and young girls who are going through it. Doctors, nurses, family, friends, they all make an amazing support system. They were my rock. My fiancé (now husband) was an angel. Yet I couldn’t help but find myself searching on Instagram for someone in Lebanon who has been diagnosed with breast cancer so that I can talk to them. There is a sense of comfort in familiarity. All I found were accounts from other countries. It was such an easy and open topic for them. Their stories helped me find normalcy. I was able to relate to many of their experiences and that brought me comfort.
Since that day, I’ve been receiving messages from young girls and women who found their strength through my story.
“When I knew you had breast cancer at a young age, I started learning how to check myself and encouraged my friends to do that too”
“I have breast cancer and there are days I get depressed and want to give up but when I saw your profile you inspired me.”
“You inspired me to remove my wig and embrace my short hair.”
“We just received news that our daughter, she is 23 years old, has cancer stage 3A. I want to do whatever we need to do to make her journey as easy as possible. You are her idol. Anything we say or do feels wrong at the moment. I would appreciate it if you could talk to her.”
“I am enjoying my new hair. Just wanted to share that with you because you really gave me the biggest part of self-confidence.”
“I don’t know what to say but I also have breast cancer. In 10 days, I start chemo. I am scared of when my hair and eyebrows fall out. But when I saw your page, I was motivated.”
“I can’t tell you what a relief your message is! Just to know that your body would recover and go back to normal”
I still breaks my heart to know that someone is having to go through this but it gives me some peace knowing that I am able to make a difference, no matter how small, in their journey.
I have been cancer-free for almost 2 years now. To be completely honest, I still can’t watch a movie scene involving cancer or chemotherapy without breaking into tears. Breast cancer will always be a part of me and breast cancer awareness will always be a part of @matchaandmascara. I continue to share the importance of early detection, self-checks, knowing our normal, and now I also talk about the importance of committing to remission checkups and coping with life after breast cancer. The more we talk about it, the less fear will surround it. When there is less fear surrounding breast cancer, young girls and women will feel at ease doing routine self-checks and compelled to speak up when they come across potential symptoms and most importantly, they will learn to recognize symptom and won't be afraid to seek medical care.
Talk about it out loud so the words BREAST CANCER stop being so scary and the words BREASTS and BOOBS are not shied from.
I encourage breast cancer fighters and survivors to share their story. The support we can give each other is tremendous - nobody needs to suffer in silence and nobody should be embarrassed or afraid.
To all the ladies reading this, check your boobs. Feel them (and your underarms) once a month, 3-5 days after your period. Mothers, talk to your daughters about boobs. Know your normal. Know what to look for. Any men reading this? You can play a role as well. Support your loved ones, encourage self-checks and do them yourself too! Yes, men are at risk for breast cancer, although extremely rarely.
If you're old enough to drink, club, drive or smoke - you are old enough to start checking your boobs!