Before going to bed one night, I accidentally touched my right breast and felt a lump. The lump was small, the size of a pea, and I was certain that it was new. Although I’d never done any breast self-exams before, I was confident I knew my body well.
Obviously the first thing I did was Google all the symptoms that I’ve been feeling recently, from unintentional weight loss to hair loss and loose stools. The first thing that popped up was of course: CANCER.
The next day, I rushed to the family doctor, insisting that something was wrong, however, he insisted that the chances of something being wrong were too slim: “You’re too young; your symptoms are probably stress-related”. He requested the usual blood work and a breast ultrasound. The ultrasound showed a small harmless fibroadenoma or “benign lump”, which is super common in young females my age. The doctor referred me to my gynecologist for a second opinion. And once again I was faced with the same reply: there’s nothing to worry about.
Over the next few months, I quit smoking, altered my diet, and started working out more. I figured if my grandma died of breast cancer at 36, and my mom got diagnosed at 46, then the fibroadenoma could be a sign that I should start taking better care of my body. I would feel my lump multiple times a day, and obsessively stare at it in the mirror; the lump was now a part of me, a daily reminder to take care of myself.
A year later, I repeated the ultrasound. The lump had grown a little in size but I was assured once again by my doctors that it was harmless, but that it’s safer to get it surgically removed. A biopsy was never suggested by any of the doctors, despite a family history of breast cancer. They claimed they were CERTAIN it was a harmless fibroadanoma and, of course, I never argued because I trusted my doctors.
Before what would have been my first ever surgery, I repeatedly searched my symptoms on Google, and nothing seemed to indicate cancer. I also repeatedly told myself that there was no way I could be one of the 5% of women under 40 years old who get breast cancer, but the pessimist deep down inside me never believed that. The surgery was scheduled for 30 minutes and I was supposed to leave the hospital on the same day. It wasn’t supposed to be anything too complicated, so I even made plans with my friends later that night.
I woke up from the surgery 4 hours later in pain, and ended up spending the night in the hospital. The next morning, just before getting discharged, I got a visit from my surgeon and a group of interns.
“Stefany, when we opened you up, we discovered that the lump was cancerous. We had to remove 8 lymph nodes for biopsy to make sure that the cancer hasn’t spread, but I’m very much certain that it hasn’t” (luckily, it didn’t)
“Are you serious? “
“Yes, I’m very sorry. You should be thankful we caught it at an early stage, and you probably won’t need any chemotherapy.”
I burst into tears.
“See??? I knew something was wrong all along, I knew it! How often does this happen?”
“This is very rare; it’s the first time in my career as a surgeon that I come across such a case.”
At first, the guilt kicked in, so I started apologizing to my parents and fiancé for this bad situation, as if it was my fault! I was in a lot of physical and mental agony but seeing the helplessness and the despair in their eyes at that moment, I knew I had to be strong for them. Now, whenever I get asked about what kept me going, what gave me strength, my answer is love, unconditional love.
I was diagnosed with stage 1, invasive ductal carcinoma, at 26 years old. My cancer was ER/PR+ (estrogen/progesterone positive), which was relatively good news, but I didn’t know that at the time.
The following month was the hardest, getting poked around the clock with needles, waiting for test results and discussing them with doctors, and making a series of life changing decisions. I was furious. How did I get here? Why me?
Mentally, I spiraled down the darkest holes of my life and back up again to the most beautiful realization and asked myself again “Why me?” On a scientific level, the answer was: genetics. But on another level, there must have been another reason. So, I started my quest, a search for answers. I read stories about young survivors, all of which were beautiful and relatable. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like the exception anymore, I was not alone, there were hundreds of young women going through the same thing, and of course some had it worse than others, but we all had one thing in common; we were all considered too young to have breast cancer. The stories made me realize how lucky I was to have discovered the cancer in an early stage despite being misdiagnosed for a whole year. I had another chance at life and there must be a reason for that! Over the course of the last 6 months, I learnt that my calling was:
- To help young survivors realize that they are not alone
- Educate women about the importance of early detection and breast self-exams
- Talk about cancer and break the taboo
- Appreciate how lucky I am for being surrounded by unconditional love
- Learn to accept, embrace and love who I am
I got married to my best friend in an intimate magical wedding. The Virgo in me refused to let my cancer change this plan. I later underwent egg freezing in case chemotherapy would take my fertility away, and suffered from a condition called “Ovarian Hyperstimulation syndrome” that can occur in some women who take fertility medication. I now have 2 healthy frozen embryos.
Luckily, COVID-19 came as a gift in disguise. Because of it, I had to cancel my adjuvant chemotherapy. I say luckily because something deep down inside me always knew that I shouldn’t go through with it. There had always been signs that I kept ignoring, before I learnt the most important lesson of all, which is to listen to my gut. I understand that each person’s case is different and that a lot of lives have been saved or prolonged thanks to chemotherapy. But my treatment was only preventive, and there were other, alternative ways of stopping the cancer from coming back. Today, I can tell you that I am healthier than I have ever been; I switched most of my food and cosmetics to organic, natural and chemical free alternatives. I exercise 3 times per week, I do self breast exams every month, I take around 20 pills of supplements every day, I read, meditate and spend more time in nature, and I feel amazing, I feel present.
I started my hormone therapy which consists of Zoladex injections every 28 days and a pill of Tamoxifen every day. So my body will be technically going through menopause for the next 3 years. It sucks, but not too much. Sorry mum but now I understand.
My mother and I did a genetic test to find out whether we carry a gene mutation which causes breast cancer, turns out we do. We both have a mutation in the PMS2 gene. To prevent breast cancer from returning, a bilateral mastectomy will be scheduled in the coming 2 weeks: Bye boobs, I’m going to miss you.
Anyone who has breast cancer or other types of cancer in the family must also get tested. I know it’s a bit expensive, but it can save your life or that of a close female relative. Having a genetic mutation doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have cancer, but it can help doctors monitor you closely and could lead to early detection. Some women at high risk choose to have a bilateral or preventive mastectomy; an operation that removes all breast tissue that could potentially develop breast cancer. That would have been my choice had I known earlier about the gene mutation.
To all newly diagnosed women, I know the first few months of your cancer journey are and will be hell, but I promise you it gets a little better as each day goes by, until one day you wake up and you have the answer to the question “why me?”. Follow your gut, learn to love and listen to your body and everything else will fall into place. This is a chapter in your story, so write it wisely.
You will need help, physically and mentally, don’t be scared to ask for it. Luckily, Cancer is a jerk detector; some friends will ghost you, and that’s not your fault, not everyone has the balls to stick with you through this. As for the friends and family who are always there, they are a blessing and should be treated as such; don’t forget they are also in pain.
Sending love and virtual kisses to my husband, parents, family, girlfriends, friends and everyone who reached out and helped me grow during this difficult time. I am so lucky and grateful to have you.