‘It looks suspicious’: Breast cancer at 31
My breast cancer story began like that of so many other women — I noticed a lump.
What separates me from most of them is that I was just 31 years old when I found mine — routine mammograms were still almost a decade away for me. The only breast cancer to speak of in my family is that of my father’s sister, diagnosed at the unshocking age of 54. She had a lumpectomy and, 10 years later, is doing just fine.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the odds that a woman will be diagnosed with breast cancer between age 30 and 40 are 1 in 227. By the time she turns 40, her odds of a breast cancer diagnosis in the following 10 years rise to 1 in 68.
Information in a binder given to me by Yale-New Haven’s Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital breaks it down a bit differently, stating that one in 622 women will develop breast cancer by age 35, and one in 93 will develop it by age 45.
Either way, breast cancer was clearly something that happens to other people — not to me.
At least six months passed between the time I noticed the lump in my right breast — I figured I would tell my doctor about it at an unrelated checkup — and when I scheduled the mammogram she ordered. In other words, I took my sweet time. It was a benign cyst, weird fibrous growth, or random fatty deposit. It had to be. To me, the mammogram would be just an hour or so out of my day to rule out cancer before I could go on with my life.
Looking back, I’d felt like something was wrong for a while. How could someone who lived as I did be considered healthy? I chose my meals and snacks based on the comfort food factor — foods that tasted good and filled a craving — and I rarely exercised. Even though I love walking and hiking in the woods, I chose Netflix and my couch every evening. Before I knew it, I was about 40 pounds overweight.
But, I decided time was on my side; I could get healthy any time ... eventually.
When Mammogram Day arrived this past April 29, I sat in the waiting room with a few other women, all of us rocking our standard-issue hospital wrap-tops as a soap opera played on TV and women’s magazines beckoned to us. (Because obviously all women read Better Homes & Gardens and watch “Days of Our Lives.” No stereotyping there.)
Even after I had the twins clamped in the vise by a perky technician and actually saw the mass haunting the ghostly mammogram images, I wasn’t concerned. I had felt a lump, after all.
My doctor also had ordered an ultrasound, and as I lay there in the dimly lit room (pretty pleasant, actually), I wondered why this whole thing was taking so long. The technician applied the gel and slid the handheld device around, exploring the area in question as well as my armpit on that side.
The continued silence was perplexing. Any day now, I thought. Tell me there’s nothing to worry about. Instead, she told me the images showed something called “calcifications” around the mass, and three of my lymph nodes were enlarged.
Now I was concerned. Any of those three issues by itself — lump, calcifications, or enlarged lymph nodes — probably would be benign. All three together? It was cancer. It had to be.
The doctor came in and looked at the screen. She looked at me with a furrowed brow and declared, “It looks suspicious. I’m going to recommend a biopsy.”
I left the hospital in a daze and called my father from the parking lot. He had recently gone through an operation to remove recurrent head and neck cancer from his nasopharynx, of all places.
“Dad! We might be cancer buddies.” I tried to joke away my fear by overdramatizing and moaning that I was dying. He laughed and told me I wasn’t dying. He told me everything would be fine. We hung up. I drove home.
He met me at my apartment, unbidden. He knows what it’s like to learn you have cancer.
It was all but officially confirmed. My primary care doctor immediately gave me the number for Yale-New Haven’s Breast Center so I could schedule a meeting with a surgeon. There would be no waiting until the biopsy, which would happen on May 6. Everyone already knew.
The official diagnosis came May 12, to no one’s surprise. I was flanked in my surgeon’s office by my father, fiance, best friend and a woman I’d interviewed last year and grown close to who had endured her own cancer battle. My best friend recorded the meeting for my mother, who lives in Florida.
I started with that small posse and decided not to stop there. Maybe it’s my generation or my media job, but I decided to make an adventure out of my diagnosis and, through Facebook posts galore, let a few hundred more people know what was going on.
The response was bigger than I ever imagined. High school classmates I hadn’t seen in more than a decade rallied around me. Breast cancer survivors, older women I didn’t know who were friends of friends, sent me encouraging messages that included their own stories.
Cancer could go to hell, because I decided I was going to be fine. I was going to run this show, not a bunch of mutant cells. I focused on all of the (admittedly vain) positives — fun with wigs! A tummy tuck and breast reconstruction by a great plastic surgeon! My wedding dress was going to fit so well! (Did I mention I’m also getting married in October?) It would turn out we’d decide to do chemo first, surgery after the wedding — but hey, the chemo would at least make me lose some weight, right?
My plan was, and still is, to show any other young woman or anyone else going through a health crisis that this absolutely does not have to ruin them and they can get through it. Whatever happens, it’s worth the fight.
Next month: body scans, genetic testing, a metastatic disease scare, chemo and more.