My world was rocked when I was diagnosed with breast cancer as I prepared to celebrate my 30th birthday. This is my story…
When I first felt pain down the side of my breast I panicked, but I couldn’t find a lump. I was in the midst of a busy summer and had lots going on at work, so instead of going to the doctor I went to Google.
The information I found said:
– Breast cancer is usually painless
– Less than 1% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia are aged under 30
I breathed a sigh of relief. My pain was a good sign, I had no other symptoms, and statistics were on my side. So I did nothing.
Two months later, the pain was still there. I wasn’t too concerned but I had a day off work so decided to see a doctor. He couldn’t find a lump either, but sent me for an ultrasound. I was told the pain was nothing to worry about but there was a 2cm lump in another part of the same breast that needed investigation. The lump was so obvious once I knew it was there, I was aghast at how I had missed it.
Ten anxious days of waiting for results seemed like an eternity, but no amount of time could have prepared me for what was to come. On 1 May 2013 I awoke with a strange sense of optimism that everything would be okay, that I would be able to put this all behind me and enjoy my imminent 30th birthday celebrations. But that afternoon I was told I had cancer.
My life changed in that instant. My sense of security about the world as I knew it had been ripped from under me.
The first thing my surgeon said the following day was, “You’re gonna be okay. If you could choose a type of breast cancer to have, it would be this one.” It was an indolent type of cancer that does not spread quickly.
I had a lumpectomy and two lymph nodes removed. The surgical margins were clear and the cancer hadn’t gone to my lymph nodes, but there was 1.6mm invasive cancer growing within the lump that was removed, and so began a series of oncology appointments to determine the best course of treatment to minimise the risk of recurrence.
I tested negative for the BRCA1 and 2 breast cancer genes and therefore decided to go with the recommended 6 weeks of radiotherapy followed by medication for a minimum of two years.
Three days before I started radiotherapy, my mother, my rock, was also diagnosed with breast cancer. It was non-invasive, but was in both breasts, so while I was having radiotherapy she had a double mastectomy. Mum’s diagnosis rocked my world, yet again.
A year earlier I had whinged about it being the last year of my twenties and how old I felt. How ridiculous that suddenly seemed. I was now overwhelmed with fear and thoughts about my own mortality. I felt like I was a ticking time bomb, convinced it was a matter of when, not if, cancer would come knocking on my door again.
Despite knowing I was extremely lucky not to require chemotherapy or a mastectomy, I struggled with the six weeks of radiotherapy, which was a constant reminder of what I was going through. It felt bizarre, as a fit and healthy young woman, to leave work every day to sit in a white hospital gown waiting to be zapped by a machine that looked like it belonged on a space ship.
But I know my journey could have been far worse. I met two girls my age that found lumps in their breasts and were told not to worry because they were too young to have breast cancer. By the time they were diagnosed, the cancer had spread to their lymph nodes and they had to have chemotherapy and mastectomies. They now face the prospect that they may not be able to have children (because of the chemotherapy). My heart breaks for them.
I did not go to my doctor thinking I had cancer. I have been extremely lucky, but my story would have been very different had I not gone when I did.
So whether you are young or old, male or female, my message to you is this:
Don’t waste time second-guessing your health. Don’t go to Google and fill your head with crazy thoughts about what you may or may not have. Don’t make stupid excuses not to see a doctor – because without your health, you have nothing.
Are there times when I wish this never happened? Of course there are. But I can genuinely say that I now have a more positive outlook on my life as a result of this experience and I am grateful for the perspective it has given me.
It has inspired me to do things I never would have dreamed of otherwise. It has taught me to be much kinder to myself. It has brought me closer to the extraordinary people in my life whose kindness and support has made me appreciate how much I have to be thankful for. I know now what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t. I have learned to live in the present instead of worrying about the past or future.
And of course, I will never complain about being old again.
My story is just one of many. The National Breast Cancer Foundation has produced the first comprehensive publication on breast cancer in young women in Australia. The report eloquently captures the experiences and issues faced by myself and other young women and gives me hope that we can improve the outcomes, treatment and support for young women diagnosed with breast cancer in future.
You can access the report and read the stories of other young women here: www.800youngwomen.org.au
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