Today, Friday July the 13th, is my re-birthday, my Life Day. Or better known as my “cancerversary” or diagnosis day. I never really grasped what sharing my story would mean. It’s just a story, it’s not tangible, what difference will it make whether I share it or not. But writing down my story has been so cathartic, and opening up to other people has been so…liberating. It’s no longer my secret and I can finally accept that I did not cause this to happen, and therefore, I should not feel shame or guilt. Perhaps sharing my story will help someone else in a similar life predicament. Perhaps my scars will be someone else’s sign of hope. So here it is, this is my story.
It was just after lunch when I received the call. I was in Indianapolis for what was supposed to be a two-week work trip. I found an empty conference room and it was there, under the dimly lit fluorescent lights, where I received the worse news of my life. “I am very shocked and so sorry to tell you that you have cancer.” The biopsy I had done the week prior where I was assured that the lump in my left breast was ~98% benign, turned out to be malignant. It was there in that moment that my world came crumbling down. The rug was pulled from under me and my life would never be the same again. All I could do was stare at the water color painting hanging on the wall while I silently asked myself, “Am I going to die?” It was there, alone in a cold conference room on July 13, 2017, I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma…breast cancer. I was twice-removed from home: first from the San Francisco Bay Area where all my family and friends were, and second from Brooklyn, NY where my husband and I moved a couple years earlier. I was to see a Breast Surgeon the next day for further diagnostic tests and treatment plan so the next task was to get a flight back to New York. I fought the tears as I pleaded with the gate attendant to let me onto an earlier flight, all the while wishing I could ask her for a hug. I found a quiet corner by the gate and cried silently to myself. I have never felt so broken and alone.
Walking into the cancer center was surreal. I looked around the waiting room and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was the youngest patient there. “What am I doing here? Maybe that girl over there is a patient too? Oh no wait, she’s just here with her mom.” When they called my name and I got up, a trail of wondering eyes followed me into the back room where I spent the whole day getting pricked and prodded and assessed. After two ultrasounds, mammograms, and genetic counseling, I finally met with my breast surgeon. She diagnosed me at Stage 2, meaning the tumor was over a certain size, but from what she could see, has not spread beyond the breast. The tumor was ER/PR+, HER2-, meaning it was feeding off my hormones and so the recommended treatment plan was for immediate mastectomy to remove the entire left breast, and hormone therapy for 10 years. Depending on surgery and pathology results, I possibly would do chemo and radiation therapy. As she rattled off next steps, I broke down sobbing in my pink gown, wondering how I got there. Before all this, I felt fine. Just two days ago, my biggest worry was where my next vacation would be and how I would look in a bikini. Never in a million years did I think I would get cancer…at least not at 33 years old. My whole life, I was the caretaker – I took care of my ailing Grandmother, and then supported my husband as he went through grueling medical school and residency. I was used to the smell of the hospital and sight of doctors and nurses. But never did I think I would be on the receiving end.
I had so many questions. How and why? A genetic counselor extensively went through my family tree and with having no trace of cancer on either side, the best she could chalk it up to was bad luck, as if that would make me feel better. I was slotted for surgery in two weeks but in the meantime, I had to meet with a fertility doctor to discuss egg preservation. The irony in all this was that I had just purchased ovulation sticks a few months ago with the intention of finally starting a family. It felt like a cruel joke. Instead of going to see an obstetrician, I had to see an oncologist. Instead of getting pregnant, I got cancer.
Surgery was successful, but I had a long road ahead of me – reconstruction, rehab, not to mention dealing with the emotional trauma of it all. For me, breast cancer was so much more about the cancer than the breast. I didn’t mourn the loss of my breast as much as I mourned what I thought was the promise of a long life. Before diagnosis, I felt so invincible. Yes, bad things happen, but not to me. My husband used to joke how cancer ran in his family and so he thought that’s what would ultimately take him out. I would laugh and brush it off saying we were too young to even think about that kind of stuff. And here I am. No family history of cancer, yet diagnosed at an age everyone would exclaim is “too young!”. Looking back, I think I fell into a pretty deep depression. A dark cloud hung over me at all times and I would burst into tears randomly like in the middle of dinner or have a panic attack in the middle of a shower. Laughter felt disingenuous, as if true happiness no longer existed in the world. And though it was difficult for me to talk to people about what happened without getting emotional, I was longing to get it off my chest. Many people would reach out but either side-step the cancer part or just avoid talking to me altogether for fear of saying the wrong thing. I felt profound sadness and again, very much alone.
After surgery, I found out that my tumor analysis came back with a recurrence score of 26, which meant there was an intermediate chance of the cancer coming back. In terms of numbers, that meant that without any treatment, I had around 33% chance of the cancer coming back within 10 years. With hormone therapy, we could lower the risk to 17% and with chemotherapy, it lowers it further to 10%. While cancer treatment is very individual, I could draw a bit of comfort in the numbers. If I agreed to chemo, I could give myself the best odds at keeping the cancer at bay. And so I did. Up to that point, chemo was my ultimate fear. Surgery was tough, but I just couldn’t imagine pumping my body full of poison. At first, I thought I could just quickly remove the tumor, pop some pills, and resume life as normal. But chemo meant losing my hair, going through the side effects, taking time off of work, the whole gamut. It meant not only would I feel like a cancer patient, I would have to look it too.
I did 4 rounds of heavy-duty chemo with the hope that it would kill off any rogue cancer cells that may have escaped my breast. I learned that even though surgery didn’t show any presence of cancer in my lymph nodes (primary way cancer cells spread), they are so microscopic that there is still the risk of them metastasizing into other parts of my body. My hair started falling out immediately after my second infusion. I would leave a trail of hair wherever I went and I could not touch my head without a handful of it falling out. My thick mane slowly dwindled to sparse wisps then to irregular patches and finally to just a handful of strands that I forced into the saddest combover. I texted my husband that afternoon: “Babe, can you shave my head tonight?” My Aunt came with me to get fitted for a wig and later that evening, I sat in front of the mirror with a towel around my shoulders, waiting for the inevitable to happen. Fortunately for me, my husband has been shaving his head for almost ten years so I knew I was in good hands. The buzzer made its way to my head, taking with it the first clump of black hair. It was amazing how easy it fell off. Buzz, buzz, buzz. I watched myself in the mirror waiting for tears to fall. But they never did. Truth is, the short hair looked pretty stylish on me so I mustered up all the humor I could, and said “I think I’m ready for my catwalk now!”. That was it. No more hair. Nothing left to hide behind. All my vulnerability was now up for display and I could just imagine how many awkward conversations about my new “haircut” I would have to have.
Many ask how chemo feels and there is no one word to describe it other than just feeling ill from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, from the outside all the way in. It’s like all my systems were thrown a big fat wrench and my body was doing its best to cope. It altered my sense of taste so that no food was appealing to eat. What I could eat, I worked hard to keep down due to the nausea and stomach pain. My nails started lifting signifying the poison accumulating in my body. I had deep fatigue. On the good days, I was able to tolerate 30 minutes of yoga. On the bad days, I could barely walk 10 feet. Sleep was golden but I didn’t have much of it. It was like getting hit by a truck every three weeks except when I’d start to recover, I had to do it all over again. I’d often stare at the mirror and not recognize myself. It was like being stripped of my identity. Who was I before this? Who am I right now? Who will be the person that emerges from all this?
It has now been eight months since my last dose of chemo. My hair has grown back at an alarming pace and with extraordinary thickness to boot. My lashes have set in, and my beloved brows are making a comeback. The only tell-tale sign of chemo at this point are the occasional chemo-brain lapses and the brown-colored veins on my right arm where they hooked me up to the IV. If you look at me now, you would see a healthy person. And while it’s true that I am healthy now, I am not yet in the clear. Maintenance treatment involves a monthly shot putting me into premature menopause and a daily pill that suppresses my hormones. I am back into the swing of things and with the help of a therapist, the dark cloud has lifted. There are of course some days when I am haunted by the “what ifs”, but lately I work with the notion that I made it through and there is still plenty to be thankful for.
My Grandma passed away on April 25, 2017 – just months before my diagnosis. Ironically, it was during the week of her wake when I first got the lump I discovered on my left breast examined by a doctor. She said it was probably nothing and that I was too young to get breast cancer. I can’t even imagine where I’d be if I didn’t listen to my intuition and push forward with an ultrasound and biopsy. A few weeks after her passing, Grandma visited me in my dream and there she gave me three gifts: a card saying “Be as wise as me”, mint green sunglasses with the thickest lenses, and two handfuls of candy in the form of small dice. Even from the other side, she was still able to impart her loving support and wisdom.
The card imploring me to be wise was probably the call for healing and self-care that I very much needed. Things like yoga, meditation, reiki, soundbaths, acupuncture, nature, prayer and exercise have been instrumental to help me find balance and sense of wellness at such a precarious time. I am learning to let go of past hurt and emotional baggage I subconsciously carry with me. Like poison being sucked out of a wound, I realize that true healing means removing that which does not serve me and it applied not only to the physical body, but to the heart, mind, soul, and being. It is also a call to find my identity again – to find things that get me excited, bring me joy, and creativity soaring. Perhaps now is the time to find my calling.
The sunglasses with the thick lenses are a symbol of perspective. I read the book ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ written by a young neurosurgeon who passed away of lung cancer. The foreword was written by his wife and when I read this line, my life changed instantly: “What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” It was like a light bulb turned on. I could finally admit that yes in many ways, what happened to me was tragic. Cancer sucks and it takes away so much; but me, my life, doesn’t have to be a tragedy. I don’t have to be defined by the disease and I certainly cannot allow myself to be consumed by it. Instead, I use it as a daily reminder to be present. Almost everything I do now is with intention. The food I choose to eat, the people I choose to be with, indulging in those cute pair of shoes, or going back to dancing. I now move with utmost consciousness, almost as if I am so aware of life, and every minute is a chance to pursue happiness and perpetuate love. A reminder that I am still truly blessed.
And finally, the handfuls of candy dice remind me that life may be dicey, but it is also full of so many sweet little moments. Just this past year alone, I celebrated my 34thbirthday, the birth of my nephew, my 5-year wedding anniversary, a long overdue trip to Spain, a Warriors win, and a support system full of new friends in New York who have become my family away from home. Also, I was quite literally given the gift of Faith. Both in the form of spirituality and re-connection to church, but also in the form of a new friend. My Oncologist gave me a list of five names – they were all young breast cancer survivors that he has treated. He said they were all good resources for me especially as I go through chemo and active treatment. One by one, I reached out to the five but only one immediately texted back. Her name was Faith. We started what we now admit to be a kismet type of friendship – our paths were meant to cross. Seeing her with hair fully grown out, trudging through the streets of Brooklyn, going to social events, complaining about work, dating – these were all “normal” things. And it was at that point I finally saw a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. She went through what I went through, yet here she is alive and well. She was the flashlight I needed to help guide me through the darkness of my cancer journey.
While I will never say I am grateful for cancer, I do acknowledge how great of a teacher it is. It’s as if I took ten years’ worth of life lessons and condensed them all into one. Because the truth is, getting cancer at a young age is like being let in on a secret. A secret only the old and wise know about. Life is precious, life is love, and life is now. I don’t know what the rest of my story will look like but I intend to live it with as much humor and grace as I possibly could. Like my therapist wisely said when I complained that I still had a 10% chance of cancer coming back: “You need to accept the 90% along with the 10%”. I had to stop focusing on the bad and allow myself to accept the good.
I share my story not to entice pity, but to hopefully provide inspiration to those who may be or know someone going through cancer. For everyone else, my wish is that we all learn the value of humanity and to exercise empathy and kindness, because as the old adage says, everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. Whether it’s disease, depression, anxiety, loneliness, divorce, miscarriage – we are all tied together and the load is a lot lighter when we have each other’s support.
Lastly, know that it’s ok to not be ok sometimes. Give yourself room to breathe and space to grow. Ask for help when you need it, and be sure to give back when you are able. Keep your well full and try not to let other people draw you dry. Nothing in this world is permanent and life can sometimes be unfair, but it’s the simple things that make life special — unadulterated laughter, family traditions, a conversation with a stranger in the elevator. Remember, life is precious, life is love, life is now. ❤️
Photography: Jay Dabatos