April 12, 2018 will go down as a day I will never forget. That was the day I heard the words I never thought I would hear, “You have breast cancer.”
It all started just one month prior. I did a self-exam, which I never really did, and I found a lump. A few days later, I called my OBGYN and made an appointment. I knew it was nothing. I mean it had to be. I’m young. I eat well. I exercise regularly, and I don’t smoke or do drugs. And...I’m young!
My OBGYN recommended a biopsy, but assured me it was most likely nothing. 99% of the time it turns out to be nothing. I'm not worried yet. I schedule a mammogram and biopsy at Englewood Hospital, which came very highly recommended by the local mommy community. I get the next available appointment and start to schedule my kids' pick-ups around my appointment time. Regular mommy stuff for a regular mommy. I am still not worried.
A friend had recommended that I didn't go alone, and although I am still sure it will be nothing, I ask my husband to come with me- just to be on the safe side.
I get to the hospital and feel fine. Looking around, it seems nice. Its clean and has valet parking (score!). I check in and wait for my name to be called in the Woman’s Breast Center. After a not-so-long wait, my name is called. I kiss my husband and follow the nurse. She takes me to an area with several dressing rooms that are divided by curtains. She hands me a smock and advises me to undress and provides a bag to place all my belongings in and then, leaves me to it. I start to undress and suddenly out of nowhere, it hits me. I look in the mirror and think,"Maybe I do have cancer." Trying to shake it off, I think to myself that my thoughts are all because of where I am. It must just getting into my head. I am fine. I have to be. The nurse calls my name from behind the curtain and I answer. Once again, I follow as she takes me into an exam room. Once there, I’m told she will do a breast exam before the mammogram. I lay back on the table and began to make a joke. Jokes will help hide how uncomfortable I am, right? The nurse next ask me to show her where I felt the lump. I show her the location and she acknowledges that she feels the lump.
The next thing I know, she finds another one! My heart falls to my stomach. Another lump?! That can’t be true. I’m not supposed to have one lump, let alone two! How can there be another lump? Now my mind races. “IT’S CANCER! IT’S CANCER!” The thought keeps rushing in my mind. Now...now I am worried.
I go through the next steps of a mammogram and then the ultrasound. The ultrasound confirmed that a biopsy would be needed, and luckily they are going to do that right now. Another nurse brings me to last room. They ask if I have someone with me and if I would like them in the room during the biopsy. I confirm that my husband, Jim, was there and I definitely wanted him with me.
As I sit and wait for Jim to join me, I realize that I am shaking. What started in my hand, has slowly rolled into my whole body and now, I can't stop it. How did I get here? I’m young. Too young to have breast cancer. This doesn’t run in my family.
After what feels like forever, Jim finally enters the room. I begin to cry telling him how nervous I am and that now there are two lumps! He keeps saying, “It’s going to be OK. It will be nothing.”
The pathologist comes in the room with a new nurse, introduces himself, and tells us about the procedure that he was going to perform. It was called Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) on both locations and that we will find out in ten minutes if it’s cancer or not. TEN minutes! In ten minutes, my life as I always looked at it would change forever. I took deep breaths as the procedure was completed, telling myself it was going to be ok. It just had to. When they leave the room to test the specimens, my husband grabs my hand and once again, tells me it will all be ok…it will all be ok. We now have to wait. Now, I am really nervous.
After the longest ten minutes of my life, the doctor finally walks in. He doesn’t even wait for the door to fully shut behind him before he says, “Well, the results aren’t what we hoped for.” My heart sinks to the ground and my mouth drops open. This can't be. The doctor then says it. Says the words that I am now and forever will be associated with, “You have breast cancer.” The doctor then gets quiet and his eyes begin to fill with tears. I can’t look up at Jim. I am just sitting frozen on the examination table and begin to cry. A cry that was very different than any cry that I have ever done in my life. It’s hard to describe. It was filled with horror, sadness, and emptiness. How can this be? I grab on to Jim’s hand and try to control myself. Am I going to die? Am I going to be able to see my two boys grow? That is all I can think about. How can I be taken from them?
The doctor asks to do another biopsy before we leave. At this point, I feel numb, sad, and then numb again. We leave the hospital to go pick up my boys Dominic (7) and Julian (4) from aftercare at their separate schools. How am I going to be able to get it together before seeing them? Well, I just have to. I’m their mommy and that is just what mommies do. I don’t want them to know what is going on yet. The rest of that evening, I tried to act as normal as possible. But, it's not normal. Can it ever be normal again? The rose-colored glasses are now off. Everything looks different. The worry is different now. I am worried, but not just about me.
The next day I called out sick from work and gave myself the day to process everything. I have to set-up appointments to get a Breast MRI and meet with some surgeons. I decide to visit 3 surgeons and see which best fit me. In the end, based on personal connections with the doctors, ease of commute for myself and my family, and the overall plan of care, I decided to proceed with Memorial Sloan Kettering.
During the process before surgery, there have been many tests and discussions. Did I need to do chemo before? A core biopsy and tagging needed to be performed. Did the cancer spread or is it located anywhere else. Time for a PET Scan. If you have never had a PET scan, well, you have never been radioactive. I can tell my boys now that Mommy had super powers at one time.
I have had many nights of lost sleep, days with little appetite, and times that I couldn't stop crying. My mortality was something I never really thought about before. I always figured I would see my kids on their first days of school, sporting events, kiss every boo boo, graduations, weddings, and more. I've never questioned that it wouldn’t happen, but now everything feels uncertain with no guarantee. That has been the hardest thing through this whole process. I love my husband, but he is an adult. My kids are so little. I can’t be taken away from them yet. I will not let that happen. Anyone that knows me, knows I'm too damn competitive to let this beat me! I do NOT LOSE!
Now, the next step. How do I tell people? Do I? I don’t know who, when, or how to tell anybody. There is no book of etiquette on telling friends and family that you have cancer. As I started to tell some of my closest friends and family I noticed one big thing in common and it KILLED me. They all looked so hurt! I didn’t want to hurt them. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Every person’s eyes filled with tears as if I told them they had cancer. It felt awful hurting the people that mean the most to me. I know as I write this that there are people I still haven’t told, but I just didn’t want to hurt anyone else or make them feel obligated to anything.
The test results started trickling in. PET scan…all clear! Biopsy….no chemo before and uncertain for after. Ok, things are looking up. I need to get myself together and “be positive.” I really hate those two words. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that. I know they don't mean any harm, but it feels like nails on a chalkboard. For me, it comes across as though I shouldn't feel sad or upset. It comes across as though I should act like nothing has happened and just keep going on. Something did happen. Something very big happened, and my life-no matter how I overcome this- will never be the same. I am now part of a club. A club I didn’t ever want to join!
Did you know 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer? At first that statistic didn’t mean much to me until I started discovering more and more women that have/had breast cancer. Since I have been diagnosed I know four others that are currently fighting breast cancer. FOUR WOMEN! All had no family history of breast cancer. I found comfort talking to them and others that have/are going through it. I can speak volumes about these women. All have given me their time, no matter what time it was. Each have been texting me to to check in, see if I have any questions, or how my tests went. These women are inspiring and I am so grateful to now have them in my life. We are forever connected in this club; the club no one ever wants to join.
When I decided to write this I didn’t know if I would really want to put this out there. Do I really want people, strangers, really, to know so much about my journey?I decided that I do, because I hope to help someone else like those wonderful women did and still are doing for me. I hope this can help other mommies that maybe think this can’t happen to them. To remind others to do self-checks, and to go immediately to the doctor if something doesn't feel right. I decided that I wanted to be the reminder that cancer doesn't care if you work out or eat healthy. Everyone has to be aware of their bodies and stay on top of their check-ups. Cancer can happen…It happened to me.
I want to also bring attention to a great organization. The Breasties is a nonprofit organization dedicated to support young women affected by breast and ovarian cancer through community and friendship. I reached out to them when I found out I had breast cancer. I wanted to talk with someone who was going thought the same thing I was. They put me in contact with Allie Brudner, a local Jersey City girl that is truly resilient. Allie was diagnosed with cancer at 28 and is a true fighter. Her grace, beauty, and friendship have shown me that although this ride isn’t fun, I can get through it. The Breasties offers support to women all over the country. Please check them out, follow them on Instagram, and support them if you can.
With love, strength, resilience, and hope,