Every once in a while, I'll sit back and remember my carefree days- when my only worries were making it to class on time and deciding on which party I was going to go to on Friday night. Little did I know that my life was going to take a drastic turn.
I was lying in bed late one night when I decided to do a breast self-exam. As I examined my right breast, I felt a large lump along the upper portion of my breast. I had been drinking a lot of mochas, lattes, etc., as all college students do, to get me through my classes for quite a long time now and thought that the lump I felt was because of that. I remembered hearing that caffeine caused fibrous cysts in breasts, so I didn't think anything of it, completed the exam, and fell right to sleep. Besides, my best friend had just been diagnosed with fibrous cysts.
When I saw my mother, I asked her to feel the lump and tell me what she thought of it. She just told me to see my doctor and didn't seem too concerned about it. My grandmother on my mother's side had breast cancer and subsequently died from it. Knowing this, I still didn't think anything of the lump I had found.
In the next few days, I called for an appointment with my OB/GYN. When I went in to see her, she examined my breast, and scheduled me for an ultrasound to find out if the lump was fibrous or fluid filled. Even she didn't have a sense of urgency. As it turns out, the lump was, indeed, fibrous. My doctor then referred me to a general surgeon to have a biopsy done.
I went to see the general surgeon and he gave me a couple of options regarding the biopsy. He told me that he could do a needle aspiration, where a needle would be inserted into the lump and tissue gathered that way, or I could go under general anesthesia and have the lump removed. I thought about it and opted for the lump removal. I didn't want to always feel the lump and think that there may be something behind it that the ultrasound couldn't pick up because the original lump was blocking it.
The biopsy was scheduled about a week later. I remember waking up in the recovery room, coughing up a storm. I could hardly see because my eyes were watering like crazy. My mother walked into the room, and I noticed that her eyes were red. I asked her why they were red and she told me that she was trying to get over a cold. My surgeon came into the room and told me that he wanted to see me in his office the next day at 10 a.m. I just nodded my head and kept on coughing, thinking he just wanted to check the incision.
As I was driving home with my boyfriend at the time, I was joking and laughing about what if I did have cancer. He would grin and try to change the subject. I never caught on nor did it even dawn on me that I could have cancer. Why would that thought even enter my mind? I was young and invincible—nothing could harm me. Boy, was I wrong.
I arrived at my surgeon's office the next day with my parents. We had arrived early and, as I looked at the office hours printed in the window, it stated that they were closed on Fridays. I thought to myself, "Wow, this surgeon must really care about his patients if he sees them on his day off." Again, the thought of him telling me that I actually had cancer didn't enter my mind.
When the surgeon finally arrived, he brought my mother and me into an examination room. He inspected the incision site and changed the bandage. When he was done, I thought to myself, "Cool, now I can get out of here and go shopping." Wrong. He looked at me and told me that the pathologist confirmed what he had suspected the day before. The lump he had removed was malignant. I just looked at him, took a deep breath and said, "Oh, Okay." My mother began to cry and kept telling me how sorry she was that she had done this to me. A weird feeling came over me. I didn't cry—I didn't even feel like crying. I felt that I was there to comfort my mother. I kept telling her that it wasn't her fault, that I was going to be fine, and that she had to remain strong for me. What I kept to myself was that I had this feeling deep down inside of me that I was going to be okay.
My father was sitting in the lobby and the minute he saw our faces, he knew. My father is the type of person who can disguise his feelings well. He knew what was wrong, probably from what my mother told him yesterday, but kept a straight face. The surgeon had told my mother, right after the biopsy, that the lump did look malignant but wanted to confirm with the pathologist before telling me. I sat next to my father as the surgeon began to explain the next step, getting a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. Right off the bat, I wanted a mastectomy. I didn't want anything to do with my right breast; I wanted it gone. What is morbid is that I also thought it would be cool not to have a breast. Don't ask me why I thought that, but I did. It was just something that no one else my age had done. My surgeon wanted me to see a radiologist to have the relatively new procedure, a lumpectomy, explained to me. An appointment was set for me that afternoon.
I vividly remember sitting in the radiologist's exam room with my parents and breaking down and crying. I guess reality set in and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I kept telling my parents, "I don't want to die. I'm too young to die." I was only 24 years old. My deep down feeling that I was going to be okay was gone. I knew my carefree days were over. I had to grow up, fast. The radiologist came in and explained the lumpectomy to us and told me that, in his opinion, the lumpectomy with auxiliary lymph node dissection would be the better choice for me because of my age. I opted for this.
Following my lumpectomy, I went through six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation therapy. I thought radiation therapy was a breeze! I got this wonderful tan on my right breast. However, the chemotherapy was a different story. The first couple of treatments went fine. The only thing I had a very hard time with was the hair loss. I remember looking down at the shower floor after washing my hair and not being able to see it. My hair, I thought, was my best feature and now it was gone. I wore baseball caps everywhere I went and even at home. I wasn't about to get a wig or shave my head. By the time I went in for my last chemo treatment, I would get so sick afterwards that all I could do was go back home, lie down on the couch, and do nothing but throw up and sleep. The only savior was that I knew this was the last one.
My parents and friends were wonderful during this trying time. I knew I got frustrated when I would constantly hear from them, not because I didn't want to hear from them but because I felt that I could do this on my own. I was still as stubborn as always. Please don't get me wrong. I loved their support, but I have always been one to do things on my own, and I thought I would try to get through this with as little help as possible. I don't like asking for help unless there is no other choice. That's just the way I am. I didn't attend any support groups because I felt I had all of the support I really needed at the time.
Having cancer at such a young age has completely changed my outlook on life. I was such the procrastinator before I had cancer. I thought that since there was always tomorrow, I would put things off until then. Now, I live my life day-to-day. I keep telling myself that there may not be a tomorrow so you need to take care of things today. I try to make the most out of each day by doing things I want to do more than I have to do. I know now that I have to take charge of my life—I am the only one who is in control of my life.
I am now 31 years old and doing fine. I believe that early detection is the key. I was so young that my OB/GYN told me that all I needed to do was the monthly breast self-exam and not to worry about getting a mammogram until later in life. Had I not done the self-exam, I probably wouldn't be here today. No one that young ever thinks about breast cancer, so they never check for it. I'll admit that I didn't do my self-exams monthly. I did them whenever I thought about it, which wasn't often. My doctors have told me that the cancer had been growing inside of me for approximately six years. That should tell you how often I did my self-exams. I now believe that you're never too young for anything.
Sharon Spencer Schlesinger