I’ve always been a big planner. At the start of each year, I’m the person who looks forward to choosing an aesthetically pleasing agenda to organize my life and goals. According to the dream-filled pages in my 2019 agenda, I was in for the best summer.
That summer marked the beginning of my senior year of college, pushing me one step closer to the “real world” that I’d been hearing about my entire life. I’d finish my last two pre-med classes, setting me up for a stress-free fall semester. After turning in my final exams, I’d hop on a flight to Barcelona, Spain, to study abroad for a month and finally live out my Cheetah Girls dreams. I couldn’t have planned a better start to my senior year.
I guess somehow, I forgot to plan for the discovery of a massive lump in my left breast and what felt like a “rolling ball” in my armpit, just a week into my summer classes. Two semesters prior, I learned about the importance of breast self-exams in a Women’s Studies class, which is what led to my discovery. I immediately told my parents, who both work in the medical field, about the lump in my breast. I was relieved to hear that my mom had a breast cyst before, which is probably all that it was. Our lack of a family history of breast cancer was also reassuring to me. Since I already had an upcoming annual physical exam, I decided to mention the cyst then.
I arrived at my appointment feeling nervous to learn about the process to remove the cyst invading my chest. I wasn’t ready to confront my perpetual fear of needles. It was relieving yet confusing when the nurse practitioner didn’t say anything about a painful procedure, but instead recommended I have a mammogram to be on the safe side. Since I was well below the recommended age for mammogram screening, the first hurdle was getting my insurance to cover the cost of this seemingly unnecessary appointment.
Two weeks later, I went to the radiology clinic at my university’s hospital to finally put everyone’s minds at ease. Needless to say, I was shocked when the radiologist came into the room, after viewing the images, and told me it wasn’t a cyst. I needed to have a biopsy performed to determine if it was cancerous.
“Cancer? 21-year-olds don’t get breast cancer,” I thought to myself. Even though at this point my gut told me otherwise.
I sat in the clinic’s waiting room again 5 days later, mentally preparing to have a large biopsy needle stuck inside of me. My worrying was only interrupted by a nurse asking me what I had planned for the summer. I told her about my trip, which was exactly a month away, knowing that I would not be going on it.
The next 3 days felt like a lifetime as I anxiously awaited the call. My phone finally rang on Thursday morning when I was getting ready for physical chemistry class. One sentence is all it took for every big plan I had for the year to change.
“I’m so sorry to tell you that you have invasive ductal carcinoma.”
Although it’s been over 3 years since I received that call, I still get chills remembering the feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and confusion that followed it. The stress-free senior year that I had planned out perfectly was overthrown by fertility preservation, 5 months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 5 weeks of radiation. Not to mention the countless blood draws that forced me to overcome my fear of needles or the global pandemic that disrupted the entire world.
My breast cancer diagnosis helped me appreciate the unpredictability of life. It pushed me to live each day to the fullest and try not to worry about what tomorrow might bring. Although I still use an agenda each year, I leave a little more space in it now for the unexpected.
To connect with other breast cancer survivors, join our Breast Cancer Facebook Support Group.
Photo Credit: Mikolette / iStock via Getty Images Plus
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