Thinking back to when I was 29 yrs old the entire year was a send off to my 20s, and I consistently dreaded my 30th Birthday. The number 30 hit me like a load of bricks, and I could imagine each brick having a responsible adult milestone on it…shouldn’t I be married by now, shouldn’t I be considering having kids already, how much do I have in my 401K and will I be able to retire ever?
From the minute the clock struck midnight, things started to feel off. I turned thirty at the end of December in 2016, and I went directly into the New Year feeling lost, confused, and unfulfilled. Little did I know the cause of this mood swing I was having, was something so much more than just a silly 30th birthday.
I want to go into more detail on how I was feeling physically and emotionally well before my diagnosis in another post, but for now I’m going to jump ahead to October 2017.
By October I was trying to find ways to turn my depressive mood around. The dance company I am in had started rehearsals that summer and ran through October until the show in November. So at the time I was trying to distract myself with that, along with getting back into a more defined fitness routine. I started taking Yoga and Barre classes before my rehearsals and this particular Thursday (October 5th, 2017) I decided to take a Barre class for full body strengthening. The class included a lot of upper body exercises which left me fatigued and sore, so the next morning when I woke up with a weird pain in my right chest area, I was not immediately alarmed.
The pain I felt is hard to explain….it was sharp, and felt like something was blocked in my right breast. If I can try to equate it to a more common pain, I would say it felt similar to having a lactic acid build up when you’re out for a run and you have a “runners cramp”. But it was a more defined pain in terms of where it generated from. It felt like there was a core to the pain, and it was radiating from a certain spot. Never once when I first felt the pain did I think “Cancer”, I assumed I had hurt a nerve from the class the night before, and I continued on with my day. It wasn’t until that evening when I got back from work and I picked up my dog (he’s a pekingese-poodle mix), situating him on the right side of my body, when I felt the pain electrocute through my right breast. In an effort to stop the pain I rubbed at my breast and in that instance I felt something strange.
Taking it back for a second to add a bit of context- before my diagnosis I had very small breasts. I was about a 34A, and that was pushing it because I never really filled that size even. For some reason, this weird altered reality called my brain, made me believe that I would never be faced with breast cancer because my boobs were so small there wasn’t anywhere for Cancer to grow in them. Yes, I know what you might be thinking, what the hell were you on thinking like that? Trust me I ask myself the same question looking back at that stupid thought of mine.
Resuming the events on Friday Oct 6th 2017, at around 4:00pm, I started examining my right breast because of the electric pain that had gotten worse over the course of the day. Sure enough I felt a hard, non-mobile lump right beneath my nipple. The lump extended a bit to the right of my nipple as well (towards my arm pit). I remember examining it for about 5 mins, all the blood draining from my face as this was happening. Cancer has been my worst fear since I was 8 yrs old, was I really feeling something that could be Cancerous? No way…Look forward to a post soon about the anxiety I’ve dealt with on my biggest fear up to this point.
I immediately opened my ZocDoc app and found the gynecologist’s number whom I had seen exactly a year prior. My physical breast exam in October 2016 had been fine….so this had to be nothing right? This was my brain’s consistent attempt to calm my increasing anxiety. I called the office to make an appointment for as soon as possible, but was surprised to hear the Doctor I had seen was no longer with that practice. Full panic mode commences….
Frantically I started looking up another Doctor who had an available appointment (preferably that same day since I knew I would not stop thinking about the lump over the entire weekend). I needed answers fast, and I was able to find a gynecologist who had an opening at 5:45pm that same night. He had a decent review, so I booked it.
Once I had everything booked, I called my boyfriend, who was still at work, and let him know what was happening. The entire conversation consisted of me hyperventilating and speaking in broken sentences. He was able to piece everything together and knows how big of a fear Cancer is for me, but like the rational side of my brain he also attempted to calm me down and say it was probably nothing, but it’s good I’m going to get it checked. He can attest that I need a Doctor to put my mind at ease in these situations so naturally I was rushing to one, and he wasn’t going to stop me. Being the amazing support he is, he told me he would meet me there so I texted him the address and ran out my door (literally).
The doctor confirmed what I felt was a lump, but given I was only 30 he said it could be so many benign things and he really did not seem worried. He told me I should not be anxious but he would like for me to get a sonogram instead of a mammogram because pre-menopausal women have denser breast tissue and a mammogram won’t pick up everything. At this point he just wanted to check the box that this was nothing to worry about….
Since this all happened on a Friday evening, I had to go into the weekend continuing to tell myself over and over that nothing was wrong. The Doctor was not worried so why should I be? Yes I had to get a sonogram which meant it could be something, but I’m only 30 years old and I’m healthy. I was able to partially distract myself up until Monday October 9th, Columbus Day, and I knew Doctors offices reopened. I was visiting my family in Connecticut that weekend so I called my old gynecologist’s office for their recommendation on a sonogram facility. They were able to get me an appointment that afternoon! My anxiety was doing backflips to celebrate how quickly I would be putting this in the past. I just needed them to confirm it was nothing and I could continue on with my life.
The sonogram was pretty straight forward. It was very painful for them to press down on the lump with the transducer. It was that same electric type of pain that coursed through the area as they took images of the mass over and over again. At the end of the examine I was told to wait for the radiologist, who wanted to talk with me. I did not like the sound of that. I had never been asked to talk to a Doctor immediately after an imaging test.
The radiologist was a sweet older lady, I would guess in her early 60s, she had a warm, caring disposition which for the first couple of minutes made the conversation feel less daunting. She sat down across from me in the tiny consult room and said “We see two masses in your right breast. It’s unclear what they are but I suggest you go straight to a biopsy”. Tears immediately filled my eyes and I could feel the anxiety creeping up in my throat. I asked what she suspected these masses to be? I also mentioned the vigorous workout I had on Thursday evening, grasping at strings of what could have caused this. She noted it and nodded in response – she felt like it was possible I had something called a hematoma which is caused by trauma, but she still wanted to biopsy just to rule anything else out. She, like the gynecologist, left it off with “You’re so young, this is most likely nothing. We see this all the time with young women and we do this as a precaution”. And so I started to believe…
I scheduled the biopsy for that same week on Wednesday October 11th. My best friend from home offered to take the morning off from work and come with me to the procedure, she knew I was nervous, and gladly accepted her offer. My nerves were really focused on how the procedure would feel. I have anxieties about weird bodily sensations like being numb, or being positioned in a weird way and being told not to move. I’m better at dealing with pain but when I feel like I cannot control an area of my body or when I’m stuck in a position that isn’t comfortable, that is when my mind wanders and my anxiety floods my veins. I knew having a friend with me would help curb those thoughts.
The biopsy procedure was indeed strange. I surprised myself with how calm I was throughout. I was brought into a small surgical room, and told to lay on my left side. The radiologist who had consulted with me that past Monday came in to do the procedure. I had to contort my body a bit and twist enough so she could have a good angle for my right breast, which was far from comfortable. They put surgical dressing over my chest which only had an opening for my one boob and it covered most of my face. However I was able to see the ultrasound machine which, looking back was probably my anxiety warden that day. She cleaned the area and started by giving me local anesthetic all around where the lump was. Once I was numb enough to begin she used the ultrasound transducer to locate the two masses. I was able to watch this all on the screen. As she located each one she then would insert a hallow needle through the skin all the way to the very edge of the mass. She had to adjust this a couple times in order to make sure she had the best angle to gather the optimal sample. Once this was aligned she inserted a smaller needle into the hallow one. When it was lined up at the end of the hallow needle she told me to take a deep breath and as I exhaled she released the needle which made a loud clicking noise and I could feel a tug in my right breast. As I watched on the screen I could see the needle strike the mass and retract. She told me this was how they gathered samples of the mass to test. She did this three times on each mass. At the end of each gathering she then inserted a uniquely shaped metal clip into each of the masses. These each were about the size of a small nail head and is inserted so Doctors can easily locate the masses at a later time. It also signifies that they have tested those masses in the past, in case they don’t need to remove them. I went home afterwards feeling extremely sore but over the counter pain meds did the trick.
The rest of the week I distracted myself with work. I had scheduled an appointment at 5pm that coming Friday October 13th (yes – Friday the 13th) so I didn’t have many days to wait until I could finally put this past me…or so I thought at the time. When Friday rolled around I jokingly said to my boss “5pm seals my fate” as we laughed about how dramatic that sounded. Humor was my defense mechanism and it worked for me up until the minute I walked into the consult room at the radiologists office. I had my boyfriend and mom in tow for this appointment, all of us laughing and joking about how it would take all of five minutes for them to tell us it was nothing and we could leave to get dinner. As my name was called I began walking towards the nurse, I asked her “is it ok if my boyfriend and mom come in with me?” She replied “this is going to be an intimate conversation so as long as you’re ok with it”. From the second she said that my heart dropped. It was the tone of voice she used when she said it that was dripping with dread. I took one look at Phill and I could tell he wanted to punch this woman in the face. We were seated in a small consult room and as soon as the nurse left I started panicking. Phill voiced his opinion that the nurse just did not have good bed side manner and that she should not have said that to me, she just created more anxiety where it’s not needed. My mom agreed. I tried to still my rapid heart but I did not have much time as the Radiologist and nurse walked into the room.
The radiologist took a seat and put a packet of papers down on the desk. She looked at me and asked “Now Danielle, do you have a history of breast cancer in your family?”. The blood drained from my face sinking all the way to my toes, and the room started spinning. “No…” I replied in a stammering voice “we only have one great aunt on my mom’s side who’s ever had it”. That’s when she dropped the news and my whole world flipped upside down and backwards. “We found breast cancer in both of the masses”. After those words her voice turned into the teacher from The Peanuts nothing made sense. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t respond. Tears welled up in my eyes and my soul left my body. It was like I wasn’t me anymore. All I could imagine was black with big red type over it “CANCER”. The nurse saw my panic and came over to me, looked me straight in the eyes and said “you are going to survive this, you caught it early and you did all the right things. I’ve seen young woman in the same situation as you and all of them survived”. It was a big promise to make, but it was what I needed to hear in that moment. The doctor continued telling me the details of my tumors which at the time meant absolutely nothing to me. I could not form words let alone comprehend all the information that was being thrown at me.
The nurse had me leave with her and go into a small exam room, just to check on how I was healing after the Biopsy. I left the radiologist, my mom and boyfriend in the consult room. I needed a second away from them. Once I walked into the exam room I broke down even further. I felt like I was going to faint, and I kept saying over and over “This can’t be happening – I don’t want to die”. The nurse hugged me and let me have my moment, but she was adamant on my survival, and for that I am incredibly grateful. The radiologist joined us and shared her story of a similar diagnosis of breast cancer she had over 20 years ago. She looked at me and said “If I can beat it, so can you”. Those two incredibly strong women provided me motivation and confidence. To this day their words have continued to fuel my willingness to fight.
From that initial diagnosis the most I could gather, since I had no prior knowledge of the disease, was I had two tumors, both small at about 1cm or less which showed Invasive ductal carcinoma. This meant that the cancer started in the milk ducts, but the invasive part meant that it has now broken through the milk duct wall and has the ability to spread to surrounding tissue or other areas of the body. I learned there is also a hormonal component to breast cancer, and for me both my tumors are estrogen receptor positive and progesterone receptor positive. Additionally at that point we did not know the status of another hormone called HER2 – this test needed further time in the lab to come back with a report, I later found out my Cancer is HER2 negative.
The radiologist guesstimated Stage 1 but she couldn’t officially say, that would be up to a breast surgeon and oncologist to determine based on procedures and tests I needed next. I’ll talk more about the details of my diagnosis in another post, at this point all I knew was at age 30, I was just diagnosed with breast cancer on Friday October 13th (what a cruel joke Universe)…and I could not stop the tears the entire night. I called my sister, my dad, my therapist, I texted my closest friends, and I’m not exactly sure what I said to each of them or even if I was able to articulate anything substantial. All I know is that I cried more than I ever have in my life. That night was filled with unknowns, questions, research, out of body experiences, silences, tears upon tears, and staring at my biggest fear right in the face….The strangest part with facing my biggest fear is that I’m staring at myself in the mirror. My biggest fear is inside of me like an alien that needed to be removed and discarded immediately.
I took the weekend to process as much as possible. So many things ran through my head. Why me? I’m only 30 yrs old and I just happen to fall in the 2-5% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at this age. I’ve always been conscious of my health by being active, eating healthy foods, and maintaining my weight. How could this happen? What did I do wrong? I felt so out of control because there is not an answer to why this happened and what caused it.
I talked to a nurse consultant who walked through my pathology report in more detail so I could start to understand what I was dealing with. I cried out the remainder of my mixed bag of emotions and I started to pull myself out of the hole I wanted to hide in. I knew I had to fight and my mind kicked into survival mode. I was not going to let my biggest fear, Cancer, take my life, and I knew by the end of that weekend I was ready to do whatever it took to demolish it….
I hope this post brought some awareness to Breast Cancer, and how it can effect people both young and old. I have a lot more details to share in upcoming posts, since I know this was just the tip of the iceberg. This story was meant to share the experiences I went through to get to my diagnosis, and let you all in on the most vulnerable and scariest moment of my life. I hope to be informative but also motivational as I continue to create posts about my experiences and how Cancer has altered my lifestyle. For anyone going through a similar situation or another tough experience (everyone has something they are struggling with) – I am here to say no matter what it is, life is worth living, and part of life is feeling good and bad emotions and experiencing both amazing and incredibly hard situations. It’s how we push through the hard times that make us even stronger. Every time I need a reminder of this I like to look at the following quote….
“I’m thankful for my struggle, because with out it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength” – Alex Elle
Thank you for reading! – Leave any comments or questions below