Two years ago on this day, I found out I had breast cancer. Yes, the dreaded ‘C’ word. This was a shock to me, because to be honest, no one in their early 30s is expected to deal with this, right? At that age, I still feel invincible, and there was no time to contemplate my mortality. I still remember getting the call from the OBGYN office asking me to come in for my results. It was then that I knew it was going to be bad news (why else would they call you in?). In that minute my world changed. At 33 years old, with no family history, I sat there in silence as the doctor told me I had ductal carcinoma-in-situ. That was the bad news; the good news I was told, is that the cancer was caught early and was non-invasive. Yay me?
The truth is, I am lucky. I had the good fortune to go to a doctor who always emphasized the importance of self-examination. My primary care physician, who is an old Japanese man about my dad’s age, always pulled out the chart and painstakingly explained to me what I need to look for when I examine myself. He said to feel for bumps as well as dips when you run your fingers over the breast. The dip occurs when the cancer cells pull on the surrounding cells creating a void. During one of my checks, I found a dip. Not convinced that it was anything to worry about, I put off going to the gynecologist. It was not until a few months later, when I had some free time that I finally decided to go in and get it checked out. The funny thing was, even the gynecologist thought it was nothing to worry about. For a moment I was glad that I was just a hypochondriac. She told me that if I am still concerned, she can send me to get an ultrasound and biopsy of the area, just to put my mind at ease. The rest is history as they say.
The weeks that followed the diagnosis were filled with even more mammograms, biopsies and ultrasounds. The more they looked the more they found – all kinds of bumps that could or could not be malignant. To be safe, they had to check them all. I lost count of the number of times I got stabbed by long scary needles in a semi-dark room. Then afterwards, I had to wait patiently for the result of each of the tests. The waiting and not knowing was all very nerve-wracking.
The cancer became my sole focus outside of work: the appointments, the research, the tests. Everything else was put on hold. Our plans to hike the Inca Trail and explore Australia were postponed indefinitely. This made both of us very sad because we’d planned those trips for awhile. I think that was when it hit me that my life was changing.
Three months after my initial diagnosis, I was scheduled to have my lumpectomy. The surgery went well and I had a relatively short recovery time. I was happy it was over, I thought I beat cancer. That is, until I got the results of my pathology. I was told that the lumpectomy didn’t clear the margins, which meant there were still cancer cells around the edge and I had to go back in for more surgery. This was my lowest point. I thought that I did everything right and got rid of the cancer, only to be told that it’s still there. It was demoralizing. I cried then for the first time since the diagnosis and let it all out, all my fears and frustrations.
Now, I had to decide if I wanted to come back and have another lumpectomy or if I wanted to be more extreme and have the mastectomy. There were many statistics thrown at me from the doctors and the internet. I mulled it over, I reached out to different people who went through the same things and listened to their stories. Then, I decided that I didn’t want to go through what I’d gone through again. I didn’t want to come back every 6 months for a mammogram. I didn’t want to have another biopsy needle stabbed at my chest and I definitely didn’t want to wait to hear that I might have more breast cancer. Everyone’s situation is different, it’s important to listen to what people have to say, but ultimately it’s your decision and you have to do what makes sense for you. So at the end of the day, the decision to get a double mastectomy was easy. I choose to live life on my own terms and not have this fear hanging over me.
Because I caught it early and because I decided to have the mastectomy, I didn’t have to go through radiation or chemotherapy. So 5 months after the first diagnosis, I went into the surgery room again, this time to hopefully get rid of everything. The surgery went longer than expected. I remembered waking up and feeling so much pain. I couldn’t move my arms, in fact, I couldn’t move very much at all. I was so weak. The road to recovery was long and arduous this time. I struggled with my daily stretches just to gain back a fraction of my range of motion. That first week, I could barely walk to the corner of the block before getting completely winded and had to turn back home. I got frustrated that I couldn’t do a lot of simple things that I liked, even weeks after the surgery. My mom was there to encourage me and pushed me to keep at it. But it was worth it, because the final pathology showed that I was clean, no more cancer!
I am lucky that I found it early, some people fought a hard valiant battle and still succumbed to cancer. I am thankful that I have a supportive husband and loving family and friends to help me through the difficult times. After each surgery, we would sit down and plan a short trip somewhere to celebrate. It made me happy to have something to look forward to. I wanted to get better faster so I could travel again. On July 2014, a year after my first surgery, Fausto and I finally made it to Peru and hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. I was afraid that I was not ready, but I had to try. It was something that I didn’t think I would be able to do and it felt so good when I finally did it. I didn’t want cancer to define me, it’s not who I am. I’ve been to many places and seen many beautiful things since that fateful day two years ago. I am grateful that I am still able to do what I love and appreciate it even more.