As an almost-two-year breast cancer survivor, I don’t pay much attention to the pink that inevitably appears in October. That said, one message I wish would get more awareness is that young women can get it.
It’s not as common to develop it in your 30s – or even 20s – but it happens. I was 33 when I was diagnosed. Since then, I’ve learned of eight other women who were around my age when they developed it. Two of them were diagnosed and treated while pregnant (both of them have healthy baby girls now), and two of them died from it.
Thankfully, I caught mine early. It was stage II and had spread to only one lymph node. It was relatively easy to treat, and the chances of it returning are miniscule.
I caught it early by the grace of God. A few months before I found the lump in my right breast, I learned that I had a great aunt and a second cousin who’d had breast cancer. And my grandmother survived the disease twice.
After hearing about my distant relatives, I had this nagging feeling that I should do a self-exam. I finally did one on Christmas Eve day, 2010. When I felt the lump in my right breast, I shrugged it off as a fibroid. But because of my history, I figured I’d make an appointment to have my OB/GYN check it out.
He said he was “95 percent certain it was a fibroid.” But, again, because of my family history, he had me get a mammogram. After looking at my mammography films, the radiologist told me, “This looks like a fibroid and smells like a fibroid.” Based on my family history, he asked another radiologist to give the films a second look.
Even during my biopsy, I knew it was a fibroid. No one my age gets breast cancer, I thought.
When my OB/GYN called me from his personal cell phone and said “It’s cancer,” I was in shock. His phone call on February 4, 2011, set off a year of three surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy, spine chilling bone pain and the most indescribable nausea – so bad that I often had nightmares that I was pulling wads of hair out of my throat.
My treatment was pretty standard for the type of cancer I had (invasive ductal carcinoma). The difference, though, is that it was hard for me to find other women who’d had to read books to their children about why mommy was losing her hair. There are a few, like my neighbor down the street who was diagnosed 10 weeks after giving birth to twins. And my friend from elementary school, who is about six months behind me in her treatment.
We all thought there was no way we could possibly have breast cancer. But we did. And we survived. And now we read books about what happens when you give a mouse a cookie instead of ones about mommy throwing up all the time.
If you’re reading this and you’re young, please do self-exams and make sure you know your family history (it can run on either your mother or father’s side).
I’m here to tell you it’s survivable if you catch it early and treat it aggressively.
Melanie Medina is a Senior Communications Specialist at Texas Health Resources and a Mom of two.