A positive road to overcoming breast cancer
I had the opportunity to get to know Alex through one of my favorite restaurants that we frequented over the years. Her lust for life and go-getter work mentality is something that I admired. When I learned about her diagnosis, I was shocked and saddened. I knew how excited she was about her future nuptials and newly purchased home. Her strength and attitude throughout her journey inspired me to share her story with all of you. She reminds me of how important it is to be strong and positive even during our darkest days.
I am a 31-year-old breast cancer survivor. Yes, you read that right; I am young. I was living my best life, newly engaged and planning a wedding. Then life threw the biggest curve ball—and my whole world came crashing down around me. Little did I know, through my journey, I would discover a resilience deep within me that would reshape my outlook on life.
Since I was a little girl, all I wanted was to get married and have a family. I grew up in a big family, the nurturing eldest of five siblings. Our full, slightly chaotic house was consistently hustling and bustling with kids and pets—and we all loved it. My parents’ bond and love for each other and us kids was a wonderful model. They also instilled in me the value of hard work and the importance of being a self-starter, so when I entered adulthood I was prepared for what lay ahead in life.
Fast forward: I graduated with a couple of degrees and found my art in the hospitality industry where I met my fiancé, Jeff. Life was grand. We had just bought a home and were planning a wedding when I discovered a lump on my breast.
The roadblocks to a “free mammogram”
When I found the lump, I was in between jobs and had no insurance. So I immediately reached out to a few organizations advertising free mammograms. It was October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I thought getting a screening would be relatively simple. I came across an organization that led me to believe they provided mammograms regardless of age, ethnicity, race, or income. To my astonishment, I was told, “NO.” I contacted another organization only to be told the same thing.
I did not meet the requirements for a free mammogram because I was under 40 and did not have enough symptoms. How does a lump not qualify as the be-all and end-all of symptoms? Frustrated at the lack of compassion and professionalism, I turned to my mother for support. Mom to the rescue: She reached out to the ob-gyn who delivered all five of her kids; without hesitation, he saw me right away.
My life changed October 17, 2019, when I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Breast Cancer, HER2+. Prior to this, I was a healthy 30-year-old woman with zero history of breast cancer on either side of my family. I praise Dr. Kett for his humanitarian approach to medicine. If it weren’t for him, I might not have been here today to share my story.
Breaking the news
I was sad and confused. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want to tell my future husband. I didn’t want to tell my mom. “My poor family,” I thought. How do you tell your family that the same daughter, sister, and fiancée who was smiling, laughing, and full of life yesterday has breast cancer today?
When I did break the news to my family, I could see a little piece in all of them shatter—but they immediately rallied around me and blanketed me with unconditional love and support. Jeff struggled with the news at first, but he, too, reiterated his love for me and committed to battling this together.
A roller coaster of emotions
From my initial diagnosis to my first chemotherapy treatment on December 17, 2019, I was a legit hot mess. I owned every feeling that swept through me. I cried A LOT. It didn’t matter where or with whom; I was releasing a tremendous amount of grief and sorrow for myself. I questioned my eternal presence here on earth, my purpose.
Then one day like flipping a light switch, the crying stopped. The diagnosis bruised my ego, and I was angry. “Why me?” Life was perfect, and now I would not be able to have my beautiful wedding in May 2020 (my thoughts pre-COVID-19, of course). My signature long blonde hair was going to fall out. I didn’t know how my body would be affected, if I would be able to have children.
The power of positivity
My angry thoughts swiftly spiraled into questioning my relationship with God. I had some deep conversations with the man upstairs, and each day it became a little easier to wrap my head around all of this. I spent a lot of time at my parents’ house; their love supported Jeff and me. One night, we were telling stories and I laughed hard—a big boisterous laugh—and my family lit up. I smiled again, and their reaction was one of hope. Bingo! My positive attitude lifted the mood, and I needed to feel that normalcy again. I realized this journey needed to be one of positivity and love for my family and myself.
When life challenges us, we can either break down with sorrow or rise up with strength. And I chose to put on the “brave face”—like the Nat King Cole song: “If you smile through your fear and sorrow, Smile and maybe tomorrow, You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.” There were days when all I wanted was to curl up in my mother’s arms and sob. However, I had to be strong for them, for me. It became routine for me, like getting ready for work. Some days were easier than others; nevertheless, it was working and my community of support felt more at ease.
Jeff and I wanted nothing more than to have a family, and I’d be damned if I allowed this cancer to dictate the rest of my life. I met with a genetic counselor and discovered I did not have the breast cancer gene, and that cleared me to begin my in vitro fertilization journey. It was a rough go. The IVF made me moody and caused abdominal pain. Chemotherapy and radiation came in fast on top of that. My breasts were atrophying from the radiation, and my hair was rapidly falling out. But there was victory in the IVF treatment; we harvested 47 eggs—woohoo!
I had an entourage of friends and family volunteering to sit with me during my treatments. It broke my heart to see the other people alone time after time. I couldn’t imagine doing this by myself, so I would crack jokes and spark up conversation. We became familiar with each other’s stories and celebrated one another’s milestones. I celebrated my 31st birthday with my mom, while receiving chemotherapy surrounded by balloons.
After the six rounds of chemotherapy, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy. This was not a hard decision to make when the doctor put it in perspective: “It took 30 years to grow this tumor, why wait around another 30 years for another one?” For personal reasons I decided for reconstructive surgery; however, I applaud women who opt out of breast reconstruction surgery. The scars I do wear will always be a part of me, and all of our scars are reminders of our strength and resilience.
Six rounds of chemotherapy, 33 radiation treatments, IVF, and double mastectomy all in one year. I’ve cried, screamed, postponed my wedding, and questioned my spirituality. Yet I discovered a strength I never knew I had. The power of positivity was my lifeline throughout my battle. Looking back on this past year, I know I am not the same woman I was a year ago. The challenges I faced have reshaped my perspective on life. I’m still coming out of the woods, so the bigger picture may not be clear. However, I hope to keep the positivity going and advocate for other women who face similar struggles seeking a mammogram.