September 30th, 2018 was one of the best days of my life. It was a perfect day; 70 degrees, sunny, and not a cloud in the sky. My boyfriend had just proposed to me after eight years of dating in front of the fountain at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, PA. I remember joyfully screaming yes and the crowd that had formed around us cheering. My most vivid memory was looking up towards the Duquesne Incline and specifically thinking that we were unstoppable. In my mind, nothing in the world could ever bring us down. Little did I know that not even twenty hours later my life would change forever.
At the age of 23, I was diagnosed with stage III, triple positive breast cancer. Two months beforehand I had woken up to a peculiar sight one groggy morning. After stepping out of the shower I saw that my right nipple had become inverted, seemingly overnight. At the time, I was working a job that required me to do a fair amount of heavy lifting, and I figured that this was some sort of injury. I had no indicators of any sort of lump, but after a month of no improvement I called my OB’s office to schedule a breast check. I don’t think that either the office scheduler or I had any inkling of the severity of the situation. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to push for a sooner appointment rather than wait a whole month for the first available opening. It all happened so fast.
The initial appointment on a Friday morning turned into an urgent order for extensive testing on Monday, October 1st. If I’m being honest, I was too busy showing off my new ring to all of the gowned women in the waiting room to notice that I was the youngest one there by far. The next morning I continued to talk about my wedding ideas to the doctor as she completed my needle biopsy. The irony of me talking about my future plans to a room full of people who thought that I was going to die is not lost on me.
After 20 rounds of two separate varieties of chemotherapies, 30 rounds of radiation, 4 surgeries, and 3 years of maintenance medications, I am deemed “no evidence of disease”. Just because I have no detectable cancer growth does not mean that I “beat cancer” in my opinion. Cancer hits everyone differently. Cancer during your formative year's hits very differently.
We don’t have the opportunity for job security, PTO, more than a few months of savings, and the ability to get a life insurance policy for our loved ones who we will probably leave behind much too soon. We don't have enough income for stable housing or healthy foods, time or energy to put into a committed relationship. We don't have access to some of the latest tests or medical breakthroughs/treatments because they’re considered “experimental” and insurance won’t cover them, or even the funds to cover non-traditional treatment options like acupuncture or massage to help with the painful side effects of chemo or radiation. Don’t even get me started on the lack of compassion and accessibility around infertility treatments/family planning options and the chronic health issues that many young adults deal with for the rest of their lives as a result of the life saving measures they took in their 20’s. And somehow, after all of this and more, we are expected to just understand how to fit into society and pay the mounting medical bills with little help from our government and hospital providers.
In regard to where we have to go from here with Breast Cancer Awareness, I truly believe that the narrative of it being “your mom’s disease” has to change. The rate of diagnosis among 20–30-year-olds is rising, yet when I look at some of the strongest and loudest advocates in this field, they are decades older than me. Our society is well aware of what Breast Cancer is, so now the focus must shift to funneling funds towards metastatic research, comprehensive screenings and education for anyone of childbearing age, and government-funded medical assistance that includes fertility benefits and no-interest adoption loans for those diagnosed under the age of 35.
There is beauty in survivorship.
There is heartache in survivorship.
Survivorship is forever and it isn’t linear.
I wake up every single day so incredibly grateful to be alive and end it knowing that my long-term prognosis is still tied to scientific breakthroughs that we don’t have yet. The only reason that I’ve made it as far as I’ve had in this journey is because of the Lord and the village He has provided me.