What I Wish I Knew Before I Was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at 36
In 2015, my life was flipped upside down. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36 during the most successful season my company had ever experienced up to that point. Suddenly, I was snapped out of the world I had created for myself, and I was forced to grapple with the fact that I was now battling a very serious, life-threatening illness. Everything I thought I knew about my health and longevity was turned on its head.
With Breast Cancer Awareness Month here and with so many young women being diagnosed with this disease every day, I wanted to take a moment and share some of the many things I wish I knew before my diagnosis. Maybe knowing these things would’ve made my diagnosis less of a shock, but then again, maybe not. Even still, knowing more than I did would’ve definitely prepared me for what was to come, or it could’ve even prevented my cancer from developing in the first place.
Either way, I hope these facts shine a light on the realities of breast cancer for you and shows you that you’re not alone if you’ve found yourself where many women have been before. I wish you health, I wish you peace, and I wish you unrelenting hope.
- Even if cancer doesn’t run in my family, I can still get it.
Before my diagnosis, I thought if there was no family history of breast cancer, I was in the clear. In fact, I didn’t even think of the possibility of developing cancer—I mean, who does, really? I thought cancer was mostly hereditary, so it never crossed my mind that I was at risk. Perhaps if I had known what I know now, I could’ve done more in terms of educating myself about the risk factors involved. The truth is more than 89% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease and less than 10% have a known gene mutation that increases risk.
- If I maintained a healthy lifestyle—exercising, eating right, limiting alcohol—I could still develop cancer.
Sadly, cancer doesn’t really care about your egg-white omelets or your green juice. While leading a healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce your chances of developing all types of diseases and illnesses, cancer is a whole different beast. Some people are just predisposed to it no matter what, and no amount of healthy foods or exercise can really change the chemistry of one’s body. It’s certainly worth maintaining a healthy lifestyle regardless, as there are many health benefits associated with taking care of yourself inside and out, but it’s not a guarantee of warding off cancer. I would also caution young women to know that “healthy” means also dealing with past trauma, forgiving and letting go of past hurts, and removing toxic people from your life. Once we learn to expand the definition of “healthy” we can do a better job of taking care of ourselves more holistically.
- Getting annual mammograms does not guarantee that cancer will be detected.
Ladies, please still get your annual mammograms! But like any medical test, mammograms are not infallible. They can, on rare occasions, produce false-negative results, meaning test results look normal even though there is cancer present. While they are not the be-all and end-all, they do an amazing job of detecting early stages of cancer growth. The truth is that eight out of ten lumps are non cancerous, and in nearly forty percent of breast cancer cases the woman (or man) found the lump themselves, making self detection and early detection key to saving lives.
- Early-stage breast cancer, like all forms of cancer, can recur without warning.
Cancer, even in its early stages, is sneaky and can recur at any time. Although most people with early-stage breast cancer don’t have a recurrence, the risk is never completely eliminated. That’s why it’s important to continue taking preventative measures, like annual/bi-annual mammograms and oncology check-ups, to make sure any recurrences are caught early.
- Excessive drinking contributes to the development of cancer.
Like many unhealthy habits, excessive drinking can contribute in a big way to the development of many cancers, including breast cancer. Alcohol itself is known to increase the amount of estrogen in the body, which can contribute to hormonally sensitive breast cancer, like the one I had. The amount of stress excessive alcohol puts on your body systems definitely plays a role in the degradation of your immune system, and it can help cancer cells spread more quickly and aggressively. I wish in my 20s I would have known about the risks associated with drinking as I had way more than the recommended four to six drinks a week. This applies to wine, beer, and hard liquor. It is the alcohol that matters, not the form of alcohol you drink. If you do drink, they say its best to consume red wine, because it has the least amount of sugar.
- Breast cancer doesn’t always come in the form of a lump you can physically feel.
This piece of information came as a shock to me because so often, we are told to check our breasts for lumps as a preventative measure. Although breast lumps are definitely a cause for concern, breast cancer doesn’t always make itself known with a lump. This is yet another reason why regular mammogram screenings are important for early detection.
- Breast cancer, like other forms of cancer, are treated in various ways.
Before I was diagnosed, I thought all cancers were treated the same way: with radiation, chemotherapy, and a potential mastectomy. So needless to say, I was pretty surprised to find out that there are many ways breast cancer is treated, and it all depends upon a few factors: its size, stage, and grade, whether it was inherited from a parent or not, and the patient’s preferences. In this day an age, doctors are using precision and individualized medicine to treat cancer, so it’s hard to compare your experience/diagnosis with any other patient, because your biology is so different.
- Middle-aged and older women are not the only ones who can develop breast cancer.
While the chances of a younger woman developing breast cancer are low, it is still very possible. I was 36 when I was diagnosed, which shocked me beyond belief. Not only was the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer jarring, but then I had to cope with the fact that I was relatively young for a disease I thought only women in their fifties and older could get. This is why I urge all women, no matter their age, to get their annual mammograms done; it could really be the difference between life and death. Again, breast cancer doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, race, income, or family upbringing. It’s important to know you’re at risk.
- Unfortunately, dealing with breast cancer is not over when treatment is complete.
Although the initial burden has passed, breast cancer can have a lasting impact on people’s lives and well-being. Depending on the type of treatment that’s used, side effects can follow a patient for a while after treatment is over. Some side effects include chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, and fear of recurrence. While these side effects are significantly better than cancer itself, they can still be very challenging and life-altering.
- Having cancer does not define me.
As I discussed in my book, This Is Only a Test: What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Faith, Love, Hair and Marriage, I struggled with coming to terms with my diagnosis. Like many women, my world fell apart with that news, and it seemed as if the only thing that mattered after that was that I was a cancer patient. I soon realized that staying in that mindset was causing me just as much harm as the cancer itself. I had to remind myself almost on a daily basis that cancer did not define me; it was merely an unforeseen circumstance in my life path. This realization changed the game for me, and it made me see my life in a new perspective. Either I could give in and let cancer beat me down, or I could rise up and fight with everything I had in me. I chose the latter.
Speaking the truth about breast cancer has become an extremely important part of my life. Since my diagnosis, I have become an advocate for women and men everywhere who battle this illness, often in silence. The tgin Foundation Waiting Room Project allows me to continue my advocacy work and become a new voice in the conversation around how breast cancer impacts women, specifically women of color. I hope to eliminate health disparities that face our community by raising awareness and staying active in the cause, even in my remission.
What myths surrounding breast cancer have you taken as fact?