You know how lumpy you sometimes are in your breasts before you get your period? That's what I thought, one day I felt in the shower in January 2016.
I was 22 years old and lived at home in West Palm Beach, Florida, between graduating and completing my master's degree in forensic psychology. I demolished the boob thing. At the time, I was busy caring for my grandmother, who had just undergone a double mastectomy to treat breast cancer. I had gained weight and felt particularly tired, but it was not until June when I noticed the lump again that I asked my mother to feel it.
At that point, the mass was as big and hard as a golf ball – my mother insisted that I see a doctor immediately. Days later, my GP prescribed an ultrasound for me the same day. When the technician saw my scan, she sent me to emergency mammography. My next stop was oncology. I tried not to twitch as a new doctor put a needle into my right breast for about as long as my hand. I felt pressure until the tip pierced the mass so dense that it hit the needle. The doctor had to wiggle his shaft to get him out of me.
On August 9, the tests confirmed that I had stage 1 breast cancer, a species that has not yet spread and is generally treatable. pfff, I thought. I did not want to let it knock me down.
Nevertheless, I was paranoid, it would metastasize and I wanted to get it out of me yesterday. First, however, the doctors had to shrink the mass with eight chemotherapy rounds. Only then could they safely remove my two breasts – the right one to cut out the tumor, and the left one to prevent the disease from spreading.
The plan was aggressive, as was my illness. In the two weeks between my diagnosis and the first step – an operation to implant a chemotherapy port into my chest – it went to stage 3, that is, it had spread to nearby lymph nodes. This did not surprise my doctors, who already knew that my hormones were feeding the cancer. While they wanted to speed up my treatment, we had to wait for my port wound to heal.
My first four infections with chemo have seriously tested my resolve. In addition to acquiring strange cravings (chemo can change your sense of taste) for spicy foods and Chef Boyardee, I constantly felt sick and exhausted.
When showering a few days after my first treatment, I noticed that a tuft of hair was forming towards the drain. When I went to the chemo, my biggest fear was losing my almost hip-length hair. Without her I would look sick – and for what? Why should it have to go while the cancer has remained? For the first time, I really cried. When my 23rd birthday ran in the fall, I was bald.
As I also underwent separate treatments to increase my white blood cells, pain flowed through my bones. At some point after my third treatment, walking was so unbearable – I had to bow down like an old lady – that I was ready to give up. I told my family it was time to let me go.
I seldom left my home between treatments and doctor visits, but when I did that, I stopped. My skin was pale and painful to the touch – pain and skin changes are possible side effects of chemotherapy – so I wore a lot of things for the sake of convenience. And although we lived in sunny South Florida, I avoided wigs – they made me funny – for caps. Once, during a shopping night with my mother, I noticed an elderly couple in a department store staring at me and mumbling. I lost it.
"What's the problem? What's so funny? I have cancer!" I exclaimed as they quickly disappeared on the shelves, never imagining that the world was so cruel-myself included.
My then boyfriend Louis tried to make me go out, but it was hard for me to feel attractive if none of my date dresses fit. The chemo and steroids I prescribed made me 20 pounds.
In restaurants my eyes would flit between all the women with long, flowing hair, and I feel inadequate. Although Louis insisted I be beautiful, my tank self-esteem became a source of conflict. He wanted me to feel safer. I just wanted to be understood: I felt ugly.
When my eyelashes and eyebrows dropped out towards the end of my chemotherapy in December, I counted Netflix among my best friends.
My tumor had shrunk to a quarter when I came to my double mastectomy in February. Since nipples can carry cancerous cells, my should be completely removed, breast tissue and fat scraped out and my A-cups replaced with B-size expanders that slide under my pectoral muscles and gradually stretch the skin until my wounds are healed enough to implant to be used.
Before surgery, I got a lymph node biopsy, and when I woke up from the eight-hour surgery, I felt someone had stabbed me. Drainpipes on both sides of my chest made it hard for me to lift my arms, and in the first two or three weeks I needed my parents or Louis, who was just 23, to help me go to the bathroom and to eat and take a shower.
Days after the mastectomy I received the results of the biopsy: one contained microscopic cancer cells. After so hard a fight, the loss of all hair and breasts, the disease had spread further. I never felt beaten again.
A dangerous setback
When February went into March, my mother noticed that the skin on my left expander was turning purple. The area felt soft and soggy – a sign that I believed was the regrowth of tissue until I started to get a fever and chills. Over the course of a few days, my fever worsened.
I saw a doctor put a needle in my left expander and take out enough dark green liquid to fill two vials. Somehow I had contracted Staph infections – a potentially deadly infection that may come from contamination that you are particularly prone to with cancer. Cancer first, and now Staph is trying to kill me ?!
The same day, I was put in emergency surgery to have my expander replaced. I have to wait and see how my body reacts to the new placeholder for implants. Another infection would render me incapable of reconstruction, which means I have a flat chest forever.
Fortunately, the replacement went without complications and I went home with oral antibiotics the same day. The biggest problem: I needed a radiation treatment to fight off the last amounts of cancer, but I could not be treated until my chest was completely healed.
The prospect of having to wait another second to fight my illness overwhelmed me. It had already spread – and fast. I felt at the border, as if I wanted it out, I could not stop imagining the disease that metastasizes within me.
In June 2017 I got my real implants. In July, six months after stopping chemotherapy and four months after my bilateral mastectomy, I went to my first treatment appointment.
Radiation does not hurt, but over time, the skin surrounding the area being laser-treated may burn. I needed 30 laps. Every time I went to the treatment, I saw patients in the waiting room spitting out charred skin from under their clothes.
One month after the radiation, I felt more like me. I had huddled during my recovery for study purposes, received my Master of Science in Forensic Psychology, and graduated with honors.
But then Groundhog Day
In November I went to a PET scan. "Do not freak out," my oncologist warned. My thyroid was lit in the scan. I need an ultrasound, then a mammogram, then a biopsy. I had the feeling that I am living again from breast cancer.
Days later, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. (Although it was not from my breast cancer, the two can be linked.) I was ready to fight it – nothing compares to what I've been through – but I wondered what else for me was in stock.
In December, I had a complete thyroidectomy. For the rest of my life, I take a thyroid medication and temporarily get hormone injections every three months. Shutting down my reproductive system can reduce the likelihood that my cancer will come back.
Restore lost time
These three years fighting cancer? Of course, they reset me. From a professional point of view, I'm not where I thought I was 25 years old. I can not afford to leave my parents' house while paying medical bills. And I want to go back to New York City, where I was born, but I can not, because every six months I have to see my doctors in Florida.
Things are not perfect and will never be perfect. I have hot flashes and get tired. I am obsessed with new bald spots on my scalp that are still a side effect of my thyroid medications. At some point, I need a hysterectomy to permanently stop my ovaries from producing hormones that could increase my risk of recurrence. And who knows if I'll ever be able to carry my own child. If I exposed myself to a pregnancy hormone after I diagnosed a hormone-related cancer, I could be in danger.
That means, I'm happy. Last spring, Louis made a suggestion for Harry Potter's wizarding world at Universal Studios, and we got married in February.
And in December, a routine PET scan confirmed that I was finally cancer free. After everything I've been through, I feel healthy. Every scar on my body reminds me how strong I am. I showed cancer, the boss is.
Chief editor for fitness and health
Elizabeth Narins is a Brooklyn, NY based author and former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan.com, where she wrote about fitness, health and more.
A coffee break in the United States and elsewhere is a short rest period granted to employees in business and industry. An afternoon coffee break, or afternoon tea, often occurs as well.