As told to Nicole Audrey Spector
I am tempted to tell you why I should have found out sooner, but the truth is I had no idea that I should suspect something was wrong. I was still breastfeeding my daughter, so when I felt the hard lump in my right breast, I figured it was related to that. I was, after all, in great health, and always had been.
Perhaps I had a plugged milk duct.
The lump was painful sometimes, but plugged ducts can hurt.
It wasn’t until I stopped breastfeeding my daughter about eight months after I noticed the lump that I became concerned, as did my husband, who encouraged me to have it checked out.
I went to my primary care physician, who told me to get a mammogram. I was only 41, and since I wasn’t aware of breast cancer running in my family, I hadn’t had one before. I was so busy with my then 2-year-old daughter that I put it off for a month. I was also in grief, having lost my father less than a year earlier to pancreatic cancer.
When I finally went in to get the mammogram, I could tell something was wrong just by the look on the technician’s face. She gazed at me with concerned eyes and said, “Why did you wait this long to get this checked out?”
The technician immediately whisked me off for an ultrasound. Afterward, she kept running off to consult the radiologist — until the radiologist himself emerged as though from behind a curtain, like the Wizard of Oz.
That’s when I knew the unthinkable was happening to me: I had breast cancer.
Then, the appointment was over.
“Good luck,” the technician and radiologist said to me.
I guess they’re not allowed to say, “Sorry, we’re pretty sure you have cancer.”
I was scheduled for a biopsy to find out whether the mass — over five centimeters long — was malignant, but a sinking feeling in my stomach and the memory of the worried look on the technician’s face told me that it was.
And I was right. Additionally, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in my right underarm.
Though the results were what I expected, I was still shocked. And I was scared, too — but not for myself. For my daughter, Charlotte. She was still a toddler. She couldn’t even poop by herself!
How would she be able to live without her mother?
The moment I found out that I had cancer (and, based on the size of the lump, had probably had it for years), it was as though the whole world opened up for me. Medical appointments that would normally take months to get were scheduled for within days of my diagnosis. Things moved fast, and I quickly had not only a team of expert doctors at my side, but a comprehensive plan as to how I could best beat the cancer.
I have been fortunate to have an extremely competent team of mostly female doctors working with me. They’re extra thoughtful and caring, and always make sure I’m comfortable.
Fighting cancer has been tough. There’s no other way to put it. It’s scary and it can be overwhelmingly lonely.
Dark thoughts flash: What if this is the end of my time with Charlotte? What if I leave a motherless daughter behind?
But even during the worst moments — those dreadfully long, nauseating hours hooked up to an IV that pumped bright red chemo into my veins, the weeks of daily radiation, the double mastectomy, the full lymph node dissection — I remained calm and determined.
I did what had to be done. For Charlotte. I never stopped thinking of her.
My doctors warned me that even without my breasts, the cancer could come back — quite possibly in my bones. The best way to make sure that it doesn’t, in my specific case (I have the kind of cancer that feeds off estrogen), was to induce menopause, because if you’re pre-menopausal, your ovaries produce a lot of estrogen.
Menopause at 42 years old? It’s not unheard of, but it also isn’t common. And I didn’t know you could make it happen.
Rather than taking hormone therapy to stop my body from producing estrogen until I naturally reached menopause, I elected to have my fallopian tubes and my ovaries removed, triggering menopause. This has brought its own unique challenges.
Doctors told me to expect hot flashes and mood swings, but I didn’t know I’d also have intense vaginal dryness and a total lack of a sex drive. It’s all added so much stress to my life — and to my marriage.
But what I really didn’t expect was the feeling that even if I “beat” cancer or have it “cured,” it’s still with me. You don’t just snap your fingers and heal. You have to, in some ways, get much worse before you get better.
Nowadays, my medicine cabinet is lined with orange plastic bottles instead of perfume and cosmetics. I take a chemotherapy pill every day that I’m supposed to stay on for 10 years. It makes me sick and tired. I spend most days in bed with the ability to accomplish just one task. Yesterday, it was taking Charlotte and her friends out. Today, it’s telling my story.
I want to be here. I need to be here. And I will always make the choice to do whatever I must to be healthy and strong. For Charlotte. But somewhere along this journey, I lost parts of myself. Not just my breasts and my ovaries, but also my sexual spirit and my sense of control over my life. My mental health has also become a slippery slope.
“Cancer doesn’t just leave you,” a fellow cancer survivor once told me. “It changes you.”
She’s right. It changed me. It will keep changing me. And it would be untrue if I were to say that I’m a more positive and empowered person now than I was before — but what I can say is that I am more open and more vulnerable. And I know I need a little bit of help healing, not only my body, but also my mind.
Not just for Charlotte, but for me, too.
*June is not her real name.