I have breast cancer at 33

My Story

It was October 12, 2011. I remember the date exactly because it was my Papa's 88th birthday, and I was halfway across the country at The Grand Canyon. I've been wanting to go ever since I watched The Brady Bunch take in the scenery during reruns of the show after kindergarten. Twenty-eight-ish years later, we were there, taking pictures and meeting elk and having a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Our first night there, though, I started feeling shooting pain that led directly to a large lump in my left breast. Sure, it was a lump in my breast, but I was only about 10% worried. I mean, have you heard of someone who found a lump in their breast because a shooting pain directed them to it, and it turned out to be cancerous?! That's certainly not what happened to Brenda Walsh in the original 90210, nor anyone else that I've ever heard of since. I also had a thorough exam by a doctor back in August, and nothing was found then at all. All signs pointed to It's Nothing/How Annoying.

However, the pain was sporadic but didn't stop. When I came back home and had a coincidental appointment with my ob/gyn a few days later, I asked her to cop a feel. She did, and while she agreed that it was Probably Nothing, she wrote me a prescription to get an ultrasound at the Woman's Diagnostic Center connected to the hospital. Long story short, that ultrasound came back abnormal, which lead me to get my first mammogram (ouch!), a bilateral ultrasound, and three biopsies (one for the lump itself, another for a different worrisome spot, and a third for my lymph nodes) the day before Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving, I was told that the lump itself was malignant.

I had cancer.

I knew little to nothing about cancer, other than the hard fact that every single member of both sides of my family has died from some sort of cancer. I joked to my husband that we never have to worry about heart disease or diabetes, as "cancer is the only way we go." But not at 33! All of those dead relatives got diagnosed in their 70s and 80s. Where the heck did this come from, and why did it happen to me?

Now, 17 days after my diagnosis, I don't have those answers (and might never have them), but I feel like I know a lot more.

What I Wish I Did Before I Got This Diagnosis

Change My Diet: I feel like the easiest thing regarding prevention is changing your diet. Now, I've asked to switch to a salad instead of fries 80% of the time and haven't had McDonald's since I was 10, but I still have my share of wine, beer, "fake" food and treats. I'm still digging deep into nutritional research (with dizzying results!), but all the diets can be simplified by this: ramp up the amount of (fresh, organic) fruits and veggies big-time along with a steady 30 minutes of exercise each day, and tone down the amount of processed foods, meat, sugar, and booze. I plan on making green smoothies (which I teased a good friend incessantly about mere week ago, citing them "disgusting" and her "weird") in the morning, cutting out as much white sugar as possible (do you see how much sugar is in, say, your hot cocoa mix? Buy the unsweetened stuff instead and add peppermint oil for a natural sugar), and cutting down on my meat consumption. Sure, I can go drastic with a raw vegan sober diet - which I know would be better for me - but I need to not cry every day into a bowl of sadness, too.

Take the BRCA Gene Test (aka The BRAC Test): As a young, Jewish Ashkenazi woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer, I was told I'd be approved by insurance "no problem" (otherwise the test itself is close to $4,000). Now, I don't know if I would have been approved so easily without the cancer diagnosis, but it would have been worth investigating. Put simply, this test takes your DNA from a blood sample and informs you as to whether or not you carry the cancer gene. According to The National Cancer Institute, 12% of women have a risk of developing breast cancer in their lives, while 60% of women with a BRCA mutation are at risk. I was told that, with my current cancer diagnosis, if I tested positive for the gene, then I'd have a 65% chance of the cancer returning to either breast (not just my left, where I have it now) as well as my ovaries. Thankfully, my tests all came back negative, but I'm thinking that preventative mastectomies in those that are pre-cancerous but have the BRCA mutation is super duper smart.

Perform monthly breast self-exams: I admit, I don't remember the last time I did one. Instead, I'd rely on my yearly appointment with my ob/gyn to give me the once-over. But so much can happen in a year, and to think about not finding this lump as early as I did...(shiver). Mark it down as a monthly reminder on your phone, and take 30 seconds (OK, it might take longer if you're not an A cup like me) to thoroughly examine everything. Getting felt up by your partner doesn't count.

What I Did When Diagnosed That Was Just Right

I listened to my body: While all signs pointed to It's Nothing, I didn't ignore the shooting pain and the lump it led me to find. I had two doctors appointments before my first ultrasound, and while they agreed that it was Probably Nothing, it didn't stop me from getting it checked out further. Please, please, please don't ignore anything painful or weird-looking or that "just showed up." It's better to take a needless trip to the doctor than let something go that could be super serious (The Big C or otherwise).

I stayed away from Google: The Internet is a scary place, and I can't even imagine what I would have found if I Googled all my possible diagnoses and treatments before I had any information other than "You have Stage 2 Breast Cancer" (which has since been upgraded to Stage 1). I took each piece of information as it came (I still don't have it all, and won't for at least another week or two), asked my doctors all the questions that came along with it, and went with more/different questions to My Fairy Boob Mother, who's a 7-year breast cancer survivor (at 35!) and, essentially, a walking cancer dictionary. I knew she would be nothing but helpful and comforting, even in the face of bad news. The Internet, however, is sometimes nothing but fear-inducing, which was the opposite of what I needed.

I announced my breast cancer via pink ukulele: My family and friends-we-consider-family were told via phone, email, or in person (depending on what we could handle at the time), but as someone with a large-ish Internet presence, I couldn't imagine how I'd tell The World at Large. Even just using the phrase "lump in my breast" or "breast cancer", I knew I'd be bringing the room down big time. By writing, performing, and posting "I Got Boob Cancer (a ditty)", I think I lowered the shock value a bit, and have been told there's been lots of laughter through some tears. Mission accomplished.

As funny as it sounds, I know I've been given The Best of The Worst (my lymph nodes are clear, I'm Stage 1 instead of Stage 2, my BRAC Test is negative), and it makes me extremely grateful. The full-on hippy-dippy in me knows it's not coincidental, from the shooting pain that lead me directly to the lump itself (and early, evidently) to all the well wishes that have been beamed to me from around the world (thanks, boob cancer ditty!). And if my diagnosis at 33 helps you, well, that's even better.

I Got Boob Cancer (a ditty), written and performed by the author, Michelle Ward, on YouTube