Above photos by Emily Wraith
Name: Aya McMillan
Occupation: Fashion Writer/Editor and digital content strategist
Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 39
Breast cancer type: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (Her2neg; ER+)
Breast cancer stage: Stage 2
Treatment: Surgery (lumpectomy), Radiation (21 rounds), Hormone Therapy (10 years)
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer:
I’m a shoe girl. I make shoe contact before eye contact.
What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?
A little respect, by Erasure.
How did you discover your breast cancer?
The short answer is that I found the lump on my own.
Here’s the extended version:
In mid-January 2017, I had returned home from a trip to the UK with a bad cough that required an inhaler to settle. At the same time I had been experiencing a very sharp pain in my right breast (at around the 12 o’clock mark) and I could tell it looked a little swollen. I didn’t think it was a big deal because I’ve always been told I had super dense/lumpy breasts and figured it might be correlated to my period. I scheduled an appointment with my GP to get the inhaler prescription and told myself that if my boob still hurt when I saw her, I would bring it up.
My appointment was scheduled at the end of January and by then the pain had dissipated somewhat, but I still decided to mention it to my doctor anyway. She said that she definitely felt something and because I was leaving for a month-long trip to Asia the following morning she got me in for an ultra sound that afternoon.
The nurse who gave me the requisition form told me that after the ultrasound I should hear something within 5 days — but, if I don’t hear back that means everything is fine. “No news is good news!” she said.
So I flew to Tokyo and didn’t hear anything after those five days. A full week passes and still, I didn’t hear anything so I figured it was all good. Ten business days pass and I wake up to an email that morning saying that the ultrasound results came back and they wanted to schedule further testing because the lump was “suspicious.” (I will never forget that was the word they used for as long as I live).
I was a bit confused so asked my cousin (who’s one of my best friends and is an ICU doctor) what they meant. I forwarded her the paperwork from the ultrasound and she went through it explaining all of details. She found the results to be worrying but seeing as she’s also rather neurotic (sorry, Alex!), I didn’t take her very seriously. My GP also said I didn’t need to cut my trip short and fly back for the testing; they would schedule it all when I returned home in a few weeks.
I returned to Toronto on March 1st. Sunnybrook hospital scheduled a mammogram and biopsy in exactly one week. I received the diagnosis 24-hours later.
What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?
I was super confused at first because the doctor sort of screwed up on her delivery. She said, “the biopsy sight looked really good….but they did find cancerous cells.” I interpreted the whole ‘biopsy sight looked good’ to mean everything was good, it was just a cyst or something and I could go home. I didn’t understand that what they actually meant was they could SEE everything clearly. Meaning there was no doubt that it was cancer. (Like, what average person would actually question whether they could SEE the cancer clearly?!).
Once I final had a grasp on the situation, my immediate reaction was intense anger. I was still reeling from my 10-year relationship ending a few months prior and my dog passing away while I had been overseas (I had literally just picked up her ashes the day before the diagnosis appointment). To add breast cancer on top of the worst six months of my life felt like a cruel joke from God.
What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?
Maybe you’ll get a free boob job! (Chemo being no big deal because I “have a really nice shaped head” comes in a close second, though).
What has been your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?
Other than my weekly therapy sessions, and my dog (which I wrote about here), I would say it’s the other young women I’ve met that have gone through this. Friends and family think they know — which isn’t to diminish their love and support because trust me, they’ve helped in myriad ways — but it takes someone who has actually walked in your shoes, that has seen that pain, and understands intimately what we’ve faced and overcome.
What is the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?
Before treatment, the most hellish part is how fast everything happens. You’re expected to make all these life-altering decisions in what feels like seconds when you’re still trying to get a basic handle on the diagnosis itself, the new terminology and medical jargon being thrown at you, and how the hell you’re going to find time for all these appointments. Cancer is nothing if not inconvenient.
During and post treatment the most difficult aspect is how much you feel that this isn’t supposed to be happening to you. Every oncology wing’s waiting area is a sea of senior citizens. At radiation, I would always catch that surprised, slightly sympathetic look that I was a patient, and not the daughter or granddaughter of one. And there’s the pile of literature and booklets you’re supposed to read that only ever feature a gray haired granny. It all ends up feeling like ‘I do not belong here.’ Even though sadly, you do.
What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?
Other than I’m so much stronger than I ever would have given myself credit for, it’s this: I used to take things soooo seriously and was incredibly hard on myself and other people. Post cancer, I’ve been shocked to discover that I’m much less affected, that I’m much more willing to let things go, and that I care a whole lot less about the unimportant stuff. I say all the time now, I am fresh out of f*cks to give.
In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
You’ve got this. And when you don’t, and you feel like you’re falling apart, there is an army of women who are here to help put you back together.