I Thought I Could Outsmart Cancer
I was proactive, informed and thought I could outsmart cancer, but it turns out, I didn’t act soon enough. Shortly after my 30th birthday, and just a day before my scheduled prophylactic (preventative) mastectomy, I was diagnosed with stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer.
Due to a significant family history of breast cancer, I underwent a genetic test to determine if I had the BRCA gene mutation. In my early 20s, I was found to be a BRCA1 carrier and genetic counselors estimated that my odds of developing breast cancer were at an 80% likelihood. I was not ready for this news at the time; I had just graduated university, was preparing to move abroad to begin my career and was not ready to think about the serious implications of this test. I promised myself then that as soon as I was secure in my career and had children of my own, I would undergo a preventive surgery.
While in my 20s, I began annual breast screening and had meetings with a genetic counselor. Due to my age, I was unable to have mammograms and instead received MRI scans, which are a safer alternative with less radiation exposure. I thought that I was doing everything I should at the time and felt safe.
My mother was 41 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I was told by my genetic counselor that I would be at risk of developing breast cancer when I was 10 years younger than my mother when she was diagnosed. Due to the fact that breast cancer tends to develop earlier in later generations, as I approached the age of 30, I began to prepare myself mentally for a double mastectomy. In the fall of 2019, I met with two surgeons who would work alongside each other to remove and reconstruct my breasts. We scheduled my preventive mastectomy for three months from that date and I began to prepare for this life-altering surgery.
Two weeks prior to my scheduled mastectomy, I discovered a lump the size of a golf ball in my left breast and had to endure six biopsies on my breasts. This procedure took over an hour to complete and was the most horrific and painful experience I have had to date. Just a day before my ‘preventive’ mastectomy my surgeon called me to inform me that the biopsy revealed stage 2 or 3 cancer cells.
I was in absolute shock. Here I was thinking I could rewrite the story that was written for me in my DNA but I was too late. I cannot begin to explain the frustration and regret that I felt and continue to feel. I had years to complete this surgery and did nothing. Ready or not, cancer had its own timeline.
Since my bilateral mastectomy, I have not had a moment to breathe. About a week after my surgery, my partner and I had to make quick decisions about family planning as chemotherapy can cause infertility. After meeting with a fertility team, we decided that IVF and embryo preservation was the best option for us.
IVF was the most emotionally challenging aspect of my journey so far. While I was excited about family planning, I struggled to see past the fact that it was another medical procedure. I tried to stay strong, to maintain a positive experience for both my partner and myself, but I struggled. I was so sick of being poked and prodded. I was angry that I would not be able to breastfeed my future children or that I would not be able to conceive naturally. The daily injections made me very emotional and my body sensitive. I cried through several of my internal ultrasounds and appointments as my body became progressively more sore as my ovaries grew. Despite my struggles, I do not regret our decision to undergo IVF. This process has provided us the opportunity to biopsy our embryos and break the cycle of the BRCA gene inheritance in our family. Likewise, this procedure has provided me with a sense of control during this challenging time.
I have currently finished my third round of chemotherapy and have had more time to reflect and have begun to forgive myself for not taking action sooner. But I must say that I went from feeling empowered when I scheduled my preventive mastectomy to feeling like a victim when diagnosed with breast cancer and I don’t wish that feeling on anyone. I know I was lucky enough to have discovered my cancer before it spread to other areas of my body and have the opportunity to undergo IVF treatments. My situation could have been much worse. As a BRCA carrier, I wish I took preventative measures as soon as it was possible.
Cancer isn’t going to wait for you to start your new health regimen. Cancer doesn’t care if you just started a new job or are newly-married. Cancer is not going to wait for you to learn how to properly give yourself a self-exam or care if you don’t have a family history of cancer. Cancer isn’t going to wait for you to have children. Cancer didn’t care that I had taken steps for preventative measures and was proactively removing my breasts. It didn’t wait for me to find a convenient time and it’s not going to pay you a special courtesy.
Take it upon yourself to stay healthy and know the factors that can put you at risk. – Carmela