Name: Cassandra

Age: 32

Occupation: Communications Specialist

Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 28

Breast cancer type: Triple Negative, BRCA 1

Breast cancer stage: 2

Treatment: Mastectomy and chemotherapy

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer.

I’m an unapologetic Disney nerd!  I’ve been to Disney World nearly 20 times, I own way too many Minnie ears (a must-have accessory when park hopping) and I considered making a Disney song the answer to the next question.

What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?

I don’t really have a go-to pick-me-up song.  I love all genres of music – anything with a catchy beat!

How did you discover your breast cancer?

My annual physical was coming up and I didn’t want to go – I felt healthy and didn’t see the need for a checkup.  I remember calling my family doctor’s office and saying, “So you’re just going to do a breast exam?”  Just a breast exam.

During the appointment, my doctor checked the right breast and there were no issues.  She moved to my left breast and her expression became serious immediately.  She said, “You don’t feel that?”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  She informed me that I had a very large lump in my left breast.

From there, everything moved quickly.  My family doctor and the doctor who later performed my biopsy (and double mastectomy) took my case very seriously and never brushed off urgency because I was so young.  The crazy thing was that my lump didn’t fit the usual description of a breast cancer lump.  I was calm and collected throughout the process because I was sure it wasn’t cancer.  I was so young.  It wasn’t possible.  Except it was.

What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?

I immediately said to the doctor, “But I’m only 28?”  I’m sure it sounded more like a question than a statement.  It was an out of body experience.  I was stunned.  I could hear my mom crying beside me and I thought, this can’t be.  How can this be?  Minutes later, when I came out of the initial haze, my first thought was, I don’t want to die.  My second thought was, I hate needles – how the hell am I going to get through this?

What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

I received a couple of questions and comments soon after surgery related to “enjoying” my new implant.  Even thinking back on those conversations makes me angry.  I want people to know that there is nothing enjoyable about a mastectomy.  Those of us who’ve had to go through it didn’t get a breast augmentation – we had our breasts removed and replaced (in reconstruction cases).  Awareness and sensitivity around that is very important to me and I don’t want other women to have to face similar comments.

In general, I wish people knew that sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

Who or what is/was your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?

Without a doubt, my family and friends.  Here’s an excerpt from a blog a wrote that sums it up:

November 11, 2016: 11.12.13. Hands down one of the worst days of my life.  Even still, I hate the feeling of leaves falling on me because they were falling in abundance as I walked into the doctor’s office for my biopsy results.

There are many words I could choose to focus on when thinking about this day – terror, sadness, anger, grief, shock.  Those words still cross my mind. But the one I decide to focus on – love.

(After my first mastectomy + reconstruction on November 27, 2013) I was being wheeled out of recovery and my family saw me and along they came (even though they weren’t immediately allowed to come with me).  Mom, Dad, Nonnie, Aunt Angie, Aunt Mary and Rusty – all in a row.  I was so drugged up and in serious pain, I could hardly move or open my eyes.  But I could hear them asking the nurses questions and calling my name.  I wasn’t able to show it, but I was cracking up.  What a hilarious group they made – slightly angering the nurses with their questions and comments that came in quick succession.  “How’s she doing?”  “Cassandra?”  “Sweetie, can you hear me?”  “Where is she going now?” “Is she okay?”  “Can we go with her?”  “When can we see her?”  “Cassandra?”

As I was wheeled down the hall, I thought – my God, I love these people.  They would follow me anywhere just so I wouldn’t be alone.  To make sure I knew that I was loved and safe.  And to make me laugh.

That kind of love has serious, life-altering power.  I was filled to the brim with it.  I inhaled it, held my breath and kept it there until April 11, 2014 – my last chemo.  For that long, brutal winter that love helped me survive.  I think it still does.

What is/was the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?

From the moment you’re diagnosed, it’s a rollercoaster.  You are bombarded with appointments and questions and fear and pain.  Your mind is on overdrive and so are your emotions.

Throughout treatment, I couldn’t find my niche.  I didn’t want anything to do with pink ribbons.  Traditional places for support didn’t appeal to me.  I wasn’t able to identify with any other cancer patients, in part because they weren’t (near) my age and also because I couldn’t see through the clutter of chemo to even want to seek out people like me.

Having a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and a hysterectomy within two years took its toll.  I often struggled when in a room with other “normal” young women who hadn’t gone through the many trials of breast cancer.  I felt deformed and questioned my worth.  But time has helped to heal those wounds.

What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?

I knew I was tough, but I didn’t know I was this tough.  My capacity to handle physical pain is much more than I would have ever thought possible.

Having breast cancer also heightened what I already thought about beauty – that it’s so much more than our appearance and can be found in the darkest of times.

For instance, losing my hair was difficult.  To have some control over the loss, I shaved my head the night before my first chemo treatment.  A close friend came over to shave it and we expected there to be tears – it broke my heart to chop my long, luscious locks.  Slowly but surely the strands fell until only a buzz cut remained.  Mom was there, of course, and we chatted and laughed throughout the process and ended with a champagne toast.  I was terrified (with chemo looming), but I felt incredibly loved and supported.  And when I looked in the mirror at my new ‘do,’ I felt truly beautiful.

In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

In this case, it’s difficult to limit words of wisdom to one sentence.  I would want to tell her that I know she’s the most terrified she’s been in her life.  That I know she’s wondering why this happened to her at this age.  That in no way is this fair or okay.  I would tell her to get ready for battle because that’s what this is – an all-out war.

But I would also tell her that she’s so very strong – much stronger than she realizes.  I have no doubt that she can do this.

There is a saying that I love and live by.  It’s simple, but encompasses so much.  My one sentence would be…

Have courage and be kind.