#YWBC Profile: April
Name: April Johnson Stearns
Occupation: Writer, Editor and Founder of Wildfire Magazine
Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 35
Breast cancer type: HER2+ stage 3
Treatment: chemo + Herceptin, modified mastectomy (left breast only), radiation
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer: OK, I can tell you 3! I grew up on a Christmas Tree farm, I am trained as a birth doula, and finally, my husband and I have been together since we were 15 and 17, respectively.
What’s your go-to pick-me-up song? Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson “Relator”
How did you discover your breast cancer? I found the lump one evening while nursing my daughter. Looking back I realized she hadn’t wanted to feed on that breast in a couple of days, but it wasn’t till I felt the lump that I grew concerned. I immediately asked my husband to feel it and all the color drained from his face. He said, “What the hell is that?!” I got in to see my gynecologist the very next day. By the time I was diagnosed the tumor was 5cm x 6cm x 7cm. My oncologist feels certain it grew in a very short amount of time, but even still it had already traveled to my lymph nodes.
What went through your head when you received your diagnosis? On the one hand I couldn’t believe it and was absolutely devastated, particularly for my family. On the other hand I sort of always thought I might one day be diagnosed. My grandmother died of metastatic breast cancer when I was eighteen, and a few of my aunts of had breast cancer as well. Although we have not yet tested positive for any gene mutations, we have a strong family history.
What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer? Several people told me they knew someone who had died of breast cancer. That sucked. And even now, I’ve talked to fellow survivors who say things like, “Thank God I wasn’t stage 3!” (My staging.)
Who or what is/was your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer? My daughter, hands down. I couldn’t have made it through that year without my husband, family or strong friend network, but it was my daughter who kept me putting one foot in front of the other day after day. Being accountable to her made me get up each morning and stay strong. Sure I cried (in the shower, a lot!) but because of her I couldn’t succumb to the depression and fear. She also kept me smiling through it all. Kids are so in the moment. One day at the park, it was time for us to leave. She ran over to some children and moms on the playground, strangers to us, and said cheerfully, “I have to go! My mom has cancer and it’s time for dinner!”
What is/was the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer? The hardest part is being decades younger than most women who are diagnosed and not having anyone to talk about what it’s like to be a young survivor. When I was first diagnosed, I put my head down and followed the directives of my doctors. But once my treatment year was done and the dust began to settle, I started to want to connect and find out how others were putting the pieces back together and getting on with the “new normal.” But looking around I didn’t see anyone else like me and I felt quite alone. Who could I talk to about post-cancer sexuality and fertility? Certainly not my older aunt survivors! There was a lot I wanted to talk about with regard to having cancer at 35 and it was difficult not having access to survivors like me. (Thankfully now I know about organizations like RETHINK!!)
What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer? I discovered my life’s work! It was only by having breast cancer that I knew how to be there for my dad upon his diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer. I spent every day of his final six months with him, helping him in every way that I could. Sometimes I provided physical support, and sometimes it was emotional support. During this time, he opened up and started telling me his life’s stories. It was beneficial to me, and an incredible release for him. After he passed away I realized that I wanted to continue to help cancer fighters and survivors, during and after their cancer diagnosis, particularly in the telling of their stories. I now edit and publish a story-based online magazine by and for the young breast cancer community. www.wildfirecommunity.org
In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer? When you’re first going through the diagnosis phase, it’s utterly and understandably overwhelming; your cancer suddenly consumes everything in your life — my advice for anyone going through this is to remember that one day there will be an “after,” you will get through this bit, day by day. It will get easier.
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