Name: Rachelle Grossman
Occupation: Family physician with focus on women’s health and cosmetics
Age when diagnosed: 37
Cancer type: Hormone positive, HER2 negative
Treatment: Five months of chemo, double mastectomy with 18 lymph node dissection in my left armpit and bilateral immediate reconstruction with tissue expanders, 25 rounds of radiation, bilateral salpino-oopherectomy, recent breast expander removal with bilateral breast capsulectomies and implant insertion, ongoing endocrine therapy (and several months of occupational therapy for lymph cording and adhesions).
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer:
If I wasn’t a doctor, I would be capitalizing on my passion for refurbishing antiques or other creative outlets, like singing and dancing, which I have since passed down to my daughter.
What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?
It’s a tie between 1) Without You by Avicii) and 2) Alive by Sia.
How did you discover your breast cancer?
I felt a small lump in my breast and went to the doctor. She ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. The mammo was declined and the ultrasound report suggested a benign finding. One year later I noted a lump in my armpit in addition to the original lump not disappearing – I went back and insisted on a mammogram that yielded a stage 3 breast cancer infiltrating my lymph nodes.
What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?
Will I be around to see my daughter grow up? How can I make sure she’s well adjusted through all of this? No one is immune from this disease. And yes, it can happen to me.
What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?
Craziest thing someone said to me was that they wanted to set me up on a date. I was a single mother, mid way into chemo and hairless when I went on my first date with my partner. Instead of running away from the cancer, a lovely man ran towards it and embraced it. He reminds me that I’m beautiful with or without hair. It seemed and sounded crazy at the time. It’s less crazy now.
Who has been your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?
It took a village and I am grateful for my tribe. My close girlfriends, my partner, my family and the most loyal work colleagues who have become my closest friends. Unfortunately, my sister was diagnosed a month after me and my mom and dad were dealing with two daughters battling cancer at the same time. It was a tough time.
What is the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?
The alienation process. One minute you are sitting with your friends complaining about your hair colour, the next minute you are wondering if your hair will grow back. One minute you are excited about the trajectory your work is going, the next minute you are collecting disability. One minute you are picking out an outfit to wear to the next charity gala in honour of “that person who died of cancer”, the next minute you are doing the same, wondering if that person will be you. One minute you are begrudgingly waking up at 6:30am to get your child ready for school, the next minute you are counting down until 6:30am when you get to spend your morning with her. One minute you are forcing yourself to get to the gym 3x/wk, the next minute you are freezing your account for an undetermined period of time. One minute you are the person your friends go to for advice and the next minute you are that girl that no one wants to be. Everything changes all at once but the many hats you used to wear do not change.
I was still a single mother, a physician, a friend, a daughter, a sister and a woman in my 30’s. It is an interesting process when your priorities in life inevitably change in an instant and you are forced to learn to navigate old relationships with this new mindset, without feeling like an imposter. I already had the imposter syndrome in medical school, then I had it as the only separated parent in my daughter’s school and now I truly am an alien. Relatability is challenging. There was a lot of guilt attached to still having those “healthy girl’ hang-ups in life. I realized that my Jewish guilt in life was nothing in comparison to the guilt I felt once I began my cancer journey. Why didn’t I embrace my breasts more? Why did I spend so much time-saving money on a house when I could have been travelling? Why didn’t I cherish my moments with my daughter more? What if I never get the chance to….? It took a lot of effort to change the narrative from thinking in the past and learning to live in the present and even look into the future. I am still working on this today.
What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?
My resilience is far beyond what I expected it to be because of the tribe that fueled me during my journey. Friendship is just as much about receiving as it is about giving. I am brave AF but I am not morally superior to anyone else because I fought cancer. My problems are not necessarily superior to yours. Traffic still gets me anxious too.
What words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
You may end up living life better than you did before. Let’s get through this ugly part together.
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