Name: Rebecca Hall
Occupation: Writer/Editor, Yoga Instructor, MBC Advocate
Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 25 with stage 3 breast cancer, 29 with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer
Breast cancer type: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma; triple positive at stage 3; triple positive when first metastasized (to bones and lymph nodes); HER2+, ER-, PR- when spread to brain
Breast cancer stage: 4
Treatment: ongoing: herceptin & perjeta IV infusions (because I am HER2+), zoladex shots (to put me in menopause), xgeva shots (for my bones), femara daily pills (to mop up any remaining estrogen), avastin IV infusions (for brain radiation necrosis)
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer:
When I was 16, I competed in the World Equestrian Games for Great Britain (I was born in England).
What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?
It’s a little cheesy, but when I need an extra bit of oomph I put on the Fight Song by Rachel Platten. It’s my nieces’ (ages 4 and 7) favorite song, and we love to put it on and dance around the living room together. Whenever I listen to it, I picture doing that, and it makes me happy.
How did you discover your breast cancer?
I was laying on the floor on my stomach stretching one morning after a run, doing the same stretch that I had done the day before – done for years, actually – and it felt like I was laying on a golf ball. I felt my right breast and there was a lump. The Student Health Center nurse told me not to worry since I had zero family history of breast cancer and was only 25 (“25 year olds don’t get breast cancer”), but she sent me for a mammogram anyway, just in case. The mammogram was abnormal, so they biopsied it right then and there.
What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?
It sounds odd, but all I could focus on in that moment when they said I had cancer, was school. I was in a competitive graduate school program at the time, and I had worked really hard to get there. All I could think when they said those words was “But can I stay in school? How long will I have to step away from my studies to recover from surgery?” It’s not that I cared more about school than about dying or my family, certainly not, but I wasn’t ready to face the severity of my diagnosis yet. I couldn’t process that I might die or what having cancer would mean for me and my family. So, I focused on school instead. In time, I let the bigger, darker fears creep in, bit by bit.
What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?
Someone once told me that I caused my own cancer. She said that she had spent hours meditating on it, and she was now sure that I had given myself the disease. She thought it probably happened because I wasn’t happy enough (this was someone who barely knew me!).
Who or what is/was your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?
When I was stage 3, my parents were by far my biggest source of support. When I realized that I could not, in fact, simultaneously go through a demanding graduate program and chemotherapy, I stepped out of school and moved back in with my parents. I didn’t know anyone in their town; all my friends and siblings lived far away. So for the majority of that year of chemo, surgeries, and radiation, it was just me and my parents. They drove me to appointments, cooked for me, cared for me, and put up with me when I was too scared, sad, or angry to be the gracious patient that I wanted to be. Now that I am stage 4, I am married to a wonderful, supportive, caring man, and he has become my main source of support.
What is/was the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?
For me, when I was stage 3, it was the social isolation. None of my friends had been through anything remotely close to what I was going through. They were still in a phase of life when they spent most of their free time going out and drinking. I couldn’t do those activities anymore, and even if I could, I was no longer interested. We couldn’t relate to each other anymore. Plus, because they were so young, they hadn’t yet developed the tools to cope with my diagnosis. They had no idea how to be there for me. Many of them just disappeared from my life because they felt so unprepared – which left me even more alone. A few were wonderful, but they were the minority. My family was great, but I also needed my friends. I needed people my own age to talk to about guys and dating and to joke around with. After going through my first diagnosis, I thankfully found a group of friends and a husband who do have the skills to cope with my situation, and they are the most supportive, loving, and empathetic people.
What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?
I learned that I love writing, and that I’m good at it. Pre-cancer, I was a veterinary school student, but it became clear pretty quickly that vet school was no longer doable, even when I went into remission after my stage 3 treatment. Then a former professor offered to hire me to write his next book. The only problem was… I was not a writer. He convinced me that I could do it, so I gave it a go, and it went really well. Since then I have started my own writing and editing freelance business, and I have written and edited countless articles, book chapters, books, and blogs. Eventually I gained the confidence to do my own creative writing. I started my own blog about my experiences with cancer (Cancer, you can suck it), have had a few memoir-style articles published, and even co-wrote a short film, bare, about my experience shaving my head before my first chemo. I never would have attempted any of this had cancer not forced me to leave veterinary school.
In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Feel everything that you need to feel, and remember that you don’t have to stay positive all the time. I felt an intense pressure to look on the bright side and remain upbeat throughout treatment. Because I could not, I felt like I was failing, and that only added to the enormous emotional burden that cancer dumped on me. No one wanted to hear how scared I was of dying, how profoundly sad I was, how angry I was. But in order to move through, and past, those feelings, I had to be given the space to feel them. They had to be given voice. So to any young woman recently diagnosed – it is ok to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. It will do you no good to suppress your feelings just to make other people comfortable. YOU are the priority, and your feelings are valid – whatever they may be!