How a 23 Year Old Survived Breast Cancer—and What You Can Learn
My coworker Tim, who found me that Monday morning, red-eyed, sitting in an empty office at our financial firm, assumed I'd had a bad weekend. Maybe a fight with my boyfriend. In fact, moments before, I'd gotten the results from a biopsy of the lump in my left breast: cancer. When I told Tim, he barely said a word. The news, so raw, hung there between us until he broke the silence: "Do you want to get Slurpees?"
I did. Because going for Slurpees felt normal. It was our answer to botched assignments, long meetings and generally crummy days—all the things that, until now, had seemed as bad as it could get. I was 23 years old. I was used to worrying about which senior managers I should suck up to, which shoes I should buy, who my intramural rugby team was up against next. And on that cool day in April, as we sat on the curb outside 7-Eleven in Baltimore, I wanted to hold on to that life—a life suddenly made spectacular by just how unexciting it was.
When my boyfriend, Josh, had first felt the lump, I assumed it would go away on its own, like all the other lumps, bumps and bruises before it. I'd actually waited three months to tell my doctor—and I probably would have waited longer if I hadn't needed to see her for what I thought was a more pressing concern: seasonal allergies. My doctor seemed as unconcerned about the lump as I was, but she referred me to a radiologist anyway.
It turned out to be aggressive stage II cancer. The tumor (all 2.8 centimeters of it) was removed, and I gave myself over to the care of my parents and Josh. While my friends were out day-drinking their weekends away, planning trips to the beach and meeting at the mall, I stayed home. I was so wiped out by the chemo that I could barely fold a T-shirt.
And then, after a few rounds of radiation, the cancer was gone. I would live. I would get to keep my life, but what life? For the past year, I had been talking to my boss about transferring to our company's new office in Shanghai. That was out. The national tournament for my club basketball team was coming up in less than a month. I wouldn't play. I had gone from freaking out about missing a single birth control pill to asking my boyfriend of seven years if he wanted to fertilize my eggs. (The chemo, I'd learned, could send me into early menopause.) My fertility doctor gently urged me to save some unfertilized eggs in case things didn't work out with Josh; I didn't have to decide right then if he was the man I was going to have kids with. My panic was the cancer talking, as it bombarded me with life choices I wasn't really ready to make.
Cancer sucked. It was lonely. I was bruised and hairless and tired. But as banged up as my body was, it was still mine. And slowly I started to put it back in action. Five months after my final treatment, I played in my first postcancer rugby game. My teammates thought I was crazy, but I packed extra padding over my chest, ran onto the field and powered through every tackle and dive. I felt alive.
Last fall I pushed my body further still, biking 220 miles in the Young Survival Coalition's Tour de Pink from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. On the day we neared the 70-mile mark, I was spent. There was a "poop out" bus that riders could take to the next pit stop, but I had committed to biking every inch of the course. As the sun began to set, a man whose wife had survived breast cancer slowed to go the last few miles of the day with me.
When I was a kid, I used to ride a purple bike with white handlebars and metallic streamers. In Baltimore I got around on a crappy ten-speed I found on Craigslist. Riding those bikes was easy. There was a simplicity to life back then. But there's always been something about tackling a hill—pressing down on the pedals with everything you've got, teeth gritted, legs aching—until you push past the hard part, regain your balance and fly.
Next: What you need to know about your risk