Black Friday is a day typically associated with malls, crowds, discount labels, and credit cards, but for me, it has a different meaning. Black Friday in 2013 was the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The news was devastating and unexpected: I was only 33! I had no family history of cancer! I ate healthy! I exercised! I was shrieking these facts to myself as the news was sinking in. It felt like an alternate reality. Actually, it didn’t feel real at all.
From Shock to Action
I had just given birth to my twin baby girls 6 months earlier when I first felt the lump, but because of those abovementioned facts, I was told it was probably just a swollen milk duct. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that the lump in my left breast was not a milk duct, but the menacing, terrifying “big C.” I had cancer.
I was paralyzed with shock. “I’m a healthy 33-year-old woman with no family history of cancer”: it felt as if my brain was exploding with this truth.
But I also knew I had to take immediate action. I had to pry myself from the grip of my fear-induced inertia and come up with a plan. I had a husband I loved. A classroom full of students to whom I was dedicated. And infant twin daughters who needed their mother. I just had to be there for my babies. I couldn’t bear the thought of not meeting the amazing people I knew they were going to become.
I underwent a double mastectomy and 4 rounds of chemotherapy. But then came another hurdle: my tumor was on my left side, right over my heart. What was I to do about radiation, which my doctors told me I absolutely needed? Would it hurt my heart later? Would I be cured of cancer but plagued with other health issues? I had so many questions and so many concerns.
I wanted to tackle this challenge and avoid potential new health challenges if I could. Why should I do all of this treatment now and save my life, only to risk it again later on? So I researched. I spoke to doctors, friends, and acquaintances, and in the process, I became an empowered self-advocate for my cancer journey.
It’s not easy being a woman with breast cancer, and it certainly is not easy navigating the unique challenges you face as a young woman with breast cancer. You have to take into account many things, such as your future fertility, survival, and your quality of life in the future. Cancer treatments can cure cancer, only to hurt us later on.
Choosing the Type of Therapy
After creating a plan with my care team and conducting my own research, we decided that I would have proton radiation treatment at the ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, New Jersey.
Proton therapy is different from standard x-ray radiation in that it uses protons—which are positively charged atomic particles—that can precisely target tumors and avoid radiating surrounding healthy organs and tissue.
Proton radiation also has no “exit dose,” meaning that the proton beams hit the tumor directly and stop there, and they do not get to nearby parts of the body (that is, they are not going entirely through the body) as x-rays do.
This means that my heart and lungs were spared from potentially damaging exposure to radiation. So I decided to use that type of therapy to protect my future.
I finished treatment in July 2014, and it’s a memory that I’ll cherish forever. I walked out to the lobby with the “Rocky” theme song playing, and rounds of applause from doctors and patients all around me. It was a truly touching moment and reflective of the amazing care I received during my breast cancer journey.
Today, almost 4 years after completing treatment, I’m proud to report that I’m healthy, happy, and feeling very privileged that I’m able to tell my story.
My message to other patients is that it is crucial for women diagnosed with breast cancer to be armed with information and to know their treatment options, especially young women who risk facing significant health issues down the line as a result of treatment.
In this day and age, and with the many different treatment options available to patients, you must be your own advocate—you must become the educated driver of your own care. Researching treatment options while juggling my job and caring for my daughters, all while weathering the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy was not simple or easy. But it was all worth it. I was thrilled with the care I received from all my doctors—at ProCure, at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, PA, and at the Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, not to mention the care from my family, students, and friends.
My reason for sharing my story is to give back to others after my own positive experience, with the hope that it will help other young women facing cancer and the confusion that comes with it.