My story begins with the words too many of us hear… “You’re too young”.
Years prior to my breast cancer diagnosis, I had discovered a palpable bean-sized lump on the outer side of my right breast. I was in my early 20’s at the time, and though I figured it was nothing, I scheduled an appointment for peace of mind.
During my exam, I expressed my nerves, the history of breast cancer in my family, and the concern that the lump seemed to be growing larger. I can still recall the smile on my OBGYN’s face when she told me that nerves were natural and it was nothing to be concerned about, I was “too young.”
An uneasy feeling washed over me each time my fingers massaged the small lump. Over the next few years, I would continue to express my nerves to my OBGYN, followed by another physical exam and reassurance that I was too young to worry.
Despite my continued concern, I was never given a referral for a mammogram.
Truthfully, after several exams and no concern from my doctor, I did begin to feel that perhaps I was overreacting. I put it out of my mind and carried on with life.
As the years passed by the bean-sized lump evolved to an acorn-sized lump. I continued to repeat the words I’d heard years before, “you’re too young”, and once again put it out of my mind and carried on with life.
By late 2020, the lump had multiplied into several lumps. My breast was now unrecognizable. I was 34 years old. At this point, there was no denying that my breast was showing very “in your face” physical symptoms.
The global pandemic did not create an easy situation for me as I scrambled to obtain health insurance after losing my job. It took a few months before I was able to schedule an appointment. I took the first available appointment for January 7, 2021.
During my breast exam my new OBGYN asked me if it would be okay that her colleague participate in the exam. Watching the expressions on their faces as they examined my breast felt like confirmation. By the end of the exam, I was not surprised to hear, “I have to be honest Nicole, this is giving me a great deal of concern”.
My drive home was filled with a sense of shame. I had allowed this to continue for far too long. Beneath the shame festered an anger. Years ago, I had not been taken seriously and had been made to feel as though I was overreacting. The anger and shame wrapped themselves in an unhealthy package of self-blame.
The next day I had my first mammogram. The radiologist positioned my breast carefully, looked me straight in the eyes and asked, “Why did you wait so long?”.
Shortly following my mammogram, I received an ultrasound. The technician walked me into a low-lit room filled with paper butterflies. After what felt like hours of silence, she looked down at me with a tear in her eye, “There have been so many advancements over the years, miracles happen every day”. The following day I received a triple breast biopsy, which includes a physical exam, mammogram and/or ultrasound, and biopsy. The looks of concern had become all too familiar to me now.
On January 15, 2021, I got the call, “It’s cancer”.
I was sitting at my mirror doing my makeup at the time. I watched as a single tear rolled down my cheek. I wasn’t surprised, almost relieved; someone had finally said the words. I thanked the radiologist, hung up the phone, and drove to town for a beer.
From there, time flew by in a blur – appointment whirlwinds, doctors, nurses, scans. Hold your breath, little pinch, little poke, you won’t feel a thing, numb, dark, quiet… “Oh honey, does it hurt?”.
The next thing I knew I was in the infusion chair receiving my first dose of chemotherapy.
The active treatment itself passed by slowly. I made my way through chemotherapy, ER visits, fatigue, anger, depression, a unilateral mastectomy, and 30 sessions of radiation.
The entire experience felt like evolution on a fast track. I was stripped down to a raw and bare vulnerability, and the woman I had been became a distant memory.
These treatments are not light. Each one weighs heavily on the heart and causes extreme hardship on the body. I made an agreement with myself on the day I shaved my head. If I was going to go through this, I was going to learn self-love, something I had struggled with my entire adult life.
Though the physical anguish kept me still on the outside, on the inside I dove deep into my heart space. I leaned into journaling, into painting, and into self-observation.
I faced my doubts and my lack of self-worth, I transformed my perception of beauty, and I became a student in “Art of Letting Go”. I learned to accept help from family and friends, and I embraced vulnerability. Somewhere along the way I remembered the breathtaking joy in the “little things”.
Trauma will change us. It is unexpected, and often unwelcome, a forced transformation of self. I have done my best to seek growth through it all.
My last infusion was on July 20, 2022. I walked out of the infusion center and into a new unknown, survivorship.
The completion of active treatment comes with the idea that we can now get “back to normal,” but there is no going back. We have looked deeply into darkness, and we know that we are changed.
Cancer and its treatment changed my life forever. As I continue to navigate the aftermath of it all, I offer myself compassion. No matter what life is throwing our way, we must walk forward one step at a time.