When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer at 30 years old, I had no doubt it would someday return. Even after going through surgery to remove the tumor, weeks of daily radiation, and taking medication to lower my chances of a recurrence, I knew in my gut that I would get cancer again. Having been so young the first time around only meant that I had many more years ahead for something else in my body to go wrong. I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
That initial battle with breast cancer in 2012 was a total shock to the system. I’d written articles about other women’s breast cancer journeys in the past and urged readers to be proactive about their health, but when it was my turn, I wanted to stick my head in the sand. The morning I received the call from my gynecologist, I calmly took down the names of surgeons to contact, hung up the phone, and then proceeded to completely fall apart, wondering how on earth this could be happening to me. It all felt so surreal and unfair.
Reaching out to doctors, scheduling appointments, and gathering medical records were overwhelming tasks and it was only with the help of family and friends that I was able to put one foot in front of the other in those initial weeks. Some came to appointments with me and conducted research on my behalf. Others sent care packages and messages reminding me of my strength even if it felt so far from the truth. Meanwhile, Mami and my tías would call on all the santos in the hopes that I be healed and would offer me special tea leaves from the Dominican Republic because they were “known to cure cancer.” Having to constantly debunk myths and refuse home remedies was infuriating and, at times, insulting. Thanks, I’d say, but I think I’m going to let science take the wheel on this one.
The treatment plan for many of us fighting breast cancer includes taking the medication Tamoxifen every day for five years as well as routine visits with surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists every couple of months. And no matter how semi-normal my life would return to, those trips to the cancer clinic would stir up my fears all over again. My anxiety would spike and the questions would flood my brain as I waited to be seen: What if the cancer is back? What if the results of that mammogram contain bad news? What if cancer has spread all over my body? I’d try to read the radiologist’s face while she scanned my breasts to see if anything concerned her, but each time, she’d reassure me that all the results were normal. I’d hop off the examination table, get dressed, and walk out of the clinic thankful that I’d survived another check-up, but dazed and emotionally drained from the visit. Another one down, how many more to go?
This was the routine every three months for four years when my doctors began monitoring a lump right along the scar of my first lumpectomy. We wondered if it might be benign scar tissue that had formed due to the previous surgery and during a follow-up appointment in September 2016, my oncology surgeon decided to wait no longer and sent me upstairs for an immediate biopsy. I knew something wasn’t right when this time, the radiologist just asked me to wait in my doctor’s examining room for the results. Within minutes, I was given the news I’d spent years bracing for but was still wildly unequipped to accept: I had breast cancer again.
During the lumpectomy that followed, my surgeon removed the tumor on my left breast as well as another suspicious lump in my armpit that had also formed along my previous surgery’s scar. (That, too, turned out to be cancerous.) Unfortunately, the tissue removed did not have clear margins, which meant there might have been cancerous cells left behind after the surgery. My doctors wanted us to throw everything we could at this weird recurrence: another lumpectomy, monthly hormonal therapy injections, radiation, and more pills. But after bringing my case up with their board of doctors on the best route to take with me, my doctors approached me with a heavier recommendation for me to consider.
Going through life with a barely A size bra cup, I’ve had a hate-hate relationship with my small chest. I always wished I was curvier, sexier, and looked more womanly than I did in the petite childish frame I was blessed with. But enter the idea of a mastectomy and suddenly my entire femininity rested on these breasts—no matter how small they were. Knowing that it was the right choice did not make the decision any easier. I’d look at myself in the shower and cry at the realization that this body would soon look forever different; that I would lose pieces of me and be scarred and ugly. Damaged, is what I told myself I would become. Unlovable.
The days leading up to my double mastectomy were a blur of tears and panic. If I had been left on my own to get to the hospital that morning, I probably would have run away instead. There was no part of me that wanted to go through with it, but having the people I loved holding my hand on our way there and waiting for me at the hospital when I arrived, gave me the strength I needed to walk into that operating room without them.
The recovery process from the mastectomy was physically awful and it was dragged on by my decision to have breast reconstruction after my surgery. It felt as if an 18-wheeler had rolled right over my chest and then encased it in cement. I was immobile for days and for someone who has a hard time asking for help it was a tough lesson in giving up control. I couldn’t shift myself in bed. I couldn’t wash my hair. I couldn’t bend over to tie my shoes. I couldn’t open heavy doors or windows. I couldn’t pump soap to wash my hands. I could reach my arms back to put on my winter coat or wear anything other than button-downs. I felt like a child all over again.
But as terrified as I was going for that operation and the uphill road of regaining my mobility and independence, the reality of a mastectomy was nowhere near as life-ending as I thought it was going to be. When I woke up from the surgery, I didn’t cry over what had happened to me. I was joking about it! It was as if my brain instantly clicked into survivor mode, recognized that this was our new reality now and that I had to learn to adapt because there was no going back. Through the setbacks of breast reconstruction, infections, healing, and physical therapy, somehow I’ve been able to keep surprising myself with just how much this tiny body can handle.
Four years later, I’m still learning to accept this new body of mine, scars and all. I’m learning to see them as visual proof of all the things this body has put me through over the last eight years…and of all the things I’ve been able to fight with it. I simultaneously feel strong and incredibly vulnerable; I feel brave, but also cautiously optimistic. Do I still believe that cancer could return for a third time? Yes, I do. That little voice might get quieter over time, but it never truly goes away. What has gotten louder though is a second little voice, a feisty fiery one letting me know that if it does, ain’t no way it’s taking us out that easily.