When I was 17 years old, I felt a lump in my right breast. I had larger breasts in high school and when I mentioned it to my OB she said it was probably a fibroadenoma (a very common occurrence) but referred me to a specialist just to be safe. The specialist suggested we could do a biopsy, but because I also had several other lumps in both breasts that I should stop taking my birth control to reduce external hormones, cut down on caffeine, and we would keep an eye on it.
I was young, carefree, and felt invincible. I knew in the back of my mind everyday that the lump was there, that I should do something about it, but I wanted to live my life. I wanted to have fun. There wasn’t time to slow down, take care of myself, be responsible. Fast forward two years later, and at age 19 my tumor had grown to roughly the size of a tangerine. I knew it was time to go back in.
I remember being so afraid, sitting in the waiting room surrounded by older women, some with hair, some without, and thinking to myself, “I don’t belong here”. I remember the biopsy machine being loud and the room was cold. The specialist asked me to come back after a few days and I received the news. “Ana. You have breast cancer.”
I was diagnosed on February 7, 2007 with a malignant Phyllodes tumor. Phyllodes tumors are extremely rare – only 1% of all breast tumors are Phyllodes. They are most commonly benign so having a malignant Phyllodes tumor is even more rare. The most common symptom is rapid growth of the tumor, though luckily it doesn’t tend to spread to other parts of the body.
I was in complete shock. The doctor was explaining treatment and our next course of action but it sounded like I was underwater and everyone was talking about me above the surface. I had never had surgery, stitches, not even a cavity. I remember them showing me a book with reconstruction options and thinking this isn’t happening to me. My body can’t look like that. How will I ever feel like a woman? How will I feed my future children? How will someone ever love me?
I opted to have a double mastectomy. I had several tumors on my left breast as well that they were going to remove and I knew if those tests came back positive I couldn’t put myself through this experience again.I think one of the hardest parts of the entire experience was the isolation. I had so much anger and self-pity. All I thought of was what I had lost, not what I had gained.
It has been a long journey to find acceptance and gratitude. It finally came to me the day I gave birth to my daughter Edith. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t breastfeed her, I was there, she was mine, and I had been given this gift of life. I realized I was a survivor.
For me, being a survivor has meant living in gratitude. I know it sounds cliche to say “live each day as if it were your last” but nothing is more true to me. I’m not perfect. I have days where I let the kids watch too much TV. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost my patience or gotten upset over something petty. I’m human. But I know the “big picture” of things. We live life. We welcome adventure. There are nights when we stay out hours past bedtime because no one has stopped laughing since dinner and I can’t bring myself to tell them the fun has to end. Or when we just decide to have ice cream sundaes for dinner because it is too hot outside to cook anything and summer will be over before we know it. In those moments, I know exactly what the meaning of life is and nothing else matters. We will make it home for a decent bedtime another night. We will have plenty of time for our daily routines, school, and healthy dinners. I just want to wake up and take each day as it comes.
I don’t have the answers why some people survive and some don’t. I do know cancer isn’t “fair”. That is takes good people – mothers and mothers who would do anything to be back with their children. When I wake up in the morning that this life is a gift. Being here, being a mother, I don’t take it lightly. I know my second chance at life hasn’t been wasted.