I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing him tell me it was breast cancer. I was only 32. The world stopped. Then it started again—with a whirlwind of consultations and scans and second and third opinions. I ended up at UCLA. I had chemo first to shrink the tumor and then a lumpectomy, radiation, and hormone therapy. They didn’t tell me until right before I was starting that the chemo could affect my ability to have children. This was 2002, and there wasn’t much information out there about young women with breast cancer.
Then I heard about the Young Survival Coalition, which was about to have its annual conference in Philadelphia. I had just finished my fifth chemo session and my lumpectomy; I was pale and bald, and I got on a plane wearing a cap, a mask, and one of those pressure sleeves to keep your arm from swelling after you have your lymph nodes taken out. The other passengers must have been freaked.
I loved the conference. There were hundreds of women my age sharing my concerns. We talked about everything. There were even sex toys. About 11,000 women younger than 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and our issues are different, like How do you keep a relationship going if your libido has tanked because you’re on some drug that suppresses estrogen? Or how can you feel attractive enough to date? And what about the fact that you might not be around to see your kids grow up? When I returned to L.A., I started an informal support and resource network for young women. I got a mass e-mail going by collecting patient names from doctors, nurses, chemo rooms—anywhere and everywhere.
As I joined every organization I could find, the cancer recurred in my spine in 2004 with a tumor that grew so fast, it fractured a vertebra. I had surgery in 2005 and wore a back brace for four months. That’s when I went on extended leave from my job as an executive assistant at Paramount. Luckily I got disability. Then in 2007, the scans started showing spots in my lungs.
I am Stage IV now, otherwise known as advanced, or metastatic, breast cancer. I’m on chemo again. I will always be in treatment. The good news is I’m still here, and I’m in love. We met very L.A. style, at a movie screening right after the lung diagnosis. About ten days after our first date, he came with me to the clinic and held my hand while I was getting all these shots and IVs. Then we went to the beach and watched the sunset. We have been together ever since.
Survival rates are very low. Only 27 percent of advanced breast cancer patients make it beyond five years. I’ve lost so many friends. It’s a tough journey that takes mutual and community support. I’ve been lucky: I have my three older brothers, my niece and nephew, my boyfriend, and so many others who’ve been fantastic.
But I am proof that you can have advanced breast cancer and live long, fully, and well, making a difference in the world. I plan to be here for a while.
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