1 Year Since the Worst News of My Life: How I Navigated a Breast Cancer Diagnosis at 27

They don’t tell ya this when you get cancer, but once they have a suspicion that you’re sick, shit moves fast.

So fast that you don’t really have time to think about any of it.

I often get asked how it happened.

How’d I find out? When did I find out? And of course – do I have a family history of cancer? (No, and many breast cancer diagnoses don’t have family history tied to them, either.)

And I usually repeat the same thing over and over. Sometimes without much detail, sometimes with more.

But it’s been a year now since this whole shit show came to head, so I decided I’d write down a little timeline of the pre-diagnosis to diagnosis stage for y’all. Consider it a cancerversary gift from me to you.

2020: The year that, when asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” – you better be prepared to find out

2020 was a lot of things for a lot of people. But it wasn’t so bad for me. Well, not until the very end.

December 2020: Age 26, 2 months until my birthday

Noticed a lump in my left breast.

I might have been showering. I might have been taking my bra off for the night or putting it on at the beginning of the day. Who knows? I don’t remember. But I felt something.

It felt weird, but I didn’t think it was cancer. Not even for a second. Like, why would I? But when the lump didn’t go away after a few days, I asked my boyfriend to check it out. He’s more paranoid than I am about things regarding health, so when he said I should go to the doctor, I said maybe after the holidays and kind of shrugged it off. But he was adamant. So a few days later, I asked my mom to feel the lump. She said the same thing. Still, I didn’t want to try to get a doctor’s appointment a week before Christmas, our anniversary, and the new year, so I scheduled an appointment for January. It was next year’s problem.

2021: Last year might have been the worst year of your lives, but not me!

If you thought 2020 was bad, I can do you one better!

January 2021: Age 26, 1 month until my birthday

January 11: Go in to my normal clinic, see a nurse practitioner. Tell her what’s going on. She’s nice, but she of course doesn’t think it’s cancer either.

I’m young, I’m healthy, I show no physical signs of illness besides the gigantic lump in my breast (which is not visible to the naked eye – you’d literally have to touch it to “see” it). She tells me to monitor it. Check once a week, not more than that. It’s probably just an inflamed milk duct. Wait until my next period cycle. If it goes away, great. If it starts growing, hurting, call her. Come back in a month to see her for a follow-up regardless.

Gives me this informational sheet that basically says it’s not cancer. Most breast lumps aren’t cancer, it reads. Right. Except for the ones that are.

breast lump pamphlet
“Uncertain breast lump” lol ok

February 2021: Age 26, 10 days until my birthday

February 15: A hell of a day in and of itself, but who knew just how more hellacious my life was about to get? I just had my performance review. It went great; it always did. But I was upset because I didn’t get the compensation I was looking for with my promotion. I was in a bad mood.

And I had to go to the fucking doctor on top of it. And I hated going to the doctor. What were they going to tell me? Oh you’re fine, don’t worry about it, whatever! Thanks for wasting your time coming here today!!! Because that’s what they always did to me. It was nothing. I was fine. Pay your copay. Go home.

So I got to the clinic. I checked in. I chatted with the same nurse practitioner. This time, she was a bit more serious. The lump hadn’t gotten any worse in the past month, but it hadn’t gotten any better, either. She told me she was going to refer me to breast imaging so they could tell me for sure what’s going on. Still, she was of the mindset that it was probably a cyst, nothing to worry about. I didn’t have any of the “signs” of breast cancer – no puckering of the skin, no discoloration, no discharge, no visible changes – nothing. Except for a gigantic fucking lump.

From this point, I don’t remember if they called me to schedule the appointment or I called them, but I think the latter. I told them I couldn’t meet until after March 2nd because I was out of town that weekend. My boyfriend and I were heading to Williams Bay, WI, for a birthday weekend getaway. And I wasn’t about to deal with this shit during my birthday.

27th birthday
My 27th birthday, 02/25/21

…so they scheduled me for March 3rd.

March 2021: Age 27, 6 days after my birthday

March 3: They scheduled me for a mammogram and ultrasound. When I went in, I had to fill out one of those medical history forms. Wasn’t much to fill in. I can’t remember much, but I think I was in and out within 30, maybe 45 minutes. Boy does it hurt when your breasts are squished between plastic plates for imaging purposes.

The notes from the visit on the medical portal read:

You were seen on Wednesday March 3, 2021. The following issues were addressed:
Lump of left breast

I can’t remember if they told me right then and there that I needed to schedule a follow-up, or if they called me later that day, but they told me I needed to come back for another mammogram and ultrasound.

The notes on the test result portion on the portal read:

MAMMOGRAPHY HIGHLY SUGGESTIVE OF MALIGNANCY
Indeterminant spiculated palpable mass in the upper outer left breast. Ultrasound-guided biopsy recommended.

I started to worry. I started to worry a lot.

March 9: I came in again for another mammogram and ultrasound. And a biopsy. They decided to do a needle biopsy during the ultrasound. I was very scared. I don’t remember if I asked any questions. I don’t remember much after the visit.

The notes from the visit on the medical portal read:

You were seen on Tuesday March 9, 2021. The following issues were addressed:

  • Left breast mass
  • Abnormal mammogram of left breast

a b n o r m a l – every girl’s favorite word to hear about her breasts.

The notes on the test result portion on the portal read:

ULTRASOUND GUIDED BIOPSY
Ultrasound guided biopsy of a left breast mass. Pathology revealed invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3, which is concordant. Ultrasound guided biopsy of a left axillary lymph node. Pathology revealed metastatic disease, which is concordant. Surgical consultation recommended. Further evaluation with bilateral diagnostic mammogram and/or MRI recommended.

But wait! There’s more. I also got this gem:

A. Left axillary lymph node:

  • Portion of lymph node with metastatic carcinoma.

B. Core biopsy, left breast, 2 o’clock:

  • Invasive ductal carcinoma, Nottingham score 3+3+3. (See comment)

Now, I know how to fucking read, but let me tell ya – I was so confused by all of this. All I really got was “metastatic carcinoma,” which I knew meant cancer that had spread. I was, at this point, self-teaching cancer terminology. I didn’t want to tell my boyfriend. I didn’t want to tell my mom. I didn’t want to give any weight to these words. I knew “metastatic” was code for “has spread” and I conflated it with “terminal” – because in many instances, metastatic = terminal.

So here I am fucking freaking out because the geniuses who invented medical portals think it’s cool to send test results to patients before doctors get a chance to talk results through with them.

March 10: Some lady calls me from the clinic I go to. “Hey, we need you to come in to discuss your recent test results.” I already knew it was cancer. “You can just tell me over the phone.” “No, we need you to come in. Can you come in today?”

No, because I fucking work??? I can’t just drop my life on a dime because y’all don’t want to tell me over the phone. I was irritated. Just fucking tell me I have cancer. I already KNEW by this point. All the “hush hush” bullshit was getting on my nerves.

But I’m not as rude to people on the phone as I am when reflecting on a piss-poor patient experience a year later. So I talked to my managers. Told them what was up. Scheduled myself to go in the next day to ~ discuss my results ~

March 11: It was a Thursday. I don’t remember the weather. I don’t remember what I was wearing. My dad was off of work. My mom was off of work. My boyfriend took the day off. We rode in together to the clinic.

I knew why I was going. I asked if I could bring somebody in over the phone before I went inside. No, because of COVID. They said you could bring somebody in if you were a minor, elderly, or discussing surgery.

I knew why I was going. But I didn’t feel right saying, “Well I’m about to be fucking diagnosed with cancer so I think that’s a good enough reason for me to bring somebody in.”

So I went inside alone.

I waited. Maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20. The same nurse practitioner from before came in. No smile. Low tone. Giving off a depressing aura. I hit record on my phone’s voice recording app. I didn’t want to forget anything she said. And she talked in a fucking circle for six straight minutes until she finally blurted out that “the biopsy came back positive for cancer”. Oh yeah? You think?

“Okay,” I said. “So what happens next?” I didn’t cry. Well…not at first. I had already resigned myself to the fact that it was cancer.

“Do you have anyone here with you?” “Yeah, but they wouldn’t let me bring somebody in.” “Do you want to call someone to come in?” “Yeah.”

They only let me bring one person in and I had to choose who out of the three most important people to me I would be bringing in to tell the worst possible fucking news of my entire life.

I called my mom to come in. I had already text my boyfriend to let him know.

I don’t remember how long we stayed inside the room. I remember I kept asking questions about what happens next, this and that. But she told me the cancer center would call me to make my primary appointment with “the cancer team,” and that they would answer all of my questions. And of course I had a lot to ask.

We left the clinic. I went outside. I ran to my boyfriend. He jumped out of the backseat, we hugged, and we cried. My dad got out of the car, we hugged, and we cried.

And we cried.

And we cried.