Ashley Hart

Ashley Hart - Profile Age: 24

Hometown: Calgary, AB

What was/is your diagnosis? Stage IIA Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Hormone +, HER2-

What school did you attend? Sir Winston Churchill High School

What are your career goal(s)? To be a Veterinary Technician and/or own a Dog Training School

What is your occupation? Veterinary Technician Assistant and Dog Behavioral Specialist

 

Your Cancer experience:

How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?

Being 24, I was naïve enough to think I didn’t need to do self-breast exams. I saw my gynecologist once a year and he did an exam which I thought was sufficient.

I rolled over in bed one morning before work and my arm brushed along my breast and I felt a lump. I immediately called my GP and was not able to get an appointment for two weeks. There was no way I was going to wait two weeks! So my fiancée and I went to the urgent care centre and the doctor there felt the lump and told me she was sure it was just a cyst. It was painful to the touch. So just to be sure she sent me that afternoon to have an ultrasound. During the ultrasound the radiologist explained to me that my lump was not a cyst and I needed to have it removed ASAP no matter what the diagnosis is. I knew then that whatever it was it wasn’t good. Three weeks later I had a core needle biopsy. My biopsy on a Wednesday and the following Monday I received a call from my doctor asking me to come to his office to review my results.

What year was it? What was your age at the time?

May 30, 2011. I was 24-years-old.

In which hospitals were you treated?

I have been treated at the Foothills Hospital and Tom Baker Cancer Centre, both in Calgary, AB.

At what level of education were you at diagnosis?

I finished high school seven years ago and was in school to become a Veterinary Technologist. I had also finished my Certificate for Dog Behavioral Specialist.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?

When I was first diagnosed I was devastated and so confused. What do you mean a 24-year-old has breast cancer? What do you mean I’m the 24-year-old with breast cancer?

Not only had I thought that I was invincible from serious illness, the thought of breast cancer seemed absurd. I felt really lost. I couldn’t answer why this had happened to me. Was it because I had smoked for eight years? (I quit two days before surgery and haven’t looked back.) Was it because I have endometriosis and have been on the pill consecutively for nine years? I needed an answer and something to blame it on. I was not ok with just because. I have since found out I am not old enough for risk factors (i.e. smoking) to matter or affect me. I was very scared of the treatments that were to follow. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were terrifying. Only old people get chemotherapy and it’s when they are dying!

How did your family react?

My fiancée was very upset. We were four weeks away from our wedding when I was diagnosed. We had been planning for a year! It was really hard on us to decide if we should postpone our special day or not, in the end we decided not to. Like most spouses, my fiancée felt like he needed to fix it the tumor and in reality he couldn’t do anything. It was extremely hard for him to deal with.

My mom was devastated. I think she wished she could take it away and make it all better. The rest of my family reacted how you would expect them to: very upset, scared, and wanting to do anything they could to help.

How did your friends react? Were you treated differently, or did things remain the same?

My friends were great. I haven’t lost any friends through this process although maybe some people I thought would reach out more haven’t. I also had a lot of acquaintances become great friends! Some have come over and walked our dogs for us and others have had us over for dinners or taken us out for ice cream. We are having a Head Shaving Barbeque later this week and have invited all of our friends. Most of the guys will be shaving their heads in support of me and cancer. I feel really loved.

What did your treatment consist of?

I had a lumpectomy four days after my wedding. My doctor and I decided if the tumour looked nasty he would perform a mastectomy while I was still under as I thought it would be stupid to wake me up and ask if he could. The day before surgery my breast was injected with a radioactive substance so they could perform a sentinel node biopsy while I was under. I was told that the two sentinel nodes the substance had drained to were clear. But beside them my surgeon felt two hard lumps. These turned out to be two other sentinel nodes that were to full of cancer to drain too. After he found these he performed an auxiliary node dissection. Two out of 26 nodes tested positive. I had a slight complication after surgery: I developed cording. This is when dead lymphatic vessels in my arm dry up and become fibrous. It is very painful and results in not having great range of motion. I did physio for a few weeks and it got rid of all that.

My chemotherapy started exactly six weeks after surgery. I was prescribed the regiment FEC-D. The first three treatments being FEC and the last are docetaxel. They are all three weeks apart. I have only had one treatment thus far.

I have been told I will have radiation following chemo and then five years of hormone therapy.

The surgery went fine. The drain was a pain and caused more irritation then the surgery itself. It also hurt a lot when it was time to come out but very glad when it did. The chemo went better than I thought although I was tired for longer than I had expected to be. I am 13 days out now since the first session and am waiting for my hair to start to fall out. My scalp is sore and itchy but I don’t want to jump the gun and shave it until I see that it is falling out. I had the usual side effects like gross taste in my mouth for a few days and huge chemo brain set it but again it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. Emotionally I have been pretty good. I am a person that gets anxious waiting for treatments to happen. Once they do I am ok. Thankfully I haven’t experienced any dark days. The days when it does affect me it just makes me super angry and grumpy. I think getting angry at my cancer helps me get through it.

What is your current medical status?

My current medical status is cancer free but I am doing chemotherapy and further treatment to prevent any further problems.

How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually)?

My life is great, other than appointments and treatments. I get the summer off to golf and hang out with friends. I’m sometimes bored and wish I could work but I know working with animals is not a safe place to be when my immune system is compromised.

What is the toughest part of your challenge?

The toughest part of cancer for me is not being able to understand how I got it. I am learning that I will never know. I think it is human nature to blame something when things go wrong. It’s hard not having something to blame cancer on.

What was the best lesson you took away from your challenge?

My best lesson I have took from this is that we should all listen to our bodies and follow up with anything that is different. Although they say there are no symptoms with breast cancer, I recall being very tired leading up to surgery. I was having trouble staying awake at work for two or three months prior to diagnoses. I have also learned to not sweat the small stuff. I have realized that when someone is in the wrong lane or just not driving the way I want them to, although I may be annoyed, I don’t get mad anymore. It seems so trivial compared to fighting cancer.

What really motivates you to keep going while you are sick?

So far I haven’t needed much motivation. I guess I never thought of it as a choice to fight. It is what it is and I will have to do what needs to be done.

What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now?  How have they changed since before your diagnosis?

My thoughts about my cancer are the same as when I was first diagnosed. I am still confused and angry but those are slowly being replaced by the feeling of wanting to help other young woman. I think it is very important to tell people my age to do self-exams and I think there needs to be more support for people around my age. I have found during this journey a lot of women are over 30, which is still considered very young, but at that age I have also noticed a lot of women have had their children and don’t have to face the fertility decision that I have had to.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?

I have attended a few support groups and have found them both helpful and not helpful. It is wonderful to be able to reach out to people and realize you are not the only one going through this. At the same time, some of the groups I have been too I have been stared at. Since most people at these groups are over 60, I am extremely abnormal. I usually take my mom with me to these groups and sometimes people think she is the patient. I have although found a great friend that went through this approximately six years ago at the age of 28. She has helped me so much through everything.

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada?

I was connected with YACC through the nurse that gave me the pre-chemo tour at the Tom Baker. She provided me with a DVD and let me know about a video session they were having.