Current Age (at time of profile): 25
You can also visit Melanie’s blog – The Pink Diaries.
Hometown: Glace Bay, NS
How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?
I had just graduated with my Bachelor of Education in May, 2006 and decided to travel to South Korea to teach ESL. I moved there in early August, 2006, with my boyfriend and was having an amazing time. However, one morning (just one month after arriving) I noticed a lump in my breast while examining my breasts in the shower. I immediately panicked. One thousand thoughts rushed through my mind as I paced the floor: What if I have cancer? I am on the other side of the world! Am I going to die? My boyfriend assured me that it was probably nothing serious. I called my mom and she also assured me that many women find lumps in their breasts, but that I should get it checked out.
The next day one of the Korean girls who worked at my school arranged for me to meet with a doctor and I quickly found myself at a women’s hospital trying to explain my situation to a doctor who could barely speak English. I very slowly explained to her that I found a lump in my breast and she first gave me a physical examination. Within a half an hour I was in another room receiving an ultrasound. I really thought it was going to be nothing. But, to my surprise, the doctor, after viewing the inside of my breast with the ultrasound machine, didn’t seem to think so: I suspect malignant you are young woman may be benign mass we need biopsy. I could barely understand a word she said. And the next thing I knew she was coming at me with a needle and extracting tissue from my breast. I lay on the bed and cried hysterically.
I felt like my world was coming to an end. Could I really have cancer? It all seemed like a horrible nightmare and I really hoped I would wake up soon.
She told me the results would be back in a week. After a painstaking week of waiting, I returned to the hospital for the results. The doctor looked extremely nervous at my return and as soon as I entered her office she blurted out: You have this disease treated in home country. I replied: What disease? Are you saying that I have cancer? She nodded her head: It is 7mm tumor malignant need to remove as soon as possible. Within two days I was on a plane back to Canada.
The doctors in Canada didn’t want to rely on pathology results from a foreign country, so I had to get tested once again upon my return. This time, I received a lumpectomy (mainly because I couldn’t bare to wait around for more biopsy results). The results of the lumpectomy confirmed that it was, indeed, a malignant tumor, but the doctors suspected that I caught it early.
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
It was the first week of September, 2006, when I was diagnosed and I was 25 years old.
At what level of education were you at diagnosis?
I had already completed a B.A. (Music and English) and a B.Ed. at the time of my diagnosis.
Do you work? Not presently, but hopefully I’ll be back at it soon!
What was your diagnosis?
Early Stage Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (the most common form of breast cancer). More specifically: 1.3 cm, Grade l/ll, ER/PR+, Her2-, no lymph node involvement, but some invasion of the lymphatic space within the breast.
What are your career goals?
I am a classical musician and elementary school teacher. My goals are to become a successful teacher, curriculum developer, and music education advocate.
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
I honestly thought I was going to die. I knew nothing about cancer. The fact that I was in a foreign country and had no one to explain the disease to me at first made it one hundred times worse. I remember thinking that my life was just beginning, everything was just beginning to come together for me, and now that was all being taken away. It was the worse feeling in the world.
How did your family react?
Unfortunately, my family had to learn of my diagnosis over the phone with me on the other side of the world. I was in complete shock and called them from a pay phone crying hysterically and repeating I have cancer!!! What am I going to do? over and over.
There was a lot of silence on the phone as I think my parents tried to make sense of everything that was happening. They reassured me that everything would be ok and tried their best to calm me down. They remained extremely strong for me.
When I arrived back in Canada the reaction was nothing but support. I felt like I was not alone I had people by my side every step of the way, loving me and encouraging me to fight my way through.
How did your friends react?
I was surprised at the reaction from friends. Some people that I hadn’t heard from in a long time immediately stepped up to offer their support. Other people (some who I considered to be close friends) weren’t half as supportive as I would have hoped they would be. Cancer has brought me closer to some people and seemed to have distanced me from others. It has really helped me to see who my true friends are and who I can really rely on.
My boyfriend was absolutely amazing throughout everything. He stood by my side each and every step of the way. He has loved me, encouraged me, and supported me more than I ever could have imagined possible. He has definitely been my rock.
What did your treatment consist of?
Medical Side: I received two surgeries. The first was a lumpectomy, where the surgeon removed the tumor and some of the surrounding tissue. The results of the lumpectomy showed that the invasive tumor was surrounded by non-invasive cancer and the margins were not clear. They gave me the option of having more tissue removed or having a mastectomy. I chose a mastectomy.
The second surgery was, then, a modified radical mastectomy accompanied by a sentinel node biopsy. I had these two surgeries on Sept. 15th and 22nd, 2006.
After much thought, I have also decided to have a prophylactic mastectomy (or, have my healthy breast removed) for preventative measures. This operation is scheduled to take place sometime in June. I will also receive immediate reconstruction of both breasts using breast implants at the time of the second mastectomy.
On Nov. 17th, approx. 7 weeks following my surgeries (and after a great deal of debate about how to treat early stage breast cancer in a 25 year old) I began chemotherapy (Adriamycin and Cytoxin or AC). The treatment was administered 4 times, every 3 weeks on an outpatient basis. I just recently had my fourth and final treatment on Feb. 1st, 2006.
I also began Tamoxifen, a type of hormonal therapy, one week following my final chemotherapy treatment, and will remain on it for 5 years.
Non-Medical Side: Physically: Chemotherapy was quite grueling, but was not as bad as I expected. I experienced extreme nausea for the first 3 or 4 days following each treatment and then slowly regained my strength. I usually felt back to normal by the 7th or 8th day. Other side effects were mainly related to the anti-nausea medication: constipation and headaches.
The worst experiences I had with chemo were 2 bizarre reactions I took during my first and second treatments. During the first reaction, my jaw locked and the muscles in my mouth and tongue spasmed, making it hard to swallow and breath. It turned out to be a reaction to the anti-nausea medication Stemetil (and turns out to be somewhat common in younger patients). During the second reaction, my eyes turned extremely red and began to bulge and I felt extreme pressure in my head. I then became dizzy and blacked out. The doctors weren’t sure what caused this!
I also ended up having low white blood cell counts after my first treatment, so I had to take Neupogen injections at home for 7 days after each treatment. Having to take nightly needles added to the stress of chemo. Also, low cell counts caused me to have to delay two of my treatments by a week, so that was discouraging.
Emotionally: I was extremely strong emotionally until I began chemo. After I took the two bizarre reactions, I became full of anxiety and stress. I was constantly worried that something was going to happen to me. I began taking panic attacks, which created a sense of inhibition for me. I was scared to go anywhere or do anything because I was so worried about myself. I eventually learned ways of coping with anxiety and have been overcoming it more and more as each day passes. I suppose it was a sort of situational anxiety.
In which hospital(s) were you treated?
Cape Breton Regional Hospital.
What is your current medical status?
As far as anyone knows, I am disease free.
What is/was the toughest part of your challenge?
The toughest part so far has been dealing with the anxiety associated with chemotherapy. At one point, I even felt as though it were taking over my life. But, fortunately, I have been able to overcome that obstacle.
What is/was the best part of your challenge?
My diagnosis has made me a stronger person than I ever imagined I could be. I feel that if I can overcome cancer, I can overcome anything.
What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?
I acquired what I refer to as tunnel vision through this experience. I did my best to look for the light at the end of the tunnel and strived to reach it. I looked forward to being happy with my boyfriend again, traveling, working, and being able to socialize. All the things that I once took for granted ironically became the things that I strived for.
What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?
I have learned that there is something positive to gain from each and everything that happens in life. I believe that everything happens for a reason. There is always a positive side to every situation. Being able to see that has made me a much happier person.
I have also learned to never take things for granted. Each and every day I think about how thankful I am for the life and all the beautiful people I have been blessed with.
In regards to cancer, I learned that being prepared mentally for things can be a great tool in dealing with this disease. One of the best methods of preparedness is knowledge. Being knowledgeable about my disease made me feel empowered and much more confident about my fight. It also enabled me to better understand the things that my doctors were telling me and helped me to ask informed questions that I otherwise would not have known to ask.
What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?
They have changed tremendously! I always thought that cancer equaled death. But now I realize that there is a great deal of hope out there for us. Cancer is not a death sentence! I also learned that cancer affects people of all ages. It does not discriminate.
What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours?
It is very important for young women to do self breast exams as much as possible (at least once per month). A self breast exam helped me to catch my cancer in its early stages, which gave me a favorable prognosis. Since mammograms are not available to us, it is important to be as proactive with our own health as possible.
Unfortunately, the biggest risk factor for breast cancer is being female, which is something that we ladies cannot control. Other risk factors can include: age (breast cancer usually occurs in women over 50, but that is obviously not always the case), family history of breast cancer, starting your period before the age of 12, having no children or having children after the age of 30, the use of oral contraceptives and post-menopausal hormone therapy, drinking alcohol (especially more than one drink per day), obesity and consuming high-fat foods, and level of physical activity (you should engage in at least 6 hours of vigorous activity per week).
Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?
If you did not attend a support group, why?
I felt that my family, friends, and my boyfriend, Michael, provided me with the support I needed.
I also found support through keeping in contact with others I know who have dealt with cancer and through writing a blog. Writing in a blog not only helped me to express my feelings, but also kept me in contact with many people who followed my story and supported my fight through writing comments and sending emails. The blog also allowed me to create awareness about cancer and to provide a way to relate for people who may be going through similar situations.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?
I learned about Young Adult Cancer through my friend, Kim Reid, who is also a breast cancer survivor. I feel that it is great to create a community of support for young cancer survivors. Dealing with cancer as a young adult definitely presents unique challenges. It is important that we have others to relate to and to know that we are not alone.