You never think it’ll be you. You might know someone: a friend, a co-worker, a family member, but not you. At the same time, the stats don’t lie, and they’re scary. In Canada, 68 women per day will be diagnosed with breast cancer. But yeah, chances are, it won’t be you.
It all starts with minor symptoms. There’s a slight itch on your breast, a little bit of discharge. You are smart. You are proactive. You see your doctor who confirms that there’s nothing to fear. Everything is normal is the phrase you happily believe. Only, everything isn’t normal. The discharge increases—so much so that you wake up with a wet bra and shirt. The itchiness gets worse. Yet your mammogram comes back clear and the recent tests your doctor ran—just in case—are normal.
You’re told you don’t need a specialist, an MRI or an ultrasound. But deep down, you’re worried because your body is telling a different story. That’s what happened to me. Just over a year after I first noticed symptoms, I found it. The Lump. My doctor waved it away. It’s just a cyst. Women your age get them all the time.
Then one night, breast cancer was on the news, and a survivor said we women must listen to our bodies first and push doctors for tests. She said don’t give up until you are satisfied with the results. I don’t know what it was in her voice, but something just clicked inside of me. I made an appointment the next morning.
The ultrasound technician confirmed that there was what looked like a cyst, but that I would have to wait for the specialist for details. Two grueling weeks passed before the results were in. After almost two years since I was first told not to worry, I learned the truth. The Lump was a half-solid cyst, and it was half cancerous. The news felt like it was being delivered in a dream. It wasn’t really happening to me. Everything was a blur, punctuated by frightening words. Early stages. Surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation. More surgery. I had no idea what to expect.
You read articles, you speak with professionals, but nothing prepares you for what’s ahead. I went into surgery expecting the best. After all, I was in the early stages. But the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and I would need another surgery to remove four of them. Next came chemo. Everything was falling apart. Financially? I was broke because I had to stop working. Physically? I was cut and scarred. Emotionally and psychologically? I was empty.
I had never felt so alone. My family was in Europe and I had few close friends, and suddenly, I was angry. I was angry at this disease, angry at having to fight on my own, angry at doctors who took too long to make a diagnosis, and angry at everyone who tried to sympathize, who thought they could understand what I was going through. NO YOU DON’T! I wanted to yell. You don’t know the feeling of sitting in that chemo room by yourself while other patients are comforted by family and friends. You don’t know how it feels to go home and violently vomit from the side effects then spend all day and night in a fetal position on the floor from the pain and nausea. You don’t know that metal taste in your mouth, the multiple neulasta injections to stimulate the white blood cells, your skin burning and peeling in layers from radiation treatments. You just don’t know.
I couldn’t even try to hide my pain because my privacy ended the moment my hair started to fall out. Now, my condition was official and knowing that depleted me psychologically. Any beauty I thought I had left was disappearing. I didn’t know who was looking back at me in the mirror. This disease wasn’t just eating away at my insides. It was breaking down my female protective shield: my looks.
As women, we take great care to look our best. After all, looking beautiful on the outside has been high priority since we were little girls. My hair was my normal, and it would soon be gone. I felt so ashamed.
Then, at my lowest point, hope arrived in the form of an angel. I met Sandra, manager of Continental Hair at Sunnybrook Hospital. She listened, she held my hand, she understood. She introduced me to Michael Suba, owner of Continental Hair in Toronto, Canada’s oldest wig salon, who explained the process of creating a wig from start to finish. What I didn’t realize is that patients should actually be fitted for their wigs before treatment so once hair loss begins, they won’t have to experience the severe shock of going bald, nor try to decide on a wig when they are feeling their worst. Thankfully, I could make a decision while I was still feeling a little bit like me.
Hair loss is such a personal thing, yet it’s so public when it’s yours. Many women hide it because it’s a visible reminder of the pain they’re in. We are fighting for our lives, so why should something so superficial mean so much? Because our hair makes us feel like ourselves—strong and pretty and whole—and when we lose it, we feel weak and vulnerable. My wig was a gift. I could now see my old self again, and the boost of self esteem and privacy it brought let me take control of my journey.
After my treatments, I visited the WellSpring Cancer Support Foundation which offers programs to meet the emotional, social, practical and restorative needs of people living with cancer. There, I signed up for workshops, and found I wasn’t really alone. There are so many women just like me. With five surgeries, chemo and radiation behind me, I’m now a fighter. I’m a better, tougher, more compassionate person who is giving herself the love she needs. I may not be ready to show my face to the world yet, but I am ready to be heard. And if my voice emanates from another frightened woman fighting cancer and winning, then I know one thing for sure: We are all one step closer to a cure.
If you feel alone or if you want to talk, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s fight this fight together. This story was shared anonymously.