On the 13th of August 2020, just a week before my 28th Birthday, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Stage 1, Type 2, Invasive Duct Carcenoma.
The week before, I underwent a surgery to have a lump removed from my breast which I had found in March 2020 (just before South Africa went into hard lockdown). The doctors thought it was a fibroadenoma and therefore not harmful. When they removed it however, they discovered that it was in fact a 4cm malignant tumour.
In an instant my life changed forever. I remember hearing my surgeon say those words – “you have breast cancer” – and feeling my whole world shift on its axis. I felt like I had accidentally walked into someone else’s life. How could I have breast cancer?
I saw all my hopes, dreams and the beautiful life I loved being taken away from me in that moment.
I felt the blood drain from my face as the tears and fears swelled inside of me. He continued to talk about my treatment plan. He spoke about mastectomies, lumpectomies, genetics testing, fertility and then chemotherapy. In the fuzzy haze of those minutes spent in his room, I vividly remember him saying to me that chemotherapy would be a non negotiable given my age. That was when the tears spilled over as images of women in movies and TV shows played through my mind. My first thought was – oh my gosh, I’m going to lose my hair!
I went straight from his office to an ultrasound where they scanned my lymph nodes to see if there was any spread (which there wasn’t). When I came out of the hospital, my Dad and my husband, Nick, were waiting for me. I collapsed into their arms, unable to hold myself up any longer. And for the first time since that morning I wept, as the reality of the news I had just received began to sink in.
The following day I went for a CT scan to check that there was no cancer anywhere else in my body. After that Nick and I drove to Christiaan Barnard hospital to meet my oncologist. One day before I didn’t even know what an oncologist was! We spent an hour with her talking through my treatment plan some more. She explained why chemo and the various other steps were necessary and the fact that my young age meant that we had to be aggressive in treating my cancer. The biggest thing to note was that I was only 27 and my tumour was 4cm. My Ki-67 score (rate of cell growth) was high as well which indicated that the cancer cells were dividing rapidly.
The next day I had a haircut scheduled from a few weeks before and on a whim I decided that if I was going to lose my hair in a few weeks time, I would take this opportunity to colour it for the first time in my life. I had never coloured/highlighted my hair, never wanting to damage it and wanting to keep it natural. How ironic, that I spent my whole life up until that point wanting to keep my hair strong and healthy, and now it was going to be taken away from me anyway. To this day I am so glad that I decided to have some fun with my hair because those last few weeks before chemo took my beautiful hair, my hair had never looked better!
The weeks that followed were filled with appointment after appointment.
Our first step was to do fertility treatments in the event that the chemotherapy affected my ovaries. This was a very traumatic process for me. I have wanted to be a Mum for as long as I can remember and so I felt desperate for the process to be a success so we would have a solid plan B if I wasn’t able to conceive naturally. After a few weeks of daily hormone injections, I went in for the egg retrieval procedure. We were hoping for at least 10 eggs but in the end they were only able to get 6.
Going through this process was really hard because it truly felt like my dreams of falling pregnant naturally and being able to have kids when we wanted to was being stolen from me. And as I lay on the table, waiting for the anaesthetic to take effect, the tears streamed out of my eyes as I slowly started to realise just how big an impact my diagnosis would have on the rest of my life
Step 2 was genetics testing to see if my breast cancer was the result of a genetic mutation.
I have no breast cancer in my family which is what also made my diagnosis such a shock. It turned out that I didn’t have any variances in the main cancer genes which meant that we didn’t have a reason for why I got breast cancer. This was both good news and frustrating news. Good news because it meant my risk factors for other cancers or second breast cancers were lower but frustrating because I didn’t have a reason for why this was happening!
Once they had harvested my eggs and frozen the embryos successfully, it was time to start chemotherapy. My oncologist phoned me on Friday 4th September 2020 and said that I would be starting chemotherapy on the Monday. Even though I had known for a few weeks that it was coming, the reality of it was still such a shock.
I spent that weekend doing fun things to take my mind off of the dragon that lay waiting for me on the following Monday.
We went out for dinners, drank great wine and on Sunday, my sisters surprised me with a trip to the West Coast National Park to frolic in the flowers. That was one of the happiest days of my life, where for just a few hours, cancer wasn’t a part of my life. Where I was able to feel true happiness and cherish those special moments with my beautiful sisters.
I felt so beautiful this day, and I remember wondering to myself if I would ever feel beautiful again after what I was about to endure. I can still feel all the emotions I felt on this day. The joy, the desperation to take in every single minute and capture it on camera, the anxiety as the hours ticked by, knowing we would have to return home so that I could face my reality, the temptation to believe that cancer wasn’t really a part of my life and that it had been a bad dream.
The irony of flower season was not lost on me. Just like the flowers here only bloom for a few months of the year and then disappear, I felt as though my own flower season was ending on this day. I knew that the next few months would not hold beauty or joy but pain, hardship and loss.
What I could never have foreseen though, was the immeasurable growth that would take place in the hard months that lay ahead of me.
TBC in Part 2…