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My Gut Saved My Life

I tend to talk to myself about pretty much anything and everything including what I’m going to have for dinner to where my next adventure might take me. Over the years, the scope of my private chats has grown to include conversations with friends and family who have passed. This has been a great source of comfort as I strongly believe loved ones are with you when you think of them. With that being said, I find myself lately speaking to my older brother who recently died.

 

Arthur passed April 29, 2019 from metastatic melanoma. While this wasn’t his first battle with cancer, it was the one that took his life. Dying just shy of his 49th birthday has been the clearest reminder ever that life needs to be lived on my terms: fully, completely, and with intent – a mantra I say to myself at least once a day!

 

Every member of my immediate family has been hit with the dreaded “C” word. Although my Dad had throat cancer when I was in college, it was Parkinson’s that took his life 9 years ago. Prior to fighting melanoma (two times), my brother also fought prostate cancer. My mother, younger sister and I all dealt with breast cancer diagnoses that led to a lumpectomy for Mom and bilateral mastectomies for my younger sister and I. Strangely enough, we do not carry any known genetic mutations known for causing these diseases

My breast cancer journey was a terrifying and intense roller coaster ride that completely changed the course of my life and purpose. I found the lump in my right breast in March 2004 – about 6 years after I decided to move back to America from living in the Middle East. At the time, I was a passionate 32 year-old woman starting a career in the nonprofit sector as a fundraising professional. I was also a serial dater who was happily living the single life in Cambridge, MA. 

 

I remember the day like it was yesterday. Shortly after coming out of the shower, I felt myself drawn to a hard area on the left side of my right breast. I didn’t do a breast exam as regularly as I should have but something that day – my gut – told me to place my hand on my breast and take note of the abnormal feeling that was there.


Soon after this discovery, I went to visit my doctor. As someone who is not afraid to speak up for herself, I asked him to check the area I was concerned about. I was amazed and annoyed that my doctor was reluctant to do so. After a routine exam, he was quick to say that nothing was wrong and dismissed me by saying, “I was too young and that there was no way I could have breast cancer.”


A few months after my first visit to the gynecologist, I went back. The lump I felt was still there and actually felt more pronounced than ever. After I adamantly insisted on further exploration, a needle aspiration (a quick procedure in the office that determines if a mass is of concern) was performed. Because I was so young at the time, the results from the needle aspiration were inconclusive. Although the doctor thought I could have a benign cyst or fibroid, the biopsy that followed confirmed that I did in fact have Stage 1 breast cancer.

The shock of this diagnosis completely rattled my world. Aside from my doctor being surprised by the biopsy results, the hardest part of processing this news was that my family lived on the other side of the country. On top of that, my family had to grapple with my shocking news while also caring for my (late) father who had Parkinson’s disease.

 

So, at 32, my world turned upside down and I was faced with a new reality. In order to accept that I was now a cancer patient, I quickly let go of the life I knew. Instead of dating, focusing on building my career and planning my next travel adventure, all my energy shifted to fighting breast cancer. 

 

Determining the course of treatment was one of the most difficult parts of my ordeal as there were so many questions I had to ask myself before making the decision that was right for me. Because I was single and had no children, I needed to think long and hard about how my choices would influence my confidence, how I felt about my body, and my feelings about the possibility of carrying (or not carrying) a child. 

 

In order to address these tough questions, I sought support and guidance from others who faced similar questions before deciding how to treat their cancer. Unfortunately, (and yet fortunately), it was surprisingly easy to find support groups and organizations for young women breast cancer patients. And so, I became a part of a tribe I never wanted to join.

 

To this day, I recall being told that the “special” takeaway from being diagnosed with breast cancer (at any age) is that you realize how much you are loved. This sentiment kept me going and helped with making my treatment decision. Hence, because my chances of recurrence were high due to my age, my family and I felt chemotherapy, followed by surgery, would be the best route to take.

 

It was also uncertain if I would be able to have children because of all the medication and chemicals pumped into my body. Even though my doctors offered me the option to freeze my eggs, I was quick to shut that down. Just as my gut told me that I was sick before it was confirmed, it also told me that if I was meant to have children, it would work out in a natural way.

 

My first surgery was a lumpectomy. This surgery was the most traumatic experience of my life because a nurse administered the wrong medication during recovery and, as a result, I almost died. No joke, I did see the light and it was absolutely terrifying. 

 

In addition to the horrific medical errors I faced, there was concern that the margins around my tumor weren’t clear. It was also discovered that the healthy breast actually had the beginning stages of cancer forming as well. Therefore, I needed another surgery; in addition to chemotherapy. And so, I started four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a bilateral mastectomy.

 

Chemotherapy sucks. There’s nothing good I can say about it except that I ate whatever I wanted (and gained A LOT of weight) during that time. I recall eating tons of pasta, bread and chocolate because that’s what I craved. While it wasn’t nutrition at its very best, it gave me comfort. I also lost my hair and honestly didn’t mind the unplanned buzz cut. I rocked super cute hats and channeled my inner J-Lo by creating funky looks with scarves. I even recall wearing all white as a Halloween costume and said I was a Q-Tip! 

 

Shortly after I turned 33, my second surgery took place at a different hospital, with a better medical team than the one that made the medical error. While it was no fun looking like a Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtle thanks to the four drains in my body after the seven hour bilateral mastectomy surgery, I did feel blessed from all the love and support I received from family, friends and colleagues.

The purpose of the bilateral mastectomy was to be aggressive and get the cancer out of my body. Soon after, I had surgery three and four to reconstruct my chest. I remember feeling like Jessica Rabbit and having “fun” being blown up to a new bra size. Thanks to my wicked sense of humor, I rejoiced in no longer being lopsided. It also didn’t suck that I had a serious crush on my plastic surgeon!

 

While going through this hell, I couldn’t think of anything else and struggled to see an end in sight. Once the doctors’ visits subsided, I crashed because I no longer had instructions of what to do. Although I didn’t know how or where to begin, I was finally able to start processing how my gut truly saved my life.

 

Staying true to form, I begin to channel my experience and process my journey by hitting refresh and moving to San Francisco. I joined the board of a breast cancer advocacy organization fighting both the epidemic and the pink ribbon industry while also getting involved with a support group for young survivors. In addition to finding “sisters”, I found a space to work through my emotions through writing and working to make a difference for others battling breast cancer.

As I began adjusting to my new normal, I was hyper aware of how my body felt. Again, my gut played a key role here. Since I was deemed as “high risk” thanks to getting breast cancer at a young age, I was monitored closely. This led to me having a partial hysterectomy because my blood work for ovarian cancer was inconclusive too.

 

One of my biggest fears about my life after cancer was being rejected because of the changes my body went through. It took me about two years before I got back into the dating game. While it felt good to do something “normal” and I met some nice people, the rug was pulled from underneath me when a guy I had dated for a few months called it off by saying, “Your breasts don’t do anything for me.”

 

While the words of this stupid boy stung and shook my confidence, his words also taught me that his cruel statement had absolutely nothing to do with me. Unfortunately, it took me about me about two years to bounce back from this and put myself into the wonderful world of dating yet again.

 

It’s been 15 years since my diagnosis and treatment. To this day, I define my life as before and after cancer because so much from this experience changed who I was. Today, I am the closest to feeling how I felt before being diagnosed many years ago. Through therapy, self reflection and unconditional love from my family and friends, I clawed my way back to feeling alive, engaged and present. I am confident to put myself out there, no longer fear the unknown that might happen to my body, and am open to living fully. For this, I am grateful to my gut. 

 

The internal fire that got me through the trauma of going through breast cancer at a young age also ignited me to hit yet another refresh nearly two years ago. Just like I listened to the voice that told me I had cancer, I also paid close attention to it telling me to do what brings me joy. So, I followed my wanderlust spirit, left my life in San Francisco and hit refresh by moving to South Korea to work as an English teacher. 

 

I will always thank my gut for guiding me to where I am supposed to be. However, with the passing of my brother, I am now taking a pause to process, regroup and recalibrate. In time, I am confident my gut will lead me, yet again, to my next refresh. 

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