Breast Cancer. For every young woman who even hears the phrase, a certain image usually comes to mind. Maybe it reminds you of your mom or your aunt or your grandma who bravely battled this disease. Or maybe the term conjures only the color pink. You probably don’t picture a 29-and-a-half-year-old, green smoothie-making, vegetarian-eating, marathon-running, healthy young woman. But that’s exactly what I looked like. That person was me. And I got breast cancer. There, I said it. Now if only I could tell the guys I’m trying to date that’s what happened, and that’s what I’m really thinking about when they’re telling me about balancing work and life and what kind of music they like over a glass of wine. Are you going to be able to handle this? Are you worth my time? I always planned for my road to marriage and motherhood to go something like this: Meet the right guy, and date him for a while. Get married and take the time to enjoy that. Then we decide when we should start a family. You know, like a normal person. But because of my diagnosis, there’s this extreme pressure to move so fast that I can barely stand to move forward with anyone at all. I do occasionally go out on dates, when I can find the time. But the thing is, and I haven’t really vocalized this before, I’m afraid. How do you date after breast cancer? How far into getting to know someone, or being in an actual relationship with that person, do you tell them that you had cancer? Especially one that puts a timeline on your fertility on top of everything else. When I found out during a routine doctor’s appointment that I had a lump in my left breast, my plans for having a family evaporated. There were so many tests and procedures (including four major surgeries — a lumpectomy, bilateral mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery on both breasts) for me to go through and for the doctors to explain, I can hardly keep the events straight now. But the memory of my doctor saying to me, "By the way, we should talk about when you want to have your ovaries removed as well" is the one thing I remember the way I remember where I was on 9/11. That’s not exactly how she said it, to be fair, but she may as well have. It was presented to me as a simple, obvious decision. Studies show that young survivors with my kind of breast cancer (progesterone receptor positive) have an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer later on, she explained. To mitigate the risk, I could have them removed. No big deal. Also, she added, because my cancer was sensitive to hormones, meaning my particular tumors contained proteins that grow in response to exposure to them, there was — good news — a drug I could take that would block my hormones and help prevent my breast cancer from returning. The bad news: All of this would effectively put me into menopause at 31. Now time for another confession: As difficult as surviving breast cancer was, I think the aftermath has turned out to be even harder. From diagnosis to finishing treatment, I just kept thinking, "If I can get through this, I can get on with my life." But what I didn’t realize is how being a breast cancer survivor would then ripple through the rest of my life. Now, at 37 and still single, it feels like that fateful diagnosis is the axis around which the rest of my future plans revolve. And it sucks. And to make it even worse, I’m not allowed to complain about it. I mean, I survived breast cancer, so I should be grateful, right? And I am. I know I am lucky to be here. But the reality is I have always felt that I was meant to be a mom, and I feel that destiny slipping away from me every day, all because of breast cancer. And we need to talk about it. We need to talk about it, because according to estimates from the Young Survival Coalition, there are about 250,000 other women under 40 currently living with a breast cancer diagnosis in the U.S. Another 13,000 young women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Many of these women will be like me: single, childless, with dreams of motherhood and a family of their own making, or at least the desire for the uncomplicated opportunity to decide later. And they will be told to hurry up or kiss those dreams goodbye. I wish I’d known these statistics at the time I was diagnosed. In many ways, it makes me sad to know I’m not alone. But when I would go to the doctor during treatment, I would look around the waiting room and wonder how did I get here? The women there with me were going through hell, too, don’t get me wrong. But I was always the youngest. I once sat in on a breast cancer support group only to leave feeling more burdened and more fearful — and to be honest, jealous and angry, too. "I do it for my husband and my kids," one woman said tearfully. "I couldn’t do it without them." And that was when I knew I wouldn’t be back. These women already had their partners and their kids; they had a reason to go on. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the opportunity to even meet someone one day. Fast forward to today. I’m 37. I’m single. I’m in the best shape of my life, actually. I have my dream job, and I’m living in my dream city. But the clock is ticking, big time. I’m playing with fire: Soon I will need to have my ovaries removed, and I will have to go through drug-induced early menopause, or else I risk this life-threatening disease coming back to claim me. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or what I’m going to do. I’m still afraid I’ll never get to have the children I want the way I want them. I’m not religious, but I do understand that I have to find a way to come to peace with this. I'm slowly learning to trust the timing of my life, and I’m not ready to give up yet. And somehow simply announcing that I feel this way makes it the teensiest bit more bearable. Because I know I’m not alone. I can't be.
This essay is part of Refinery29's ongoing project in partnership with Planned Parenthood, "Her Shorts: Cancer Screenings" to increase awareness for reproductive and sexual health issues. See the short film below.
The music was specially composed specially for this piece by: Mikey Hart. Consulting Producer: Lena Dunham. Producer: Shannon Gibson. Producer: Caren Spruch. Katherine Bernard: Writer/Director. Cinematographer: Carrie Cheek. Camera Op: Nelson Salcedo. Wardrobe: Jesper Gudbergsen. Key MU: Michael Patterson. Key Hair: Tish Celestine