How Getting Breast Cancer In My 20s Changed My Relationship With My Body

My day started out normal, a day like any other. It was the middle of summer last year, and I decided to go to the gym. After my workout, I went home and showered —and somewhere in the midst of my routine, I felt an unfamiliar lump on my upper chest. It’s not really ‘on’ my breast, so it’s probably nothing, I told myself. Plus, I’m only 28 years old. Who gets breast cancer at such a young age? As it turns out, I can — nearly 10% of all breast cancer cases in the U.S. are found in women under age 45.
Any attempts to quietly suppress anxiety about the lump were unsuccessful. My mother is a breast cancer survivor, and because of this, the possibility of me also being diagnosed with the disease has been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember. Knowing that family history is a risk factor for breast cancer — and understanding that Black women have higher rates of breast cancer at a young age — prompted me to be diligent about my health at an early age: I often talked with my doctor about my concerns and risks. But with the pandemic steadily reaching its third year, I fell behind on my routine healthcare. Maybe, I thought, suddenly feeling unsettled, I should get this looked at.
I scheduled a visit with my doctor right away. Mammograms, breast ultrasounds, and various other tests were completed, and then, shortly after, on June 24, I learned I had breast cancer. Life changed rapidly and significantly, and while I had some experience with breast cancer due to my mom’s journey, I wasn’t prepared for all the changes, both mentally and physically, that would occur.
Leading up to my chemotherapy treatment, my care team suggested retrieving my eggs out of precaution (the type of chemo drug I’d be receiving, they explained, could impact my fertility). At the time, I hadn’t even been thinking about kids or starting a family (I wasn't at that stage in my life yet), so learning that some types of treatments can affect your ability to bear children naturally was a surprise to me. And I was grateful that they informed me. Still, going through the process was no easy feat — in fact, I consider it to be the craziest two weeks of my life. 
The hormone injections I had to administer to myself twice a day caused serious bloating and mood swings, and when I was really struggling with my mental health, I asked friends or family to come over and give me my shots so I wouldn’t be alone. After the surgical procedure, when it was confirmed that the doctors successfully retrieved viable eggs, I felt relieved and validated. But this, of course, was only the beginning.
Some types of chemo, I would soon learn, can cause symptoms of menopause. When I wasn’t dealing with hot flashes, I was attempting to sleep. Insomnia, a particularly unpleasant side effect of my treatment, prevented me from truly resting, and sometimes I’d even stay awake for three consecutive days. Fatigue and mood swings became standard. I hadn’t placed much importance on intimacy and dating before my diagnosis, but any inkling of desire was now non-existent. In addition to some weight gain, I experienced odd food cravings and random revulsions. (Water, for instance, suddenly turned my stomach.) I didn’t have a menstrual cycle, which was wonderful, yet strange.
Outside of menopausal symptoms, which subsided about a month after treatment, my body — and my perception of it — changed. My nails turned black and stopped growing, a major departure from the colorful gel polish or pretty acrylics that typically decorated them. I had to forgo my once-biweekly salon visits due to risk of infection from the chemo, so I either avoided exposing my new dark, short nails in public settings out of fear of looking unwell or unhygienic, or attempted to paint them myself.
Before treatment, I knew my hair was going to fall out and didn’t want to go through the trauma of seeing it on my pillow or on the floor. (I loved my natural hair.) So, early on, I went out and bought wigs. I’d never really been into them before, but I wanted to get an idea of what it was like to wear one before I actually had to. Then, I asked my brother to come over and shave all my hair off for me. It was very emotional, but I just thought, I’m going to wear this wig and it’s going to be okay, and the hair will grow back. 
Because nail and hair maintenance had always been huge parts of my self-care routine, having those activities taken away from me during treatment — in addition to witnessing sudden and drastic changes happening to them — was really hard. 
But the biggest adjustment was the changes to my breasts: I underwent a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. Reconstruction was a lengthy process that required multiple phases and temporary tissue expanders that gradually filled to my preferred cup size. I knew breast implants (which would be inserted six months after this point) were supposed to be softer and more natural-looking, but the odd shape of the tissue expanders, which resembled hockey pucks, made the reconstructive process incredibly difficult. 
Before my diagnosis, I had fun with my wardrobe, favoring tight-fitting and skin-exposing pieces that accentuated my body. After surgery, I tried on one of my usual tops without a bra and was totally taken aback by the way the tissue expanders seemed to transform my body into one I no longer recognized — and it made me feel strange and insecure. So, I started wearing oversized tees and sports bras. I struggled with missing the way my body used to be. 
After receiving the diagnosis, I felt numb to the world. I was unable to pause and really, fully process the situation. I never took such a pause during treatment, either, which is probably why, after completing chemotherapy earlier this year, I finally broke down and cried for a long time. Releasing nearly a year’s worth of emotions felt cathartic, and it allowed me to reflect on such a harrowing (albeit fairly common) experience. Now, my focus has shifted to sharing my story publicly.
Today, I’m six months post-op, and I feel more confident about my body and my new breasts — and I’m finally back to being creative with how I dress. Earlier this year, I posted a TikTok about my breast cancer experience. The reactions were swift, plentiful, and supportive, so I began posting more about my journey, from hair growth updates to more general, documentary-style videos focusing on my recovery. 
It feels important to post these because when I was going through my journey, I didn’t see any Black women around my age who were sharing their experiences. Had there been, it would have comforted me — I wouldn’t have felt so alone. I want to show the world how a Black woman in her 20s navigates life with breast cancer — the ups and downs, the milestones and setbacks, the good days and the bad. Every part of it.
The preceding interview with Kianna was told to Refinery29 and has been edited for length and clarity.

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