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I Was Diagnosed With Triple-Negative Breast Cancer In My 30s. Here’s What I Want You To Know

This content was developed by Refinery29 and paid for by Gilead Sciences, Inc. Note individual experiences will vary. Please do not take this article as medical advice, and consult your healthcare provider with any questions.
Photo: courtesy of Rethink Breast Cancer
When Maja* was preparing for her first of two separate mastectomy surgeries, she couldn't find post-operation photos of women who looked like her online. "I wanted to know what I was going to look like — what my scars were going to look like. But all the images I could find of survivors on the internet were of white women who had different bodies than I did,” she says.
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As a survivor of stage three triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), a uniquely aggressive form of breast cancer marked by cells that lack standard cancerous receptors, making it much harder to treat — she’s long been a committed member of the cancer community. She's an active participant in local and digital support groups. She posts helpful maxims and intimate anecdotes about her battle with breast cancer on her personal Instagram account. She launched the first Canadian TNBC support group on Facebook. And as of late, she's doing a great deal of advocacy work with Rethink Breast Cancer, an organization committed to supporting and educating people affected by breast cancer across the globe. "With Rethink, I'm working to make sure Asian and Hispanic women and other people of color battling cancer feel like they see themselves represented in the cancer community," she says.
Born in the Philippines and raised in Canada, Maja lives with her husband and her son, not far from the house she grew up in. Before her diagnosis at age 39, she worked full-time for the Canadian government, in addition to mothering her son and dancing in local studios in Toronto. “I was always out — always socializing or dancing or doing something with my family,” she says. “This sounds corny, but even before I had cancer, I really loved life.”
Now, four years after her diagnosis, several rounds of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, clinical trials, a double mastectomy, and several other surgeries later, Maja is back at work — and she’s dancing again, too. Much of her hair has grown back, and she’s undergone reconstructive surgery on both of her breasts. At this stage, she looks like an approximation of her old self — but appearances aside, she says life has not merely picked back up where she left off. “Even while I’m in remission, I think about my cancer every single day,” she says. “I think about it every time I take a shower and I look down at my scars, every time I feel a pain or an itch and I wonder if my cancer is back, every time I see an old photo of myself.”
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Medical procedures aside, Maja says that her healing process is nowhere near over. She’s still taking the time and space to adjust to the ways her body has changed. She still leans on friends and family for support. She’s become more spiritual than ever before — and recently, she’s been developing a meditation practice. “I grew up with a religious background, but cancer has re-shifted my energy towards things like meditation and yoga,” she says. “I have really found solace in being present, and expressing gratitude.”
Photo: courtesy of Rethink Breast Cancer
Ahead, in the hopes of learning more about the realities of TNBC for young women, we sat down with Maja to talk about motherhood, body image, and representation in the cancer community, 
Before your official diagnosis, what led you to speak with your doctor about breast cancer? 
“One morning, I was taking a shower, and I felt a lump on my right breast by my armpit. I’d never felt anything like it before — it felt like an M&M — so I was definitely worried. But I hadn’t really considered that it might actually be cancer. I called my doctor right away. She referred me to a breast cancer surgeon, then another one. I had to undergo tons of tests. And let me tell you, the anxiety leading up to the final diagnosis was so terrible. Part of me was saying, No, there's no way you can have cancer, but part of me was also like, Oh my god, I think it's cancer. I’d never had anxiety in my life before that period — and it hasn’t gone away since.“
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Had you ever heard the term “triple-negative” before? How did it feel to find out you had such an aggressive type of breast cancer?
“I’d never heard of it — I thought breast cancer was just breast cancer until I got it. Usually, breast cancer is hormone based, but triple-negative is not — the cause is somewhat unknown. It's hard enough to get diagnosed with cancer — and then to learn that you have one with a limited number of treatment options? And to make matters worse, everyone kept reiterating that this type of cancer is often more aggressive in younger women because of our hormone levels.” 
Treatment-wise, what were your immediate next steps?
“Before we started any kind of treatment plan, my doctor conducted a breast examination and she felt several lumps in my armpit, and she feared that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. She decided to give me a single mastectomy, and after she removed my breast, we found out that serveral lymph nodes were cancerous — so she made the right decision. I had to wait a month to heal before I could begin chemotherapy. And that part was really hard, because I couldn't move; I was in so much pain. My husband had to do everything — cook for me, help me get dressed, watch out for my son. Then, when that finally got better, the next course of treatment began."
“Maybe this sounds like a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but I didn't know how hard it would be to lose my hair. I’d made it through my first cycle of treatment when my hair started falling out. It was really painful; the follicles hurt. I had to get my husband to shave my head, and after that, I couldn’t even recognize myself in the mirror. I felt like I’d lost this thing that I associated with my womanhood — and I was already dealing with having lost one of my breasts. Throughout the process, I was in so much pain, I was really depressed, and I was having these anxiety attacks. I was feeling more emotions than I’ve ever experienced in my life.” 
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Were you officially finished with treatment at that point?
“No, during my treatment, I found that I had the BRCA2 gene mutation. So, after everything, I had to do radiation. And after that, I had to remove my other breast, because I didn’t want to worry about the cancer returning. After that, we did preventative treatments because BRCA2 can lead to ovarian cancer and make you more susceptible to relapsing, and those sent me into full-blown menopause in my 30s. I started having hot flashes. And even still, all my bones hurt. I feel like I'm 90 years old sometimes, like I skipped past my 40s, my 50s, and so on.” 

“I was really depressed right after my second mastectomy. I just didn’t feel like a woman anymore. Everybody has different ways of feeling their womanhood. But for me, my breasts were a part of my identity as a woman — and so was my hair. I felt like my femininity had been taken away from me. After that, I had a lot of body image issues. I had a really hard time grappling with what I looked like.” 
Once you recovered from surgery, how did it feel to reacclimate to your life? 
“I didn’t really figure out who I was until the years after my treatment. After my recovery, I dedicated myself to going to the Cancer Support Center and taking classes on wellness, self-care, and dealing with trauma. I attended a 'five levels of healing' seminar with the Toronto Cancer Support Center that really helped me. 
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“When you’re in treatment, all you're trying to do is just survive. But after your treatment, once you're actually home, the anxiety doesn’t go away. You spend all this time being like, What the hell just happened to me? Did I actually just go through chemo? Did I just lose both breasts? Is my cancer coming back? I did start dancing again. I made plans with friends. I spent time with my family. I returned to work. But I didn’t just return to life as it was, before. I really had to stay involved with the cancer community for my own mental health.”
Photo: courtesy of Rethink Breast Cancer
How did you get involved with Rethink Breast Cancer? 
“Before my diagnosis, I was always doing things. Then, while in the hospital or recovering from surgery, I’d have these depressive moments where I realized my friends were out partying and I was miserable in bed. I was missing out on this stage of my life that everyone else was getting to participate in. 
“I met a lot of women close to my age in support groups, and it was helpful to talk to people experiencing that exact thing — and that’s how I got connected with Rethink. They’re all about broadening the definition of ‘breast cancer patient.’ They want to make sure everyone in the cancer community feels seen and represented. And when I started doing advocacy work for young women with cancer, I felt like there was a lot of room to represent the BIPOC cancer community, as well. There can be a stigma around openness in some cultural communities, and I wanted to make sure women of color felt represented in cancer support groups. Using my own social media channels and Rethink's platforms, I made sure I was sharing my story as publicly as possible, and encouraging other women of color to do the same. I was actively circulating images of me with my scars in the hopes of helping other Asian and Hispanic women feel seen after, or before, their own mastectomy surgeries.”
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Why do you think women of color aren't as well represented as they should be in public cancer forums?
"In certain cultures, believe it or not, you're not supposed to talk about things like your medical diagnoses out loud. Actually, my parents told me to not tell anybody when I was diagnosed. I was taught you should hide something like cancer or you should be ashamed of it because it's a sign of weakness or it's something you brought upon yourself. And I think that stigma exists in a lot of different Asian families. But the truth is, it's not a weakness. Being vulnerable and sharing your story is a sign of strength, so I'm trying to set that example for other Asian and Hispanic women in the cancer community. It's ok to not be ok. We all need to get comfortable with that."
In what ways has your diagnosis changed your philosophy on life? 
“I’ve only recently learned that it’s okay to not be okay. Before my diagnosis, I felt like it was critical that I be as positive as possible. But sometimes it’s okay to feel like shit. Sometimes it’s okay to wallow, but you just can't live there, which goes hand in hand with gratitude. When you need to pull yourself out of a dark place, you do it with gratitude. I've always been a grateful person, but I never realized the meaning of gratitude until I got cancer, until I was close to dying. Every day, I wake up and I feel so grateful just to breathe air. I feel grateful that I am, indeed, waking up. We all tend to forget how much of a privilege it is to live. That it’s a privilege that can be taken away. So if I have any wisdom to share with the world, it would be to just hold on to that.” 
*Last name has been withheld to protect the identity of the subject
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