It's rare for young women to be diagnosed with breast cancer. "It's still 5 to 6 percent of all incidence for someone under the age of 40," says Dorraya El-Ashry, chief scientific officer of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. "But even given that, it's the most common cancer among younger patients."
A recent study found there has been a significant rise of stage four breast cancer in young women: The number of 25- to 39-year-olds with metastatic breast cancer increased 32 percent between 2009 and 2015. And just this July, a study found that annual costs associated with metastatic breast cancer among women in the United States will more than double between 2015 and 2030 due to an increase in cases among younger women.
The thought of stage four breast cancer in your 20s or 30s seems unimaginable…until it happens.
In March, I celebrated being three years cancer-free, my heart bursting with gratitude. I was playing tennis, running, taking on a leadership role with a nonprofit, The Pink Agenda, and planning the Italian wedding of my dreams with my fiancé. In April, I found out my breast cancer had metastasized in my right femur.
Truly, in a moment, my worst nightmare became my reality. That’s because all I ever knew was the negative connotation of the word "metastatic." Terminal. Incurable. Tragic.
But as it turns out, that isn't the only meaning of this devastating diagnosis.
Life is about perspective, and positivity has always been my shield. I couldn't change my diagnosis, but I could control my mindset. Though heartbreaking, I have always said breast cancer would never define me. This stage four diagnosis is no exception. So I have refused to skip a beat.
There might not be a cure (yet!), but there is always hope. Today, tomorrow, and every day after. I trust in research and new treatments, and I trust in the timing of my life.
In June, my doctor gave me some advice — two simple words: "Celebrate life." I've done so every day since: champagne in Central Park; savoring days spent at the beach; saying goodbye to the walker I needed after having surgery on my leg; girls' nights with my best friends; watching the sunset along the Hudson River; late-night trips to Van Leeuwen ice cream; dressing up, just because; running on the treadmill for 10 minutes during physical therapy I never thought I would need; going on business trips; and taking a spontaneous vacation to the Amalfi Coast to celebrate my 30th birthday in July.
I've continued to live my best New York City life, cherishing every moment with my loved ones, enjoying the job of my dreams, and seeing beauty in everything — just as I did before.
In these past few months, I've realized I'm surrounded by inspiring women doing the same thing from Los Angeles to New York, nationwide, and around the world. This isn’t just about me. Women living with metastatic breast cancer are called "thrivers" for a reason: Nothing can stop us from living our lives to the fullest.
Here, in their own words, are some of their stories.
Young women get a lot of, "You’re too young." Or, I heard repeatedly, "It's definitely stage one," before my staging had been done.
I was diagnosed at age 30, "de novo," meaning I was diagnosed stage four from the start. It had already spread to my spine. It felt strange because I was the healthiest I'd been in my entire life.
When I found out that it was metastatic — and before I had done more research — I was devastated. I was crying and screaming. I was inconsolable. I couldn't believe it. From what I understood, it was terminal. A death sentence. It felt like so many of my hopes and dreams of the future came crashing down.
Since then, I've learned there's way more to it than when you just google "metastatic breast cancer." You can really live a full life. It doesn't have to be a whole part of me. Every day, I try to maintain 90 percent of me, and then 10 percent of me is dealing with this cancer journey.
In a lot of ways, I actually feel better than I did before my diagnosis.
I am not unrealistic about this disease. But just like there is the possibility of a shortened life span, there are possibilities of wonderful things too. I want to stay myself — and I've realized that I can stay myself and it doesn't have to be this huge part of my thoughts. I don't even think about it all the time anymore. And I’m still in heavy treatment.
I have changed my lifestyle a lot since diagnosis: I eat way more fruits and vegetables, stopped drinking, prioritize moving my body, and cut down work and family stress by meditating and saying mantras. In a lot of ways, I actually feel better than I did before.
I am fully living my life. I have joy. I love to dance. I'm super active. I love surfing. Pre-diagnosis, I was surfing three hours every single day, five or six times a week. You couldn't get me out of the water. I had to start wearing a watch because, otherwise, I would just stay out there all day, surfing and watching dolphins.
I just went surfing and caught this beautiful wave — fully bald — in Montauk, New York. I fell off and worried that I hurt myself, so I had to stop for a little bit. My doctors put me on probation [laughs].
But I am still working out. I worked out four to five days a week during chemo to feel like myself. When I lost my hair and my eyelashes and my eyebrows, I felt like I was watching myself fall off. Everything that made me me was going away. And I was like, If I can keep using my body, I’m going to keep using my body.
It takes so much mental and physical strength to get up every day and say, "I'm going to keep going, even though there’s no bell to be rung or finish line necessarily to be crossed." I remain hopeful for the future but grounded in the present. I know anything is possible for the future, good and bad. Right now, I am optimistic.
I want people to know that we are still living humans. We don't have an expiration date. Nobody knows how long they have to live. I want people to remember that we're the same people that we were before, in spite of this dis-ease. I'm not a cancer patient. I'm me."
Every morning I look in the mirror and tell myself things like, "I'm healed," or "I'm alive." Sometimes it feels like I'm dying all the time, but I remind myself that part of that is just being alive. I have to remind myself I am alive right now — and remember that.
People who know you personally don't want to face the possibility that you might die. People don't like to talk about progression or having stage four breast cancer. I mean, that's what everyone’s trying to avoid.
Sometimes I feel like the end is coming, and I need people to realize that's okay for me to feel. It's not giving up. Because other days I feel like I'm thriving and I can live with this for a long time. A good example is now: The meds are working and there's no progression.
I want to live my life the way I want to, not as others want me to do.
My body feels better than it has in a long time. So I think, like, Fuck yeah, this is great! I’m going to be living with cancer for a long time and be able to see my two kids grow up. However, when things do progress or I have symptoms from medications, if I express this outwardly, people think I'm giving up on this "fight."
But it's not a fight. I can't choose what I'm going through. I want to live my life the way I want to, not as others want me to do.
That gives me a lot of strength to say on my bad days, "I don't feel optimistic." And then on my good days, I feel awesome at living. It doesn't have to be one or another. It doesn't have to be black and white.
I feel more mentally healthy than I have in a long time. I’m part of a podcast called Our MBC Life. It has helped me understand my cancer better than I probably could have going to support groups.
I don't know if it was in my wheelhouse before, but getting involved in the community can be empowering because you feel like you're doing something for someone else to avoid going through what you already have."
When you see someone with metastatic breast cancer, often they look fine. It looks like nothing is wrong. You really live a double life. I have my hair back now and you’d never know. You deal with side effects, fertility, your mortality, your femininity. But you also have to keep on going. You don't have a choice.
It's been a whirlwind. When I found out I had stage four breast cancer, I thought I was going to black out. I thought, Oh, my God! I'm 33 and going to die. In my mind, I thought I had done everything right. I had lived a healthy lifestyle, did yoga, went to work every day, and paid my taxes. I couldn't believe this was happening. The first few weeks and months were the hardest — I had no idea what was ahead.
And then you have to go, Okay, I didn't do anything wrong, but this is my reality. And I made peace with it.
You look fear in the face. The worst thing that’s going to happen has already happened.
I have a sticky note on my desk that says, "You can't wait until life isn't hard anymore before you decide to be happy." I look at it when I'm having a tough day and remind myself that being happy is a choice.
When I came out of chemo, I wanted to get stronger. I started weight lifting, went to the gym, and did heavy squats. I documented it on Instagram, and that gave me an identity after going through the initial stages of chemotherapy. But as time has gone on, I don’t really identify as much physically with that person.
I wanted my body to be strong. I wanted to show other people I could be strong. But it's morphed into something else. What I think of as strength isn’t physical anymore. I wanted to be a better version of myself than I was before. Now I don't feel that pressure.
You look fear in the face. After such an extreme experience, you're not as afraid. That's also a benefit from it. The worst thing that's going to happen has already happened. I recognize that I can get through very difficult things, things that I never thought I could because I don’t have a choice — and I manage to find joy. I get up every day and do the best I can.
Ballet has always been my first love. I love the rules of it. If it's right, it's right. And if it's wrong, it's wrong. There's no in-between.
But you can also still show your personality. Ballet dancers aren't all robots. A tendu — or leg extended in front — can be beautiful. And it's the simplest movement in the world. It's not a flip. It's not a turn. The simple steps are beautiful.
I've been a dancer my whole life and dance is my life. I was on the path to becoming a professional ballet dancer — dancing at the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group in New York — and got the news I had metastatic breast cancer.
I'm hopeful because you never know what's around the corner.
I went in knowing nothing about it at age 23, and it took me a good year and a half to really understand what metastatic breast cancer was — and to understand that it's not terrible. I have a short life expectancy, but I've accepted it.
It's been seven years and my mindset has changed. Every year, new treatments come out and something new is discovered. It keeps me hopeful that maybe the next time I need to switch treatments, the next drug could be the one that keeps me alive for 10 or 15 more years. I'm hopeful because you never know what's around the corner.
Anytime I'm in the studio, I put aside what's happening outside that door and am in the moment. Whether it’s teaching, dancing myself, or taking class, it’s like therapy for me — I can release everything. Even if I’m not dancing at the level I was before, I'm able to do the basics, and that's therapeutic for me. Instead of talking to someone, I can dance my feelings away.
I remind myself of a Dolly Parton quote: "If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain." There’s always a hard time before a good time. There’s always something beautiful about a negative. I've had wonderful moments in the past seven years that I wouldn't change for the world, and I’ve just had to go through something really horrible to get a lot of those moments.
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