The day I found out I had breast cancer, I was packing for a trip to Miami, where my fiancé and I were planning to get married in a few months. It was July of 2010, and my biggest worry at the time was whether or not we should spring for the cappuccino bar at the reception. I was 35 years old.
Instead of getting married that year, I got my breasts removed. Then I had them reconstructed, with silicone implants slipped under my skin. I received eight rounds of intravenous chemotherapy and 25 zaps of radiation.
When I heard that Susan G. Komen for the Cure had decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood this week, I was bewildered, and angry. Planned Parenthood provides crucial preventive-health services for women, breast-cancer screenings among them. Fewer funds mean fewer screenings. Komen reversed its decision amid a firestorm of criticism, but the debacle illustrates the looming threats to Planned Parenthood—and to women like me.
Planned Parenthood had already come under threat last year when Congress voted to cut off federal funds to the group, amid a misinformation campaign that claimed the federal funds were being spent on abortion—not true. The bill passed the House, but thankfully died in the Senate, with Nancy Pelosi calling the campaign “a war on women.” No doubt, this issue will be coming up again.
When the news broke that Komen planned to pull its funding, my online cancer pals typed in fury. Some had learned how to do breast self-exams from Planned Parenthood back when they were broke college students, and went on to discover their own lumps. One woman found her lump after she lost her job and health insurance. Not knowing where to go, she turned to Planned Parenthood, which got her the diagnosis and treatment that probably saved her life.
“Shame on Komen” was a common refrain in our private support group on Facebook. Women vowed never to raise money for the pink-ribbon organization, to instead funnel their funds and efforts toward other groups, rather than the one that is ostensibly devoted to “the cure.” Who knows if these women will so easily re-embrace Komen, even with the group’s reversal.
I’m one of 10,000 women under the age of 40 diagnosed with breast cancer each year in America. Many are still in their twenties, finishing up college or heading to graduate school. As younger women, we struggle to get diagnosed. Our doctors tell us that breast cancer in young women is “rare” and our lumps are probably benign.
That’s what happened to me. If my tumor had been diagnosed when I first brought it to the attention of my doctor when I was 34, it might have been Stage 1, eligible for a relatively simple lumpectomy with radiation, and perhaps a five-year course of medication. But the nurse practitioner at my gynecologist’s office told me it was benign, so I skipped away, unworried.
Eight months later, breast cancer in the news reminded me to check on my lump. It was still there, and was it…bigger? A return visit to the gynecologist led to my diagnosis: Stage 2 breast cancer with local lymph-node involvement, meaning I was in for a battle for my life.
Or course I was furious that I hadn’t been correctly diagnosed when I first reported the lump, but I had too many big decisions to make, and too many serious medical procedures to undergo, to do anything about it at the time. First up: fertility treatment. My fiancé and I had been eagerly planning for a family, but chemo isn’t kind to the ovaries.
It wasn’t covered by my insurance, so we shelled out more than $17,000 to freeze embryos and eggs, which we hope to eventually use to try to have a baby. The first night I had to inject myself with the fertility medication, I sat, crying, with the needle poised over my leg. Deep breaths, and counts to three, then five, then 10, while I mustered the courage to inject myself—and still managed to screw it up, watching in horror as the pricey medication dribbled down the side of my leg.
My days were filled with scans, tests, and endless doctor visits: breast surgeons, plastic surgeons, genetics counselor, oncologist, radiation oncologist, fertility specialist, allergist when a new chemo made me break out into a million itchy bumps. I finally counted up my appointments and realized I had gone to 100 of them in the course of a year—no wonder my freelance-writing income shriveled by half. I just didn’t have time to work.
The day of my bilateral mastectomies was by far the worst day of my life. As my fiancé accompanied me to the surgical waiting room, he joked, “It’s not too late to change your mind!” But it was. When I woke up from surgery, I was in incredible pain, even with a morphine pump. It felt like an elephant had stomped on my chest.
The weeks and months that followed were rough as I struggled to adjust to my new shape and my physical limitations, both of which were constantly changing. I couldn’t reach above shoulder height for weeks after my surgery, and getting dressed was painful for months. To prepare for my breast implants, my plastic surgeon gradually stretched the skin and muscle on my chest by injecting saline into little sacs that served as "expanders," making room for the implants. Ouch. Only recently has side-sleeping become comfortable again. Even so, I haven’t slept through the night since my diagnosis.
Chemo made pizza sauce taste like molten metal, and it knocked me physically lower and lower with each round. I relocated temporarily from my apartment in New York City to my parents’ home in Allentown, Pa., so they could take care of me, since my fiancé often travels for work. One winter morning I awoke feeling like I’d been beaten with a stick, and I realized the only thing I was looking forward to that day, was for it to be over. This feeling seriously scared me.
Today, I am cancer free, although laden with cancer debt ($30,000). I will still need to take estrogen-blocking pills for at five years and be monitored by my doctors for the rest of my life.
That’s why breast exams—the kind Planned Parenthood performs for 750,000 women each year—are so critical. Breast cancer almost always worsens over time. If it is caught in its early stages, women are much more likely to get gentler treatments and still beat it. Ninety-nine percent of patients survive five years when the tumor is small and hasn’t spread to the local lymph nodes. Once it spreads, like mine did, the five-year survival rate drops to 84 percent. (Breast cancer can return after five years, but five-year survival is an accepted measuring stick.)
We don’t know how to prevent breast cancer, so all we can do is try to catch it as early as possible and minimize its effects. The young women who turn to Planned Parenthood for their health care—and all young women—deserve thoughtful and thorough breast screening. We need good healthcare, and timely diagnoses, not political infighting.