In our current blog series, Exploring the Stages of Breast Cancer, we’ve learned that a breast cancer diagnosis can be scary and traumatic at any stage. Today, we’ll introduce you to women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer at Stage 2, sharing their unique challenges, emotions, and fears with you.
“Can I still have children?”
Kieryn was a young, working professional when she received her breast cancer diagnosis. She and her husband had been dealing with infertility for several years and were going through infertility treatments. Kieryn was holding out hope for a pregnancy and children. The breast cancer diagnosis was “a huge slap in the face” for her, and the first thing she asked her doctor was, “Can I still have children?”
She was told that this wouldn’t be possible, and Kieryn was devastated. “It felt like (my doctor) slammed that door shut right in my face,” Kieryn says emphatically. “That pregnancy wouldn’t ever be an option for me, even in the future because of the aggressive type of breast cancer that I had.”
Kieryn admits, “I was in shock and probably a bit depressed. I went through the entire grief process for a full week before I came to terms with it and was able to move on, wrap my head around the breast cancer diagnosis, and go through treatment for my breast cancer.”
The couple had shared their infertility with a small number of close family and friends. Kieryn found it incredibly difficult to share her diagnosis and their shattered dreams of having their own children. Despite this, Kieryn feels incredibly grateful for the strong support she received from the community and those around her. As an example, Kieryn recounts the following story: “By 6:30pm on the Friday I received my diagnosis, I was in bed with my pajamas, take-out dinner and my husband. Friends of ours were out walking and texted me, then my husband (when I didn’t respond), and then called him (because he hadn’t responded) as they neared our house. I couldn’t believe that they wanted to visit, especially with the lights off and shades drawn at our house! At that point, they were not aware of what news we had just received. But, I went outside to talk to them and they came in and were at our house for 3 hours talking with us about the diagnosis and cheering us up and making us laugh on what would have been a very tough and long evening!” Kieryn exclaims. She finishes the story with, “They are our very close friends now!”
Soon after her own diagnosis and treatment, Kieryn’s older sister received a breast cancer diagnosis, throwing her into doubt about the choices she had made regarding her own surgeries and treatments. “I was a wreck,” she admits. “I was reconsidering my single mastectomy and thinking about having the other one removed preventatively.” Kieryn visited her team of doctors to discuss her fears, anxiety, and prior decisions. Ultimately, she left feeling she had made the right decisions for herself.
Her Doctors Didn’t Agree on a Treatment Regimen
For Tabitha, just the word cancer was a huge “mental mountain” for her to climb. “Cancer – saying it was incredibly scary,” Tabitha begins. “I couldn’t stop thinking: Would I be the same? Would I suffer? Would I die? Would I end up the same person at the end of treatments?”
These thoughts intensified when her doctors didn’t agree on a treatment regimen. “Things aren’t always black and white,” Tabitha begins. “I had to make a decision about chemotherapy based upon what I knew at the time. For me, I wanted to make sure I did all I could to ensure that breast cancer wouldn’t return. I didn’t want any regrets.”
With this in mind, Tabitha chose chemotherapy, which was “incredibly difficult and had more of an impact on me than I thought it would.” Tabitha continues gravely, “My short-term memory has been affected and it took a year and a half for me to fully recover from the fatigue and leg pain.”
Despite this, Tabatha encourages other women, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re making the best decisions you can with the information you have.” She found that it was very different telling her siblings, parents, and friends about her diagnosis and treatment “Cancer has a huge impact on those around you. Let each person handle it the way it is best for them and allow them some leeway in their responses.”
A Professional Perspective
“Not every young woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis in which she will need chemotherapy is being advised or talked to about fertility,” begins Ali Cain, licensed social worker at United Breast Center. There is a note of sadness in her voice as she states this, then continues, “It is good to bring awareness to this.”
She advises any young woman of childbearing age diagnosed with breast cancer “to bring it up with their oncologist, even if they don’t initiate the conversation with you.” This can be especially difficult for young women who aren’t in a relationship at the time of diagnosis or feel that children may not be in their future anyway. “There are options to explore with fertility specialists and assistance with the financial burden of it,” Ali finishes.
Trying to make a decision about treatments and surgeries is not a one-size-fits all approach. “For some people, they have to verbally process it, so the more people they talk to, the more opinions they get, and that helps them make a decision they are comfortable with. For others, it’s a more personal journey to determine what matches their values and preferences,” Ali shares. “The most important thing is making sure that all of your questions are sufficiently answered so you can make an informed decision.” She goes on, more serious, “ I think, once people are really armed with all of that knowledge, they tend to move towards a decision that they are confident about.” To make sure that you get all of your questions answered by your doctors and other healthcare providers, Ali recommends writing your questions down before your appointment and bringing someone with you to the appointments so that you don’t miss any of the important information.
We’ll end today’s blog with Ali’s final words of wisdom from the Stage 0 blog:
Because Ali meets with women diagnosed at all stages of breast cancer, she finds, “It is so easy to compare your treatment to others with a similar stage, and that is concerning for people.” In her practice, Ali hears women making comparisons like, “Well, I had the same stage and I only had a lumpectomy and she had a bilateral mastectomy. Why would she have that aggressive surgery when they only recommended that I have a lumpectomy?” The reality is that “You don’t know what the other person’s family history is, whether they have a BRCA mutation, or other circumstances,” Ali remarks with concern. “Cancer treatment isn’t cookie cutter, like, ‘Oh, if you have stage 3 breast cancer, you’re for sure getting X, Y, and Z treatments.’.” She cautions, “So while stage definitely helps direct your care, not every person is going to get the same treatment because of their stage.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
“I must reluctantly admit that I am not quite as I was.” – Eleanor Rosevelt
A huge thank you to Kieryn and Tabitha, who were so brave to share how their cancer treatment changed them and their futures. Also, a huge thank you to Ali Cain, LICSW, who offered her professional expertise and experience for this blog.
Written by Amy Tix, Stage 2 breast cancer survivor and Firefly Staffer, whose greatest challenge during her breast cancer experience was figuring out how to lift, carry, entertain, keep up with, and change the diapers for her 1 and 3 year old children. And who, on so many levels, has never been the same since.