By Rebecca Santos
I never thought I'd be diagnosed with breast cancer. And why should I? I'm 27. I have no family history. I'm not a carrier for the BRCA genes. I'm healthy and active. But still, here I am.
I hope to be a voice that raises awareness that breast cancer can happen to healthy young women too!
This year has already had so many surprises, but breast cancer has been the most challenging surprise yet. I'm a Latina first generation college grad who got accepted into medical school in February, got engaged in March, and to my surprise, was diagnosed with Stage 0 Breast Cancer (DCIS) May 27, 2020.
While it was hard to process my cancer diagnosis, I was not surprised because I had spent a year having my symptoms being dismissed because of my age, health, and family history.
My symptoms on my left breast: During the first six months, I had a large mass on my lower left breast that was so painful, I had to stop wearing bras. I had a scab with discharge coming out of it, sometimes yellowish-clear and other times red. I was told it was most likely an abscess and was given medication, but my symptoms never went away. I also felt a piercing pain coming through to my nipple and my left breast was sensitive to touch.
Telling my family and friends that I had cancer was difficult because I didn’t want to burden them with fear or worry. Everyone cried, but they were all supportive and positive that I’d get through this. Losing my breast wasn't as difficult to process as having to lose one nipple (TMI), and having to explain that to family/friends along with why I chose to remove both breasts...but I focus on the positives and what matters is that I am alive and well!
I cannot stress the importance of getting a second opinion! Mainly because you want to be confident in and comfortable with the surgeon who is doing one of your most life-altering surgeries. My first breast surgeon gave me the news that I had cancer and the choice to keep my “healthy” breast. They didn’t explain my condition or their plan of action the way that I expected. In fact, the 8 minutes I sat with them was not enough time to explain very much at all about anything.
As a result, I went for a second opinion and it was a completely different experience. This breast surgeon spent over an hour explaining to my family and I the type of breast cancer I had and what it meant, gave us a detailed course of action, pamphlets with information, and was empathetic that I had to face this at such a young age. I already had my mind made up to have a double mastectomy and my new breast surgeon agreed that it was best for me because although I only had cancer in one breast, there was no guarantee that in the future I wouldn’t get cancer in my other. Had I kept my "healthy" breast, I would have had to take a medication called Tamoxifen, which has a very extensive list of negative side effects. (Disclaimer: according to my oncologist, I was not a candidate for this medication because my cancer was not genetic and both breasts were removed, so there would be no benefits for me.) Lastly, I'd live a life of mammograms and screenings every six months for the rest of my life! Not to mention, I'd live in fear and worry of getting breast cancer again.
Almost three weeks after my diagnosis, I had a double mastectomy and expanders put in, on June 15, 2020. While my breast cancer was Stage 0 (DCIS), my cancer cells were grade three (cancer cells that look abnormal and may grow or spread more aggressively).
While I was told I would not need chemotherapy once they confirmed that the cancer had not yet developed into invasive cancer, I was told that I may need radiation. Now with medical school starting so soon, I had to discuss all of the what-if’s with my team of doctors and began to overthink and fear the possibility that I’d have to miss a semester of medical school or possibly have to delay my start for another year. Now that the cancer is out, the chances of cancer reoccurring are extremely low and the negative long term side effects of radiation are not worth it in my case.
I decided that I wouldn’t let any of this stop me from achieving my dream of becoming a doctor and due to COVID-19, my medical school classes will start online, so not only will I get to stay home and fully recover, I won’t miss a day of medical school! It's not how I imagined starting medical school, but I've seen God's hand through all of this and know that He'll be glorified!
I hope to be a voice that raises awareness that breast cancer can happen to healthy young women too! Awareness and early detection are so important, so never ignore your symptoms! Know your body, and if something’s off, GET IT CHECKED OUT!