Saturday, December 8, 2012

This Time Last Year

This time last year I was waiting for an ultra sound. I was supposed to get it on December 8, 2011 but the radiology department at St. Mary's Hospital was short-staffed and they had to cancel and push me back a full week. I didn't mind. I wasn't worried. I didn't care that it would be delayed. As far as I was concerned I didn't need to rush it because I didn't believe there was reason to worry.

It was Monday, December 4 last year when I went to see my GP about the lump I had found the day earlier which was why I needed this ultra sound. It was a very palpable lump and definitely not something to ignore. I had been experiencing some aches and sudden shoots of pain near the site of the lump but was assured by my doctor that I was too young to have breast cancer and that cancer in the breast is not actually painful, unless it was the inflammatory kind. In which case my breast could have been red, sore and very swollen.

Breast cancer not being typical in young woman or painful equaled me feeling quite feeling relieved.

"Let's set you up with an ultra sound anyway." My doctor had said. "It will most likely just be a cyst or a fibro-adenoma (benign tumour)... fairly common in younger woman. We could either monitor it or have a surgeon remove it in the new year."

And I felt at ease with that. I would do this ultra sound and it would be nothing of concern. They would just take it out in January and I would be able to go on my merry way.

I continued on with life as usual in December... Christmas shopping... decorating... building holiday ads at the newspaper... Oh, and a trip to the vaccination clinic in Vancouver to update our shots for some upcoming travel...

When filling out a check list for the typhoid fever shot I came across a "Do you/have you ever had cancer?" box, to which I checked NO. (Although a millisecond thought of doubt actually did pass through my mind as I checked it – but I shluffed it off and carried out the necessary vaccination.) I was FINE. I was young. I did not have cancer.

But the subsequent week I was sick as a dog. I had already been feeling run down before the vaccination, I'd been dealing with random pains in one boob and now had a full blown flu bug. Because I had had the vaccination though, there were a select few people who wondered if I was actually having a bad reaction to the typhoid shot and I, too, wondered for a brief time if I was actually dealing with typhoid fever because of the symptoms.

After a week of feeling awful and talking to my doctor we summed it up to the flu because crap had been going around and it seemed everyone was sick. In fact, I was so ill that I almost considered cancelling my rescheduled ultra sound. Luckily I didn't.

And on December 15 all that reassurance and comfort given to me from my doctor went out the window.

I did not learn that day that I had cancer. But I learned that everyone in the radiology department was shocked and very concerned and therefore a simple cyst possibility was not on the radar. Their questions, somber facial expressions and the fact that I was now being sent for an immediate mammogram was enough to make me pass out but I managed to keep it together. The sick feeling I had in my stomach and panic overtook me as I tried very hard not to barf in the small mammogram room while I waited for the tech.

Something was very wrong.

Why hadn't I brought someone with me? Why was I alone for this? My mouth became dry and my palms sweaty with anxiety. Ringing began in my ears and I felt frozen in utter fear. I was kicking myself for not being even the slightest bit more aware that there was a chance that this could have happened. But I was told not to worry.

I knew about breast cancer and mammograms and the fact that I was to start having them after 40. I had just had an exam done by my GP earlier in July with no sign of anything. How could this be happening to me? Breast cancer doesn't happen to 28 year olds! I had no clue that someone my age could be at risk to have this happen. Why was I now sitting in this small room being asked if I had breast cancer in my family history? Why was I out in the hallway after the mammo discussing core biopsy planning with the radiologist? Why was I getting sad on-lookers peaking out from behind the front desk to look at 'the young girl who most likely has breast cancer'? Why was I being asked if I had been in an accident or had something or someone hit my boob? Why were they wondering if anyone was with me in the waiting room? Obviously they figured I needed that! Why do they think I need it? Because they know it's bad!

WHY had I not considered to have someone come with me!? I know it wouldn't have changed the outcome, but it would have helped me feel less alone and maybe more comforted. But again, I was under the impression that breast cancer didn't happen to woman my age. I hadn't thought I needed someone with me.

When I left the hospital I immediately phoned Mike to tell him had happened. I couldn't even get the words out. I was walking back to work to collect my things... and to find a ride home because Mike had to work later. I cried the entire way trying to explain that it looked more serious then my doctor had thought... Shaking and in shock from what had just happened I managed to stick out an hour at work without crying at my desk. A coworker offered me a ride home but once we got chatting it was hard to hide that something was wrong. I just remember crying and feeling the sincere concern from my friend. And then embarrassed that I was breaking down in the car.

And I thought to myself after saying it out loud to someone other than Mike... "This just can't be. I am going to be fine. This wouldn't be cancer. It just looked like it on the screen... they're just being extra cautious. I am too young for this."

But deep down I dreaded what was to come and I knew it was going to be bad news. In fact I even said that I was 90% sure it was going to be cancer. But Mike was convinced that it was going to be OK and it wouldn't be cancer. He was trying to be so positive for me all the while I had this blatant sick feeling in my stomach that was too real to ignore. That little voice inside my head that "knew" haunted me every day... wondering if I was dying... wondering about chemo... wondering what was going to happen.... It pained me to think of Mike's disappointed when we would learn the truth. He was so certain and sure that I was going to just have an adenoma that needed to be removed.

But this sick undeniable feeling of panic and terror made trying to sleep for the majority of December difficult resulting in many nights of tears and fears where I had to be honest with Mike. I don't know what upset me more... feeling like I was breaking the bad news to him by sharing my gut feelings of what it was going to be... or that Mike maybe was silently starting to believe me but didn't want to back down from his original belief. Knowing that I was probably starting to get through to him and that he may have started to entertain the possibility of it being cancer only made it that much more sad. And real.

The core needle biopsy was done 2 days before Christmas. Thankfully at this point I had not talked to anyone who had done one of these before because otherwise I would have been much more nervous about it. In fact, I had not really talked about what I was going through with anyone. I wanted as little energy being spent on the subject as possible and didn't want family to worry about me over the holidays. It would have shadowed over our Christmas and caused more stress and I just didn't want that. And definitely couldn't handle it.

It was without question Mike came with me for the core biopsy and held my hand as the ultra sound tech assisted the radiologist with the procedure. It bled a lot more than expected but I tried not to look incase it made me feel ill. The pressure from the 'punch' that grabbed the samples hurt but luckily my boob was mostly frozen. They gave me a little ice pack that attached inside my bra, wished me luck and I went back to work for the day. But when the freezing began to wear off in the afternoon I decided I had to leave early. I was in too much pain, my nerves were getting the best of me and I was having a difficult time concentrating.

For days following the biopsy my chest hurt immensely. It was every colour of the rainbow in addition to black. I tried to hug family and friends with my right side and on an angle over the holidays so not to press up against it. I tried to seem normal. I tried not to cry at the littlest things. I tried not to bring any attention to myself. I tried imagining the outcome and whether or not these friends and family members that I was spending the holidays with were going to have to hear bad news. And when things got emotional I slipped into the bathroom or into a less crowded room to get my shit together.

If this was cancer... would I die from it? And in how much time? Will this be my last Christmas? How was I going to tell my parents? How was I going to tell my Mamka? Aunts and Uncles?

Because of the holidays I was told that I wouldn't hear results until after New Years day. There was a small chance I would hear before hand, but I was told to probably expect a call from my doctor in the first week of January.

And then on Friday, December 30 I got a call. Mike and I were in a mattress and bedding store looking for new pillows (trying to take our minds off of the obvious). I felt that sinking sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and began to shake as I answered the phone.

"Ashley, it's the medical clinic calling and your doctor would like to schedule an appointment for you to come in Tuesday, January 3."

That was it. No more info. And that was the earliest I could see her because she was now gone for the day and they were closed on the holiday Monday.


Mike tried with every bit of hope to get me to consider the thought that it could very well be good news. But as I said before, I just knew. I knew for three reasons.

1. I had suspected that I was going to get breast cancer some day. I just figured because my Grandma/Mamka had had it, that I would too. It was much more common these days. But I imagined it would just happen to me later in life. When I was a Grandma too!

2. When I imagined the year ahead I pictured a long hard road. My intuition was telling me it was not going to be easy times ahead.

3. I had googled ultra sound images of breast tumours and read their descriptions. Because I had been given a clear view of mine in the room with the three sullen faces hovering over me on the exam bed at St. Mary's... I knew what I saw. It was not just a simple cyst. And as I write this... I am remembering that I had also received information from the mammogram results that there was a mass surrounded by calcification. A sure sign of cancer.

And now I knew WHEN I was going to find out for sure that it would be cancer.

Part of me was angry at my doctor and the receptionist for calling me then because I felt like they had just added even more anxiety to my already freaked out imagination. I wished that I had just been called the morning of January 3 instead rather then having to suffer over New Years Eve knowing that the results were in. I now had to wait 5 full days knowing that the results were at my doctor's office and that at exactly 1pm on Tuesday I would learn that it would be, indeed, bad news.

A little side-story to all of this to tie in that whole suspected typhoid fever sickness that made the month of December even more stressful...

While we were waiting for the results and trying to conceal our worries from family and friends Mike and I were forced to make the decision to cancel a trip that had been planned since October. We were supposed to go to Bali for 3 weeks in February 2012. A little travel dream of mine I had had since our trip to Thailand in 2008.

Luckily we had trip cancellation insurance and were able to get most of our money back. But it so suuuuucked that this was another thing we had to deal with on top of the cancer fears. Getting the forms signed... a doctor's statements... cancelling the hotel we had booked for the first 2 nights... the flight... But because I just KNEW that the news was going to be bad we made the choice to cancel it all the week following the traumatic ultra sound incident. I remember my doctor asking me "Are you sure you want to do this? It could be benign." But I was convinced it was the smartest choice. And I was right.

Because we didn't want anyone questioning WHY we had cancelled Bali, we pretended to everyone that we were still going. This would make things easier over the holidays. It was very difficult to fake, but we managed fine. And even though I was at peace with the decision to cancel, I couldn't help getting a little sad and disappointed when I would find myself talking with cousins, aunts and uncles about the places we were planning to see and things we had been planning to do there. Knowing full well that were not actually going to do them. I felt like a phony... but knew that it was the best way to handle the situation. Just as it was the best thing to not tell family about what test results I was waiting for.

And although I still have hankerings and daydreams of travel periodically, I'll be honest, it is the last thing on my to-do list. Especially somewhere like Bali where apparently the hospitals are not exactly up to highest standard. So, Bali has been put back up on the shelf. The dream continues... although my urge to go is about a 2 out of 10 now. I won't say I'll never go... but I can pretty much say that after what I have been through, Bali is not really on my bucket list anymore. At least not right now.

So... my D-day (Diagnosis Day) was looming... the new year was on its way... and it's looming again now as my cancerversary approaches.

But I'd like to try my best to have a good Christmas and New Years Eve this year. I want to be distracted by family gatherings, lights, Christmas songs and tree decorating. I can't have it like last year. I can't relive the same plans as we had the Christmas before. I am going to try like hell to douse myself with holiday cheer, bury myself in Christmas spirit and live this holiday just grateful for how far I have come.

But the truth is, I know this month will be hard to go through without thinking about the lead up to the diagnosis. There is no way I can forget the holidays of 2011. I can't block out that a year ago today I was bed-ridden sick after a vaccination that someone who had cancer was not supposed to have... a year ago on the 15th I was getting a massive needle jabbed into my boob... a year ago on the 16th I was with a friend for lunch to help get my mind of the possibility of cancer... a year ago the 17/18th weekend another friend came to visit and distract me... a year ago this time I had just started working with my life-coach and was telling her all about my latest dilemma... a year ago I had put on a smiling face and a padded bra to brace the hugs from family and friends... A year ago today I was fearing for my life. Scared of the unknown and fearful of what 2012 had in store for me. It was like the New Years Eve I never wanted to have happen. I didn't celebrate the way I normally would with drinks and care-free fun. Instead I was just really afraid... wishing 2012 didn't have to come because I knew what it would mean... and yet wishing that Jan 3 would just be there NOW so I didn't have to wait any longer.

And now here I am... almost a year has passed by. I'm on the other side of the major unknowns of that initial diagnosis, the surgery options, the uncertainties: would this be a death sentence, who were my surgeons, who were my oncologists... and then the embryo preservation process, chemotherapy, radiation, physio, neupogen injections, hormone suppressive harpoon shots and my latest decision to begin Tamoxifen.

It has been a real whirlwind of "getting through" the scary times. Only to carry on with MORE scary times to have to get through... and I am just learning now to deal with the emotional side of what has just happened... all at once with having to deal with the anniversary of it. This is what might be making this time of year so tough.

The fact that I spent half of December last year waiting for a breast cancer diagnosis at only age 28 still seems surreal. Even after all I have been through I sometimes think "Is this really my life? Did this really just happen to me?"

Yes. Yep, yep it sure did.

Breast cancer can and does happen woman in their twenties. The numbers are a lot smaller with something like 200-250 approx. cases occurring in Canada per year. But they are there. And I just happened to be one of those cases.

I know everyone, including me, often think... "It won't happen to me. It will happen to someone else, someone older." But then you end up being that someone else and you realize how serious a lump can be.

Sometimes I wonder if St. Mary's hadn't had that staff shortage... maybe I would have had surgery sooner and that .4mm of cancer that ended up in my lymph node wouldn't have made its way up there. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't gone to the doctor the very next day after finding the lump. What if I had found it sooner too? What if I hadn't found it at all? What if I found it too late?

All these 'what ifs' can make anyone go a bit nuts... But there is one thing I do know for sure. I may have saved my life by going to see my doctor so soon. In fact, I know I did because knowing me... I would have put it off if I hadn't dealt with it THAT day.

So, if I could just be a bit pushy here now and say: To anyone who is ever suspicious of a lump or a big change with their body that is of concern... no matter your age... whether it might be a symptom of cancer or another serious health issue...


Don't wait. Don't put it off. Don't procrastinate. Don't be embarrassed. Don't let fear of what it could be keep you from making that appointment. No excuses. It could quite possibly save your life.


  1. As usual beautifully written I felt like I was there with you in the store! Thanks for being so open xo

  2. You are an amazing writer! Thanks for taking us back to that horrible moment in your life. I hope writing it all down helped clear your head a bit! You are amazing Ash! Truly an inspiration to me especially because you're so open about everything. It really made it easier for me to share my own story as well.

    1. Cécile you are too sweet. Thank you so much for reading and understanding...

      You are right, it does help to write it all out. For a few days before this I was really agitated and was thinking about all of it. I needed to get it out of my system. And after I felt so much lighter.

      Hugs girly xo

  3. Again, thanks for being so honest and so brave. And here's to putting 2012 behind us and to 2013 being a MUCH better year :)

    1. Thanks Jill! I am thinking of you lots these days... really hope that you're hanging in there. 2013 is definitely gonna have to shine! :)

  4. Ashley, it's amazing to read your story as it is so similar to mine and I just feel like I'm there with you, experiencing it all. I found my lump in February when I was living in Argentina and they did a mammogram and ultrasound and just told me it must be a fibroadenoma and then dismissed me without giving me a core biopsy.
    The only reason I got diagnosed was because I just happened to move countries (!) and went back to the doctors in Ireland and by the time I had waited for 'non-urgent' tests, 4 months had gone by. They did a core biopsy in June and there it was - cancer, that had doubled in size since February. I guess we are in the minority but they have to take these cases of people in their 20s seriously! This is a kinda abridged version of events from my side:
    Anyway, the one thing I didn't have, unlike you, was the enormous wait for results. What you went through is horrific. I was completely oblivious until the very day they diagnosed me, and it was so much better that it came as a total shock because what you went through just sounds horrendous. But the important thing is you're still here and you're a true survivor! I hope you have the most incredible Christmas and I KNOW you will make the most of it because once you've faced the prospect of dying, the prospect of living becomes so much more amazing!! Take care and have fun! Laura

    1. Laura thank you so much for your comment... I will check out the link with your story soon. Isn't it crazy how decisions we make can change so much... You moving to Ireland ultimately could have saved your life. And again, I am just so shocked by the amount of young woman I have met who have been diagnosed. It is not a club you want to be in... but it is comforting to have support and know that we're not alone.

      Wishing you a great Christmas as well. Hugs.