Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States, trumped only by skin cancer. According to research compiled by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, by the time 2018 wraps up, an estimated 266,120 women are expected to be diagnosed with the disease in the United States alone. But while the rates of breast cancer among women are scarily high, advances in medicine and technology have made it possible for women with the disease overcome it and live a long and full life. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that for stage II and stage III breast cancer patients, the five-year survival rate is 93 percent and 72 percent respectively.
But enough with the facts and figures. Breast cancer is a real disease that afflicts real people with families and friends and entire complex lives. Put another way: each diagnosis goes hand-in-hand with a completely unique story. For a more human look at this ubiquitous disease, here, in their own words—with plenty of humor and heartache to go around—these women reveal what it’s like to be diagnosed (and live with) breast cancer.
“It really did shatter my world.”
“There were some very dark thoughts during treatment,” wrote Jennifer, who was diagnosed with cancer at just 30 years old. “When you first hear you have cancer you immediately think the worst. I hated telling people and seeing that look of pity. I didn’t feel sick, I certainly didn’t look sick. And I knew deep down I wasn’t going to die from this. I wanted to be telling friends and family normal news of a 30-year-old woman. ‘I am pregnant’; ‘We bought a house’; ‘I got a raise!’ Not ‘I have breast cancer’… It’s very heartbreaking.”
“Work… kept me strong.”
When Preeti was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36, one of the many concerns that crossed her mind was the future of her business. “As an entrepreneur, a lot of fear set in on who would manage my event planning business with weddings going on while I was in treatment,” wrote Preeti. “My team stepped up and handled what they could, and I am proud to say when my mind and body allowed for it, I was able to work as well. It kept me strong.”
“I fell into a dark depression.”
“In 2014, I developed pain in my low back, which I assumed was from trail running. But, an MRI revealed every cancer survivor’s worst nightmare: metastatic breast cancer,” wrote Lara MacGregor, breast cancer survivor and founder of the non-profit organization Hope Scarves, about the initial despair she felt about her diagnosis before finding hope and support. “Cancer had spread to my bones. After seven glorious years, our family was thrust back into the world of cancer. Only this time it wasn’t hopeful. My husband and I have always been the type of people who make a plan and execute. We get things done. But, there wasn’t a clear path. We were devastated to learn my treatment plans would be to ‘wait and see.’ How could this be happening?”
“Never stop fighting.”
For Debbie Reft, volunteering and helping others struggling with breast cancer made her feel thankful for her support system during her own battle with the disease.
“It has been 16 years since then and I am doing well. Thanks to my family, my kids, and my friends, who, without, I would not be here today. I now work with the American Cancer Society and volunteer as Reach to Recovery volunteer and visit women who are currently going through breast cancer treatment; maybe by telling them my story it will give them hope like I was given. Never stop fighting, and always love your family and friends, as they are the strength that gets you through the hard times,” she told the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“I was going to fight and I was going to win.”
Though some people understandably fall into a deep depression when they are told that they have cancer, others develop a fierce and fiery determination to beat the disease that helps them get through even the worst parts of treatment. Such is the case for Natalie Gamble, a mother, grandmother, and breast cancer survivor from Denver, Colorado, who shared: “I got mad—I mean fighting mad—[when I was diagnosed] and decided right then and there [that] no matter what I was faced with, I was going to fight and I was going to win.”
“On the days when I was alone, I cried so much.”
For breast cancer survivor Jacqueline, one of the many struggles of coping with cancer was feeling alone. Though her and her husband had been living in Australia for six years when she was diagnosed, all of her close friends and family were in the Netherlands and she just didn’t have the support system that she needed in new home country.
“Apart from my husband, there was no family to hug and cry with,” says Jacqueline. “There were no meals being cooked, not many offers for practical help. Some friends really let me down, but some acquaintances stepped up unbelievably. Still, on days when I was alone, I cried so much.”
“I’ve learned that living knowing you may die is much more fulfilling.”
Though Deborah Justice-Place has been diagnosed with breast cancer multiple times, she still finds a way to live her life to the fullest—no matter the pain she may be in.
“So what: I’m going to die one day. So are you! I know what’s important now. Who wants to live 100 years with no joy in their life? I’d rather live the years I have left just as they are, knowing what’s really important versus going back to my old life. By the way, I plan to live many years with my cancer!” she told the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“My work became a sure friend at an uncertain time.”
Breast cancer is a disease that is full of uncertainties, and so anything that can provide stability in a cancer patient’s life is more than welcome. When Marianne, for instance, was going through her treatment, she says that “it was a great comfort to have assurance that my job was not in jeopardy.” When she informed her employers of her diagnosis, they were so understanding of her situation that they even let her know that “I had a job for as long as I wanted, and could work whatever day and hours I wished.”
“One day, this will not be an option.”
Amy Sumner was terminated from her job after receiving a double mastectomy, but hopes that this treatment will not be the new normal for those struggling with the illness.
“So, in October of 2014, I had the surgery. I was currently the store manager at a sporting goods store, which I had been for 9 years, and when I asked to return to work in December with lifting restrictions, I was told “no,” and terminated because I was set to have my last surgery in February. I am currently out of work, but I will make it my mission to help women know that if they choose to try to live, or if they are battling this awful disease, they shouldn’t fear or stress over the fear of losing everything including your health insurance. Hang in there! One day, this will not be an option,” she told the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“I needed to be able to talk to someone who wouldn’t dismiss my feelings.”
Many breast cancer patients find that, though their friends and family members try to be supportive, what they really desire is to speak with someone who understands what they’re going through. Take Diana, for instance: When breast cancer took one of her breasts from her, she “found it really difficult to come to terms with my new body shape” until she finally sought the support of a breast cancer support group and was able to talk to someone who knew what she was dealing with.
“At last there was someone who understood what I was going through and could advise and empathize,” Diana wrote. “It was so gratifying to know how I was feeling was normal. I am still struggling with my image, but I am slowly coming to terms with it all.”
“It may well be the best thing that could have happened to me.”
“Getting my diagnosis taught me how much I have to be grateful for,” says Peta Morton, a self-proclaimed breast cancer “thriver.” “Cancer prompted a complete reevaluation of my life. I quit my real estate business and today teach Reiki, speak at conferences, and have even written a book about mindfulness. Cancer truly was a gift.”
“Breast cancer isn’t just a ‘chemo, surgery, and done’ disease.”
“I was diagnosed at age 24 after finding my lump while applying a sticky bra,” says Alexandria Whitaker, a breast cancer survivor and PR executive. “I think the most surprising thing I learned through my experience is that breast cancer isn’t just a ‘chemo, surgery, and done’ disease. I had no personal experience with the disease, so I had no clue when my journey first started that I would be placed on medication for five years.”
“I don’t know how I would do it without my husband.”
Breast cancer survivor Mandi Hudson fully admits that her road to recovery would have been much tougher without her biggest cheerleader: her husband.
“Mike would sit by me, bring me my purple Gatorade, and watched every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation from start to finish because that is how much time I spent sleeping while he was awake. He cooked, he cleaned, and he rarely complained. Many times when I just didn’t think I could handle the next step, or get up the next day, when the tears wouldn’t stop, my husband would talk me off the ledge. He still does. I don’t know how I would do it without my husband, he gives me strength,” she told the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“[My little girl] was my reason for fighting.”
“The one person that kept me going and made the biggest difference in my journey was my precious little girl,” says mom and breast cancer survivor Julie. “I described her as my therapy [and] my medicine during some very sick days with chemo. She was my reason for fighting. Although it was challenging at times, she certainly made the days and long nights better, just with a smile or by watching her learn to walk, talk, play, and cuddle.”
“My Facebook friends were a great source of support.”
After enduring hours of surgery, breast cancer survivor Karen McGuire shared a Facebook post with her friends that became the ultimate gift, providing insight and support from others that she desperately needed. Their support helped her maintain a positive sense of self and humor that was invaluable during this hard time in her life. “And the best advice I could offer: keep positive, keep your sense of humor, look for the bright side,” she said.