I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38.
At the time I had a lump under my arm, under my armpit. I had had labyrinthitis, so I thought maybe that had something to do with it. I never suspected it could be cancer. It was very small. It was a real stroke of luck that I caught it. I’m not very strict in life, so I did breast self-exams, but always a bit haphazardly. Since no one in my family had had breast cancer, I didn’t really consider myself at risk.
At the Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital family clinic, the resident made the connection right away. She sent me for more tests. It was just before Christmas. I had a mammogram, an ultrasound and finally a biopsy. Then all the facilities closed for a few days. It was tough, I had terrible Holidays with my partner and my two children. At the time, my daughter was three and my son was seven. I remember looking at my daughter and thinking,
“If I die soon, she might not remember me.”
A few days later, I had an appointment with my oncologist, who told me that my cancer was hormone-dependent (HER-2 positive). More specifically, the mass was barely 1 cm in size: I was told it was like a cloud with stones in it. It was Stage 2 cancer.
My partner was with me when I found out, and we cried together. A few years before, there had been an ad on TV that compared receiving a diagnosis of cancer to getting an uppercut to the face. That’s exactly how I felt.
When we told our kids, the four of us were huddled in bed, and we were doing a family “sandwich” (the parents are the “bread” on each side and the children are the “ham and cheese” in the middle). That’s when I told them, “Mommy is sick, but it’s going to be okay, everything is going to be fine.” My son was really affected. I remember him asking me if I was going to die.
I was treated with Herceptin. In total, I had six chemotherapy treatments.
With young children it was really difficult, but my spouse and in-laws took care of them and I spent two days at my parents’ house after each treatment. It gave me a chance to regain my strength. When my hair fell out, my daughter absolutely wanted me to wear a wig, but my son didn’t want me to because it changed how I looked too much and he didn’t recognize me.
It’s hard to have cancer when you’re young, but the positive side is that you’re still in good enough shape to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy.
I found the first chemo session difficult: it was the unknown, I didn’t know what to expect. But I quickly found some tricks. For example, I took my medication before I was in pain, I ate lighter meals when treatments were close. It worked: the next five treatments got easier and easier.
I could never have imagined that I could stay so active. I had stopped working, but I was still living my life. I had one treatment every 21 days and within a few days of my treatment, I was back on track.
I had a friend who had had cancer two or three years before me and I remember her telling me: “You’ll see: in all the negativity there will be positives too. Not every day will be unpleasant and sad.”
That’s also one of the advantages of having young children: you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself; they make you see the bright side of life. But there were also all the little annoyances, the repercussions that you don’t expect following minor events of everyday life. There’s a heavy side to this whole journey, but in the end, you feel stronger than ever, and there’s nothing you can’t handle.
I had a full mastectomy on one side. It was supposed to be a lumpectomy, but at the last minute on the ultrasound, the doctors saw that there was like a cluster left in the breast, so they preferred to take it all out to be sure. I was very upset about this at the time. Of course, they gave me a choice, but it wouldn’t have been safe for me to just remove the tumour.
During chemotherapy and radiation, it seems like even if you don’t know the outcome, if you stay proactive, you feel like you’re going to be okay. This was the case for me, and it was the “after” part that I found more difficult. During the illness and treatments, you fight to get through it, but afterwards you just have to hope that you don’t have a recurrence.
I was lucky enough to live very close to the hospital and sometimes I even walked to my radiation appointments. I used the psychological support services at Maisonneuve-Rosemont, and that was the best decision I made. The psychologist was specialized in oncology, and that made all the difference: she knew what I was going through, the statistics, the process, and so on. That would be my advice to people going through the same thing as me: go to counselling. I saw her four or five times if I remember correctly. Afterwards, I felt like I didn’t have much to talk about—I felt better. So I stopped going.
In my case it’s been five years, so technically, I’m in remission. Even though time has passed, I still have a knot in my stomach every time I see my doctor at the hospital for my annual follow-up. Whenever I have a pain somewhere, I always wonder if the cancer is coming back. But as time goes by, the fear of recurrence slowly fades away… I still take my Tamoxifen every day to block my hormone receptors. It’s like my safety net. I feel proactive.
I haven’t had a period since I started taking it. I stopped it for a year to try to get pregnant, but it didn’t work. I’ve been back on it since then and I’m starting to get hot flashes: I’m like a young menopausal woman.
This whole process got my boyfriend and I thinking. My doctor, who was not too delicate, told me: “When you have cancer at 38, you can be pretty sure that you won’t live to an old age.” That didn’t fall on deaf ears. RRSPs are all well and good, but not if you’re not around to enjoy them! So we decided to travel for seven months. We toured Asia with the kids two years after I finished my treatments. Since I’m a teacher, I was the one who taught them during the trip. We all loved it.
We had so much fun that we thought, to heck with our RRSPs. We’re going back next year, in February. This time to South America. In the end, my story is quite beautiful.
Interview conducted by phone on May 11, 2022, by Martine Côté