December 22, 2022Testimonials

Bianka Tringle’s testimonial, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 31

The first symptoms came suddenly, in early June. I had just given birth to my second child. My son was three weeks old when I found a very large lump in my left breast, the size of a clementine. I was nursing him, so I was naturally looking at my breasts more than usual. Because my older child, my daughter, had accidentally kicked me in the breast a few nights before, I thought it might be related to that. When I started to have major doubts was when other symptoms kept appearing. The lump continued to grow and was painful. My skin texture had changed; it had an orange-peel feeling and my breast was growing day by day. Lastly, my nipple had inverted, tripled in size, and changed color. All this happened very quickly. When I first touched the lump, I immediately thought: cancer.

It took almost five months from the time the lump appeared until the biopsy. I went to the walk-in clinic often because I was so worried. Everyone in the healthcare field attributed my symptoms to mastitis, including the nurse who saw me at my one-month postpartum follow-up appointment. Twice I was prescribed antibiotics that didn’t help.

After the antibiotics, I did some research and came across stories of women who had inflammatory cancers. I had exactly the same symptoms, although the doctors said it was definitely hormonal. Then one of my lymph nodes became as big as a ball.

It was only when the lymph node under my arm swelled and continued to grow that I was taken seriously. I had an ultrasound and the radiologist told me: “If it wasn’t for the fact that you’re breastfeeding, I’d send you for a biopsy right away. We’ll wait until you stop breastfeeding.” I weaned my one-and-a-half-month-old baby right away and started pumping without success. Because of this, I was able to have more ultrasounds. During the examinations, I was told that it looked like mastitis, that they did not detect a dangerous growth, that I should wait and watch.

I had a lot of trouble seeing my family doctor. When I finally managed to get an appointment, she was worried but said she didn’t think it was cancer because it was not supposed to hurt. It was the inverted nipple that convinced her to refer me to the breast clinic at my hospital. The hospital refused the referral because it wasn’t from a radiologist. So I had to have another ultrasound; I was getting fed up with all the back-and-forth. Finally, the radiologist referred me for a biopsy. I finally had it on October 5.

I was listening to what was being said when they were doing the ultrasound for the biopsy. The doctor suspected mastitis, so she punctured the lump to look for pus. When she said out loud to her colleague in a worried tone of voice that there was none, I was certain of the diagnosis: it was cancer. I also had a lymph node biopsy and a mammogram.

I waited three weeks for the results, but in my mind, I already knew what the pronouncement would be. When I was called with the results, I was not told that I could have someone with me, so I was alone when I found out I had HER2-positive and hormone receptor-negative invasive carcinoma. I quickly saw the surgeon and then the oncologist. I was impatient to wait for the treatments to finally start.

My first four chemotherapy treatments were every three weeks and my 12 Taxol treatments were once a week. After all that, I had a radical left-side mastectomy with lymph node removal. I did not have breast reconstruction because in my situation there was a very high risk of recurrence.

The chemotherapy went pretty well, better than I expected; I was able to walk almost every day. I was lucky in my misfortune: I hadn’t taken parental leave because I was a bachelor’s student. So my boyfriend took leave and he stayed at home with me. My daughter was three years old when I was diagnosed and we explained to her that there was a big “boo-boo” in my breast and that the doctors were trying to cure me.

Radiation was scheduled to start immediately, but there were still cancer cells left over from my mastectomy and I was really not feeling well. A few days before it started I was just vomiting and nothing was going right; I’d never felt so bad. So I had a scan. That’s when they discovered that cancer had metastasized to my brain. My cancer had become metastatic.

The fact that my cancer was inflammatory meant that there was a very high risk of recurrence, and I was aware of this. The diagnosis had already been very difficult, but this was something else. It was a game-changer.

I had to tell my family: my grandmother, my parents, my brothers, and my sisters. It was mainly my boyfriend who did it because I was not able to. My head was swollen, so I was given a very high dose of Decadron, which reduced the swelling after two or three days. The right side of my face was all droopy and I could no longer write or walk. I was given a whole-brain X-ray and they found that I had a lot of lesions in my brain. Seeing my oncologist’s reaction, I believe it would have made a big difference if I had been able to have been diagnosed earlier.

Sometimes I think back to the time just before my diagnosis when I had burnout because I was so stressed. At the walk-in clinic, as I went into the doctor’s office with my baby in his stroller, she laughed and said: “Are you afraid it might be cancer?” She told me that if it was, I would be extremely unlucky. She said I was a hypochondriac and urged me to call a social worker for a consultation. The social worker confirmed this “diagnosis” of hypochondria and gave me tips on how to manage my anxiety. I remember saying to her: “I’m not afraid of cancer. I know I have cancer. I’m afraid it will metastasize.”

It’s now two years later and my life is full of ups and downs. With Stage 4 cancer, you take it a day at a time. I’m currently on palliative treatment until there’s nothing left for me to do. I temporarily stopped chemotherapy because the metastases had disappeared but since then it’s come back. I feel like I’m wrecked; I don’t look like a 33-year-old girl.

I had to stop school. I was studying in a field where I needed my brain to be very functional, so I stopped. I feel the side effects of the drugs; for example, I feel slow. I also have what they call chemo brain.Walking is sometimes very difficult. I have less strength in my hands and I stutter.  

I have a lot of places to talk about this. My Facebook has become my diary. I also have a lot of support from my boyfriend; I am very lucky to have him. I am very tired and I have been taking daily naps for the past few months. On social networks, I joined the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation’s “Club stade 4” private Facebook group and the “Les Mets-Et-Or” support group. We speak to each other almost every day. We understand what’s going on in each other’s lives. I am also part of the “Les petites roses” Facebook group for women under 40 with a breast cancer diagnosis. When I talk about it to people affected by breast cancer, and who don’t have a Stage 4 diagnosis, I represent the fear everyone who has cancer lives with: the fear of recurrence.

Until very recently I didn’t see a future: brain metastasis has a fairly poor prognosis. I didn’t want to make any plans. Now I think that maybe I have a few years left, but I don’t make long-term plans. We were thinking of maybe going on holiday with the children this winter, but I don’t know how I’m going to feel at that time. It’s not easy to organize but I’m trying to do some little things.

I wanted to tell my story to say that cancer can happen when you’re young. I was always told that it couldn’t happen under the age of 40, especially not while breastfeeding. I’m proof that this isn’t true.

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