Testimonial of Marie-Ève Couture, diagnosed at age 31

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In 2009, I had my annual appointment with my gynecologist. I had a small lump in my right breast, but I wasn’t too worried as I’d had cysts on my ovaries at the age of 16. They had been removed and it had gone well so I figured the same thing would happen this time.

My doctor wasn’t worried either, but she did give me a prescription for a breast ultrasound, just to check. The first year I didn’t go; I wasn’t really stressed about it. The hospital had even called me to give me an appointment, which I kept putting off.

After almost a year, I started to have hormonal imbalances: I didn’t have my period anymore, I had acne outbreaks, I was sweating profusely from the armpit on the side of my affected breast. I was also very tired and it wasn’t like me because I’m a rather hyperactive person.

A very close friend of mine knew about my symptoms and insisted that I seek immediate medical attention. I had my annual appointment with the gynecologist two weeks later, so I didn’t want to go again. But she insisted because the lump had really started to grow. So I went to the clinic, where I talked about all my hormone-related problems. They gave me a treatment.

During my appointment with my gynecologist this time, I told her about my hormonal imbalance, my prescription and my breast. She told me never to take the treatment again and when she saw that my breast had started to swell, she gave me an emergency prescription for a mammogram.

Two weeks later I had my appointment. I was in a blue shirt in the examination room when the technician came in and saw me. When she saw my age, she refused to do the test, telling me I was too young and that it must be a mistake. I was so swollen that I cried every night and couldn’t sleep. I lifted my shirt to show her, to beg her to help me. She said: “If you really want to, go private.” It cost almost $300 to get an appointment at that kind of clinic. I left. At the time, I never thought I would have cancer. I was convinced it was a cyst and that I would be operated on.

After than, I visited several hospitals: they either sent me home or put me on endless waiting lists. One Friday I’ll never forget, my boss at the time saw me in pain and said to me: “I’m going to take you to the Fleury hospital emergency room, there’s never anyone there. There, the general practitioner who was able to examine me finally got things moving. When she saw my breast, she immediately wrote me a prescription for an ultrasound and told me that the hospital would call me first thing on Monday morning to give me my appointment. This was true and I still thank this woman for her help.

So I had my breast ultrasound. Because I had cysts before, I knew that they are normally liquid and can be drained. In the examination room I heard the technician say that my cyst was solid… That’s when I knew. They’re not allowed to say anything, but I understood.

I was given a CD with the video of my ultrasound on it. On it was written my name and my age: 30. I thought: this is when I will die.

Afterwards, I had a biopsy and a few days later, I got a call; the doctor wanted to meet me. That’s how I met Dr. Guy Leblanc, a wonderful oncologist at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital’s Centre de référence pour investigation désigné (designated reference centre for investigation, or CRID). He was with five resident doctors when we met, and I knew intuitively in my heart that it was cancer. But I wasn’t ready for how dangerous it was. My cancer was hormonal aggressive inflammatory (invasive ductal carcinoma), and had already spread to my nodes under my arm (stage 3). I was diagnosed on November 17, 2010, the day before my 31st birthday.

The doctor told me that at that point he didn’t know if it was possible to save me; I had to have a scan to see how bad the damage was. Had the cancer already gone into my blood or my bones? I had to find the answer and wait for the verdict. That was when I experienced what I call my death row: the longest two weeks of my life.

It took a week to get my scan appointment and another week to get the results. During those two weeks, it was as if I was floating above my body. I’m a very nervous person by nature, but this time I was so calm; it wasn’t normal.

In my head, I had already decided that if I was offered chemotherapy just to extend my life by a few months, I would refuse. I wasn’t interested in my life just being extended. So I made a kind of pact with fate, saying to myself: if I have a chance to emerge from this, I promise I will do whatever it takes and I won’t complain.

I started my chemotherapy on December 7, 2010. My oncologist told me that if I had started even three weeks later, I would not have made it.

I had neglected it for a whole year. Would the result have been different if I had gone a year earlier? Would they have seen an abnormality?

I had a total of 28 intravenous chemotherapy treatments by intravenous, one every three weeks (6 chemotherapies and 17 Herceptin). When I found out that I was going to lose my hair 14 days after my first treatment, I was very upset: I had a real lion’s mane. I couldn’t believe it; I thought I would be the exception. On the 14th day, I even went to see my pivot nurse, pulling at my hair and showing her that it was all firmly attached to my head! That evening at supper I ran my hand through my hair and a handful came out. That was the worst thing for me, my hair loss. I didn’t want to shave my head, but after three weeks of finding it everywhere, I was resigned. My daughter was in shock. The first time she saw me without it, she threw up. It was really hard.

My treatments went very smoothly. I didn’t really know what was happening at the time, but I realize in retrospect that I did some visualization during that time. During my chemotherapy, I used to imagine that the medicine I was injected with was like candy. When I started my treatments, I never thought I would die: I had put myself in recovery mode. I was like a warrior: I kept working and taking care of my daughter. In fact, I was never sick or weak during my entire chemotherapy.

After a year and a half, I was told that my surgery date was approaching. I was going to have a radical removal: the breast had to be completely removed. Before the removal, I went on the Internet (which you should never do!) and saw horrible photos: a slaughterhouse full of staples. I arrived at the right time, because technology had changed a lot between what I saw on the Internet and what was done to me. I only had a tiny scar! An hour after I awoke from the operation, the staff wanted to discharge me, but my mother insisted that they keep me for 24 hours.

I then started one month of radiotherapy. Normally, radiotherapy is five days a week and is very brief (a few seconds to a minute). In my case, I had treatments 5 days a week, 5 weeks in a row, for 15 minutes a day. It hurts like hell; it burns you from the inside out. The medical team gave me a morphine derivative to keep me going for the required time. Again, I wanted to see this positively and before each treatment, I approached the machine, which I had named Lily, to humanize it a little. I would say to her: “My lovely Lily, you are going to give me energy.” I don’t know if it stuck, but the team at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital told me at the time that they were going to nickname the radiotherapy machine Lily.

I had to wait a good year for my reconstructive surgery, which was performed by Dr. Michèle Tardif, an excellent surgeon. I opted for an autologous reconstruction with the D.I.E.P. flap. I love my new breast, maybe even more than the other one! I didn’t have a tattooed the nipple done; I like it like this. More specifically, my surgery lasted 10 hours and two days later I was hula-hooping in the hospital hallway with the nurses.

The crazy thing is that for the first year after I noticed my symptoms, I still thought it was a cyst. Even my gynecologist wasn’t worried (largely because of my age). And I was 30, so I figured I had better things to do than go get a breast ultrasound for a simple cyst.

I had never heard of breast observation. The most disturbing thing about it was the technician who refused to examine me. I was wearing a 36C on one side and my other breast, the swollen one, didn’t fit into a triple-D. Obviously there was a problem!

In 2010, it was the early days of breast cancer support programs. I remember going to a shop to buy a wig and there was nothing under $1,500 to $2,000. My social worker found me all the help she could. I got a few cost exemptions that helped me a lot.

My remission is over and I am cured. When I had my breast removed I was told that there was no trace of cancer left and that the result was spectacular. Of course, to this day, whenever I feel or see something, I have doubts and wonder if the cancer has returned. I then call my pivot nurse and they always call me back the same day, or the next. I have a great oncology team and I still have one mammogram a year.

It’s important for me to raise awareness of my story, because breast cancer at age 30 happens, unfortunately. Breast observation can save your life.