Stéphanie Duval’s testimonial, 33, diagnosed in 2020 during the pandemic

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Stéphanie Duval's testimonial, 33, diagnosed in 2020 during the pandemic

I was diagnosed with locally advanced Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer in March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. I was 31 years old.

It was my partner who discovered the lump first, around January. He would often tell me that it seemed like I had a lump in my breast. I didn’t pay too much attention to it and would often tell him no, it was nothing. I didn’t want to believe it, actually. I could feel it, but I didn’t want to. I went to see the doctor anyway. She examined me but didn’t feel anything. She told me to watch for changes or if it didn’t go away, and to call her if I saw anything abnormal. So I told myself that if she, a professional, hadn’t seen anything, then surely it was nothing. It reassured me, even though I was still worried deep down.

When I realized that the lump wasn’t going away, I knew it was cancer. It was obvious. But there were no cases in my family, and you never think it’s going to happen to you. Except it was happening to me. It wasn’t painful at first, but within a few weeks, it grew fast, and just before the treatments, one of the lumps was as big as a golf ball. When I slept on my side, it was uncomfortable, so it was impossible to think about anything else or sleep well. I was constantly thinking about it; it haunted me.

And then the pandemic hit and I had to share my concerns with my doctor over the phone since everything was closed. It was the first “official” week of the pandemic when the world stopped turning. My cancer didn’t stop though. It was very frustrating. My doctor was surprised though and asked me a bunch of questions. She reminded me that given my age, there was really not much chance that it was cancer. Thankfully, she still took me seriously, and I received a phone call to go to the hospital a few days later. When I had my appointment, I was surprised to see so many young women in the waiting room. The nurse at the breast clinic told me that more and more young women were being diagnosed with breast cancer. It shocked me.

My mammogram came out normal. It was during the ultrasound that the doctors saw something; even I could see black balls on the screen. I noticed that the technician was slowing down and taking measurements. That’s when I knew there was a problem. Actually, I already knew, but it became real at that moment. I was quiet, but in my head, a storm was swirling. I knew I was going to be diagnosed. The wait before the appointment when I got the news was the worst.

The time finally came for the appointment at Saint-Sacrement hospital in Quebec City. Security wouldn’t let my partner through. We knew we were going to get bad news and he wanted to be with me, but since it was the beginning of COVID, everyone was panicking. A nurse stepped in and convinced the guard to let my partner through. She sensed my distress.

When I was given the diagnosis, even though a small part of me thought it was going to be okay, I wasn’t surprised. It was a locally advanced Stage 3.

After the diagnosis, I was off work for a week. Then I decided to work from home part-time until July, mainly to take my mind off things and keep busy, but I had to stop because I became too exhausted to keep up that pace.

We had two children who were four and seven at the time. I had to manage home schooling from April to June, and then we moved in June 2020. It was a hard time, even though we were lucky to have a lot of help from our families and friends.

My partner doesn’t show much emotion and neither do I. We’re pretty reserved and we don’t express our feelings easily. I’m actually very emotional, but the words just don’t come out. It took me a week after the diagnosis before I was able to tell certain friends and family. I found it hard to tell people because I’m very private by nature, and news like that draws attention to us. I hated it.

We told the children much later. We didn’t really know how to tell them, and we didn’t want them to associate this announcement with death. I didn’t even know if they had ever heard of cancer. We tried to make sure it wasn’t too hard for them, or too shocking. For instance, when my boyfriend shaved my head, they were there. We did it in a fun way so they wouldn’t remember it as a bad time. We had a good laugh, and they thought my new look was funny.

I had very long hair, so we gave it to an organization. This was important to me. They used it to create wigs for young children with leukemia. I thought it was the right thing to do; I couldnt see myself throwing my long blonde hair away. I didnt take it too badly. I had a nice bald look with funny tuques; I looked like a little elf. 

My chemotherapy treatments took place from April to September 2020. They went pretty well, but towards the end, the last four treatments were stronger, and I was ready for it to end. I felt like I was dying from the inside. I had trouble getting around the house and my body felt heavy. In 2020, I had gone through a period where I wasn’t doing so well psychologically. I had a few panic attacks without knowing what they were. I had heard that chemotherapy could affect my heart, so when I called my nurse, I thought that’s what was happening. The nurse asked me to take my pulse. This made me realize that I was in a panic. At the time it didn’t occur to me. So the nurse put me on a list for a social worker and was contacted soon after. I never saw her in person, but I spoke to her on the phone several times and it made me feel better. In hindsight, I was having anxiety about my deteriorating condition.

In October 2020, I had a full mastectomy of one breast: it wasn’t a fun thing to go through, but it didn’t affect me too much. I think some people have a harder time with it than I did. Then I had radiation in December and January. After that I had oral chemotherapy again because I still had cancer cells in my lymph nodes. I wanted to get back in shape and start running again, but the burning in my feet and hands caused by the oral chemotherapy put a damper on my plans. I found this period hard and boring because I had regained some of my energy, but I couldn’t do anything because of the pain. Then, in the summer of 2021 it was over.

Throughout the process, I was lucky because my parents and in-laws were always there to look after the children. During the chemotherapy, I couldnt drive because the healthcare team was giving me Benadryl, which made me very drowsy. The day after the appointments, I was lethargic and tired. The chemo was every week, too. My doctor told me that I had received an intensive treatment because I was young and in good health, apart from the cancer 

I never lost sight of the fact that treatments are temporary. Yes, losing your hair and breasts is huge and it’s a big ordeal, but you have to keep your spirits up because hair grows back, and breasts can be fixed. I consider myself strong in the face of these challenges, and I try to keep my natural optimism. I had my lows like everyone else, and it’s normal to have them. And thinking about it, I find it harder after the treatments than during.   No one ever told me explicitly: remission starts now. I was waiting for something concrete, and it never came. Even today; I would like to have a specific date, but I don’t have one.  

I finally went back to work in October 2021. It was a very gradual return; I went back fulltime only in December 2021. In my case, the chemotherapy affected my concentration: the day I came back to the office, I couldnt remember anything. It takes a while to get back into the swing of things. I did some research on chemo brain and in my case, my concentration definitely hasn’t come back 100%. I also think that everyone reacts differently to treatments.  

So I decided to tell my story mainly because of the “after” part that we don’t often talk about, and which for me has been harder. It’s scary when they let you go, when your oncologist tells you: “I’ll see you in six months.” I was worried that they wouldn’t call me back, that they would forget about me and that the cancer would come back. I feel that we don’t talk enough about this stage, even though it can cause a lot of anxiety. In the spring of 2022, I asked for a psychologist because I wasn’t doing so well; I was afraid of a recurrence. I got one, but I didn’t have a centralized resource or clear information on what happens after cancer.

It means a lot to me to be able to tell my story today. It’s part of my personal journey because before, I had a hard time talking about all this. A cancer society ad on TV could cause me a lot of anxiety; I would shield myself from anything that reminded me of that time. I would avoid it. I had seen the testimonials on your website, and I read them even if they made me very emotional. By telling my story, I feel like I’m taking a step forward.

Today, I’m still afraid of a recurrence, that’s for sure. But my psychologist has helped me a lot in my process. I don’t think we talk enough about people who survive. Unfortunately, we often talk about the people who don’t, which leaves us with a bitter taste, as if a recurrence is inevitable when that’s not the case at all. That is what I don’t like about the resources we have at our disposal. There’s a need follow-up after the treatments, after the operations that inevitably distort our self-image, after returning to work, after the whole ordeal that a person with cancer goes through. The “after” part is not addressed but it’s just as important as the “during” part.

For the future, obviously I hope to be healthy and fit again. I was very active before my cancer; I especially enjoyed running. I used to run long distances. Maybe that’s why my whole journey felt like a marathon and why I still remind myself today to take it one step at a time.