I Was Only 23, How Did I Have Breast Cancer?


Kathleen was only 23 and the last thing she was thinking about was cancer, but she found her own lump and everything changed. This is her story. In November 2014, my gynecologist found a lump in my breast, so I had a breast ultrasound done to check it. The ultrasound technician told me that there were actually three “masses” and that they were simply cysts, then told me to get checked again in 6 months. I graduated from TCU in December and moved back home to Austin while I searched for a job as a junior art director or designer at an ad agency here in town. In January, I could feel that the lumps had grown so I went in for another ultrasound. They had in fact grown, but I was told they were 99.9% benign. Once I insisted, she referred me to a surgeon if I wanted to have them removed. They kind of hurt a little, so I told my mom that I just wanted to get it over with and get them taken out, while I was still on their insurance.

I went in for surgery on Monday, March 30 and came out feeling good. Two days later, my surgeon called me and told me that he had gotten the pathology report back and that he was completely shocked. It was April Fool's Day, so I thought he was kidding when he told me that the tumors were cancerous. When I knew he wasn't joking, my heart dropped and I immediately went into shock. I was so upset and so terrified.

I soon found out that my breast cancer was Stage IIIC invasive ductal carcinoma, HER2+ and ER/PR-. The main tumor was about 2 inches large and it had spread to a lymph node in my armpit area. I was set to have 6 rounds of chemo every three weeks, and I will be getting Herceptin every three weeks for a year (until April 2016). I also got genetic testing done, and it came back that I have two gene mutations, most likely the cause of the breast cancer. One is called the ATM gene mutation and the other is P53 or Li-Fraumeni syndrome. It's really scary because with the P53 mutation, there is nothing telling tumors to stop growing. The genetic counselor revealed that there was a 90% chance that I would get cancer at some point in my life and that there is a higher chance that I could get a secondary cancer. It’s bad to be exposed to radiation with the P53 mutation, so my oncologist ruled out getting radiation following chemo, so as to keep this gene “happy”. I also can't get any more PET scans, CT scans or x-rays, so I'll have to get full body MRI's in the future. It’s going to be imperative that I get routinely checked and scanned at least once a year if not more often. It really scares me that I have this because there's always going to be a threat of getting another cancer, but the positive side is that I will be staying on top of my health and hopefully stopping anything before it takes control.

I started chemo on April 27, and had to shave my head (wahhhh!) exactly 2 weeks later, because it started falling out. That was so hard for me, but I have rocked the bald! I only wore my wig once before I decided it was weird and too hot. Thankfully, I had my last chemo on August 10th!! I had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction with tissue expanders on September 8th. I was so upset to lose my boobs, especially since I only just turned 24. It’s not freakin’ fair! Right now, I am healing from the surgery and in a few weeks, my plastic surgeon is going to start filling the expanders until I get back to the size I was before (34D). Hopefully that process won’t be too painful. My pathology report came back two days after my mastectomy and my surgeon was finally able to tell me that I was cancer free!!!! Hallelujah.

Right now, I live at home with my mom, dad, and brother (who is 27 and in between leases...It's been fun having him at the house!) and they have been the greatest caretakers ever. My mom pretty much dropped everything to take care of me and it has been the biggest blessing. My dad takes off work whenever he needs to and he's been to most of the important appointments. Thankfully, I’m still on my parents [really great] insurance, so once we hit the deductible, everything has been paid for. I also have a sister who lives in League City, Texas with her husband and they are expecting a baby girl in November!! I can't wait.

Having cancer has completely changed my life. I was in the prime of my life really having just graduated college and wanting to be independent and have a job like all of my other friends. I was only 23!! How did I have breast cancer!? I've had so many nights of the "why me" mourning, but have gotten better with dealing with it with time. I've tried to live my life as normal as possible, but it's hard. It was hard when all of my friends wanted to go out and drink and I didn’t even have the energy to get off the couch. I usually felt pretty bad for a couple of days after chemo and then I started to feel better around the second and third week (which I literally counted down the days until). During those weeks, I felt like my old self again and could do things and run errands and go to dinners with my friends and things like that. I also started eating a lot healthier and my family has as well which is a huge plus. My mom and I make smoothies almost every morning with kale and fruit and power foods and then we've been trying to be more vegetarian (but is a little hard with my dad and brother. They love meat...!) I love to cook so we are always trying out new recipes. Having cancer has also led me to meet so many people. I have such a great support system with my friends and family, but also the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls and Breast Cancer Resource Center in Austin. They have been so helpful in answering questions I had or still have or just being there to talk to me because they know what I've gone through and what I'm going through. Also so many complete strangers have come up to me and given me compliments on my bald head, which always makes me feel good since I was so self-conscious of it in the beginning. I've met people who have seen my head or seen my Port and tell me they are survivors too and we have a moment of connection and understanding and it is a really great feeling, knowing I'm not alone. This journey is hard, unexpected and unpredictable, but I'm gonna fight, and I'm gonna win!!!