Wisdom//

Having It All, But Not All at Once: A Story of Breast Cancer

I always strived to have it all, until my diagnosis. Here’s how I realized there’s really no such thing, and that it’s more important to be at peace with myself.

Once upon a time, I thought I had it all. But back then, I took for granted one thing: my health. It took a cancer diagnosis for me to realize that I had to let go of ever “having it all.” Sure, if you were to meet me in person, you might think I have it all—but if you looked a little closer, you’d find heartbreak. The truth is, no one has it all, at least not all at once. When I told my story to Mark Groves, a human connection specialist and founder of the MOTUsummit, he told me, “Wake up to the deliciousness of life.” And while it may have taken me a while, I finally have. Just as Groves tells his clients, by opening myself up to the unknown, I’ve learned to see the beauty of it. Here’s my story.

I was lying in my bed the day after surgery. All the lights were off with only a dim desk lamp lighting the bedroom. I forced my husband out and I was alone. Slowly, I made my way to the full-size mirror. I was beyond petrified. There are very few times in your life when you know, after this moment, that you will forever be different. I didn’t want to face what was before me, and I knew that seeing myself would be impossible to handle with the brutal overhead light. With a deep breath, I told myself to get this over with quickly and untied my robe, my raw and scarred chest now exposed in my reflection.

They were gone. My beautiful 34C-cup breasts were now a memory of my past, replaced with deep red scars, street-fight bruises and horrendous drains. As tears streamed uncontrollably down my face, I had one thought: “How did I get here?”

One in every eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. I had become one of eight.

This wasn’t supposed to be to my life. My life was going down one charmed path until breast cancer forced its way into my car, put a gun to my head, and shouted “Drive.” Since then, I’ve been hijacked into the unimaginable—thrust into a new body and a new way of survival.

I came to New York immediately after college. Born and raised in a small Idaho town, I had dreamed of moving to New York to pursue an acting career. I was accepted into The Actors Studio for my graduate degree and thought I would have it all.

Over time, I created a life fueled by adventure and creativity. Sure, I had my share of problems, but as a whole, life was pretty great. I didn’t have the career that I dreamed of yet, but I was still living in New York. Still making it. Still here.

As the end of my twenties approached, I got serious about finding a long-term partner. I was tired of dating. I boldly decided to reach out to a stranger on Facebook. When I met my future husband, he checked every box I wanted. He was intelligent, handsome, interesting, thoughtful and had what I lacked: a stable job in finance with a reliable income. A few years together were followed by a beautiful wedding. Shortly after, we moved into an apartment in Tribeca and I became pregnant. Again, my dream was becoming a reality.

Once I found out I was pregnant, I gave up acting. It was hard enough to find jobs before; pregnancy added a whole new level of complication to the equation. As I started looking for jobs in production, I also was fighting extreme morning sickness. After one horrific morning when I threw up in a trashcan on a subway platform on the way to work, I knew I couldn’t do it all. My career had to be placed on the back-burner while I focused on my pregnancy. Although I was disappointed, I knew how fortunate I was to be able to make that choice. I had the option to take care of myself at a time in which I couldn’t tackle both a pregnancy and a new job.

Five months after giving birth to our beautiful daughter, I decided to go back to work. Once again, my stars aligned and I landed a job at a great company. Those first few months, I felt constant guilt. I had to leave work earlier than my coworkers to relieve my nanny. While at work, I felt like I was missing out on time with my baby, and I was reliving her milestone moments through pictures. I felt like I had zero time for my marriage and even less time for myself. As someone who enjoys exercise, I had no energy for self-care. Still, I look back at that period and realize how lucky I was to be at such a supportive company, one that understood I was a new mom starting a new job and completely overwhelmed. I loved working there and believed I could manage it all. I had everything I desired all at once, and yet in one moment, with one phone call, my life came crumbling down.

On March 22nd, 2017, my world changed. My doctor called at 12:28pm. Cancer survivors never forget the time or date of that call. Earlier that week, I went in for a routine MRI scan and assumed everything would be fine. I was not prepared for the bomb that was about to drop. I remember her words, “You have breast cancer,” dripping into my brain. I was 35 years old, healthy, and fit. What was happening?

I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma with suspicion of microinvasion. I also am a carrier of the BRCA1 mutation, the breast and ovarian cancer gene. Given my medical prognosis, doctors gave me one viable option. Lose your breasts, and lose them fast, or the cancer will spread. Within ten days, I was en route to Memorial Sloan Kettering on my way to my first surgery for a double mastectomy. I was staring down the barrel of a gun at an age when I should have been enjoying my family and career. The life I had earned, that I had created, suddenly collapsed into chaos.

For my second surgery in July 2017, surgeons replaced my expanders with breast implants, and removed my fallopian tubes. They told me that if I wanted to expand my family, in-vitro fertilization was a reasonable option. With IVF, you can eliminate the BRCA gene from embryos. My husband and I agreed this was our best course of action. In what seemed like an instant, we went from deciding on new apartment furniture and vacation plans to discussing the removal of body parts and egg retrievals.

With these agonizing choices looming ahead, I had to make dramatic life changes and let something go. I had to say goodbye to a job that I loved in order to maintain my health. Leaving work was just another brutal reminder of what cancer had taken from me. In a short, intense time, I lost my breasts, a career, and even worse, I lost my old self. What remains is someone who looks at life differently because I was forced to live differently. I still have trivial stresses, eat sugar, and enjoy a glass of wine. But my priorities have shifted. To have it all now means having my health.

Each time I come out of MSK with a clean check-up, I have it all. Time with my daughter is no longer challenging but cherished. My connection with my husband is now a gift and not a given. And for the first time ever, my relationship with myself is priority number one. As my body has miraculously bounced back and my breasts have healed, I will never again shame myself for one extra pound or for not being perfect. My body has given me this life, a life in which I am able to breathe, laugh, cry, and spend time with those I love. Without it, I am nothing and with it, I can have all that matters.  

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