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Breast cancer on my 37th birthday

A mother and wife faces life and death in her 30s

Anna swimming with her son Jesse after months of chemotheraphy
Waiting for my oncologist to tell me my breast cancer prognosis and treatment plan.

Last December, on my 37th birthday, I gave myself a very peculiar gift. I found a lump in my right breast. A little round, pea sized, lump. My breath stopped by the idea, by the feeling, by the enormity of it.

What did I do first? I went on Google. The biggest mistake a person could make? Probably, yes. Then I went to my husband. His breath stopped. His mom had breast cancer, 24 years ago. He was 12 years old at that time, a scared boy. But he is not a scared boy anymore, now he is scared like a father and husband.

I decided to get it over with and go to the doctor the next week. They gave me a biopsy and, the day after, at work, my phone rang.

“Unfortunately the biopsy shows invasive cancer cells.”

My breath stops and doesn’t want to start again. The doctor talks and talks, and I cannot breath my throat is tight, so tight. Why am I am crying? Nobody died. 

“What? No, I don’t need anything. I am fine, just fine.” 

Breathe in and out, in and out. Just get her to stop talking. I don’t want to talk to her. I don’t want to hear her.

I call my husband. He is not picking up. I am shaking. I call my mother-in-law. “Oh, God, God.” I tell my coworkers something about bad results. On the way out I call my mom. “Pane boze!” They both said the same thing, in different languages, two mothers. I will never forget their voices.

My cancer type is called HER2. 1 in 5 women have this kind of cancer and it is an aggressive form that used to have much worse prognosis. Fortunately, in recent years, a drug called Herceptin has significantly improved outcomes. Following my doctor’s suggestions, over the course of the next year, I will undergo surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and daily pills for the next ten years that will block my body from producing estrogen (since my cancer is also hormone fueled) and put me into early menopause.

And that second child I so desperately wanted and always expected to conceive is no longer possible.

After the lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor from my breast.
My breast was burned from radiation treatments, a common side effect.

My mother was in shock after I experienced a serious infusion reaction during my third chemotherapy treatment.

I am not going to lie, there have been a lot of mornings I wake up thinking life sucks, it’s so unfair. My body is so sore, my arm is hurting from the chemo, I have insomnia, hot flashes, my joints ache and I experience fatigue so intense I can’t move.

Sometimes I just want to rant about the unfairness of it all. But. . . .

As I start to say it, it just doesn’t feel that strong. I can definitively complain, don’ t get me wrong. I don’t hold back, no way, but I just don’t feel the strength behind the words.

Yesterday, I walked my little guy to his daycare. As we walk, we talk.

“Look at the cat. It has to be careful out here. Make sure it won’t get lost,” I say.

“Yes,” answers my little guy.

“And look, it’s so cold but the sun is shining. And that’s a big car, right.”

My little “yes” man nods wisely and sometimes says his favorite word. “Yes, mama, yes.”

At the daycare I can see my little guy’s mind is already with his tiny friends. He lies like a sack of potatoes on my lap. I take off his jacket, then his pants, his hat thrown on the floor. Mama I have to go, his body says.

“Kiss goodbye!” I remind him.

Off he goes. And then in the middle he turns around and looks at me, waves with his little hand and says. “Goodbye mama!”

My life doesn’t suck and it’s not unfair. I have so much love around and so many people to love, my life is full.

My husband and I have been documenting this experience. We are both freelance photographers. This has been a difficult project to work on, but it is critical to us to try to help save the lives of other young women who might normally not expect they can get breast cancer under 40. Our friend was diagnosed three years ago at 37, and because we knew it could happen to people without a family history and who were seemingly healthy, I was more diligent in monitoring my body. My prognosis is good, it seems to have been discovered early, and I hope that is what will save my life. 

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I hope that my story will inspire other young women to monitor themselves more closely and go visit a doctor immediately if they find anything suspicious. 

You can visit our full photo journal at: http://www.jordanrathkopf.com/Her2/

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