April 13, 2022
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Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United
Having a support system that advocated for me was my fighting technique in a medical system that told me I was too young to have breast cancer.
In August 2013, I was 22 years old and packing up my life in Ellicott City, Maryland. I had graduated from Towson University a few months ago and was getting ready to pursue my dream of living in New York City and dancing every day. I had joined the student based company Joffrey Concert Group, and we trained, rehearsed, performed, and toured like a full-time company. I was dancing 9 to 5 almost every day and was in the best shape of my life.
In February 2014, while showering, I found a small lump above my left breast that felt like a muscle knot in my pectoral muscle. I thought it came from doing a lot of partner and weight-sharing work in rehearsal. I believed it would eventually go away. An online search told me that breast cancer is extremely rare in women under 30, which moved that lump to the back of my mind and let me concentrate on my dancing.
Then, during rehearsal a few weeks later, I felt a sudden pop in my sternum. Again, I put it down to working with an inexperienced partner who did not support my back properly during a backward flip lift.
As time passed, the sternum pain increased and I saw the Joffrey physical therapist who also believed it was a pulled pectoral muscle and advised rest. Of course, being a dancer, I could not take time off and risk losing my parts, so I continued dancing without telling anyone about my “injury.” We were about to go on tour and I did not want to be left behind, so I kept on dancing and performing full-time, ignoring the pain.
I would later learn that this pain was caused by breast cancer that had spread to my sternum and was eating away at the bone. But getting a diagnosis was not simple. I was a 23-year-old professional dancer and few doctors thought I could possibly have breast cancer.
By the end of our season in May 2014, I could hardly move my arm, breathe, sit up in bed, or even get dressed without being in extreme pain.
My mom came to our last show in NYC and mentioned that I was not dancing like myself. She insisted I see a doctor and we went to a sports medicine clinic in NYC. The doctor ordered x-rays which showed no damage and advised rest, thinking I had aggravated my “injury” by continuing to dance.
She had no reason to suspect that the pain was caused by breast cancer metastases — I was too young. And as a professional dancer, an aggravated injury was the immediate and most obvious explanation for any pain that I was experiencing.
“Don’t worry, 23-year-olds don’t get breast cancer. Can she come in several months later?” How I wish they were right.
That addressed the sternum pain but not the lump in my chest. I was going back home to Maryland next week and needed to see a doctor ASAP. My mom began calling doctors in Maryland trying to get a next-day or next-week appointment. This was a nightmare.
The gatekeepers all said, “Don’t worry, 23-year-olds don’t get breast cancer. Can she come in several months later?” How I wish they were right.
Finally, in early June, my mom reached a sympathetic gatekeeper of a large OB-GYN practice who got me in to see a nurse midwife who immediately sent me for a mammogram and sonogram.
Afterward, I met with the radiologist who was a very kind, older gentleman. I think he didn’t want to upset me, so he said 80 percent of breast lumps are benign, but that I should get a biopsy to be sure. With our minds slightly at ease, my mom began calling breast surgeons.
Again we had a gatekeeper problem. Our mistake was telling them that the radiologist thought it was benign. Because of this, I couldn’t get an appointment in the near future with our first choice doctor.
We should have been suspicious when my mom found a surgeon who could see us the next day. He ordered the biopsy which came back positive. However, he dragged his feet in giving us the biopsy results — we had to wait almost 3 weeks. He said my cancer was stage 2A without ever checking my lymph nodes or ordering any of the scans that are needed to properly stage breast cancer.
My mom didn’t know much about breast cancer at the time, but she did not have much faith in this doctor and wanted a second opinion. She called our first choice doctor again asking for a second opinion. On hearing that I had been given a diagnosis, he saw me the next day, staying after regular office hours to see me. I changed doctors and hospitals immediately.
The previous doctor had led me to believe it was not very serious and that, before long, I would be back dancing full-time. I desperately wanted to believe this, but only a few days later, I would learn that my cancer was far more advanced and serious than I was led to believe.
Tests ordered by my new doctor showed that my cancer had metastasized to my lymph nodes, sternum, spine, and pelvis. I had a very aggressive, fast growing, triple positive (HER2+/ER+/PR+) stage 4 breast cancer with a very poor prognosis: a median life expectancy of 2 to 3 years and a 5-year survival rate of less than 20 percent.
I wondered if I would ever dance again. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just started crying uncontrollably.
I moved back home to Maryland where my new medical team immediately sprang into action and my first treatment began 6 days later on July 1, 2014.
When my new doctor told me I had breast cancer, I thought I hadn’t heard him clearly. Despite the battle my mom and I had endured to even get an initial appointment, I wasn’t ready for this outcome. Being told that I was “too young”, “too active”, and having been given a slightly different diagnosis just days before, meant I wasn’t immediately sure who or what to believe.
When the diagnosis hit me, my whole world turned upside-down. I wondered if I would ever dance again. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just started crying uncontrollably.
Many questions exploded in my brain: Could I stay in NYC? Would I keep my spot at Joffrey? What kind of treatments would I be undergoing? Would the medications destroy the cancer and my body in the process? Would I be able to dance after the treatments? How many years did I have left to live? Would those years be filled with pain?
I was only 23. My adult life was just beginning. Surely this couldn’t be real. I would wake up from this nightmare and my left breast would be normal.
Eight years after my initial diagnosis, I’m very grateful to still be alive and dancing. But I’m also able to reflect on the challenges that I faced during this time.
My lifestyle and age were incompatible with what was expected of a breast cancer diagnosis. It meant that I had to fight to be heard. And it wasn’t just me fighting. My mom was my support system, and she continually advocated for me. She knew there was something wrong before I did and made me re-evaluate what I was prioritizing and had initially been told.
This support instilled new self-worth and made us fight for my first choice doctor, who certainly prolonged my life and may have even saved it.
A support system is incredibly important, but no matter your situation, remember to always advocate for yourself and fight to be heard — whether you’re 23 or 93.
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