photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

There are painful moments in your life that get burned into your memory. No matter how many years go by, the mere mention of it instantly drags you back. I feel that way about each time I lost a grandparent, my aunt, an important relationship, and the day I was told that I had breast cancer. That bump in the road happened nearly three years ago, and I can still remember exactly where I was, how it felt, and how the rest of that day unfolded.

The news came as a shock, of course. When my gynecologist still felt the lump on my left breast on a follow-up visit and sent me in for an ultrasound, he calmed my fears by saying I shouldn’t worry. With my age (30), health (great), and family history with breast cancer (non-existent), it was “highly unlikely” that it would be cancer. One ultrasound and biopsy later, it turned out to be just that. Cue the devastation.

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I fell apart as soon I hung up on the doctor who broke the news. He urged me to act quickly, but honestly I couldn’t even function well enough to call oncologists. After years of writing health articles and encouraging my readers to take a proactive stance in their own health, I simply didn’t care. I needed time to fall apart first. I had never felt as mortal as I did then and still to this day, I’m acutely aware that a tumor could just pop up anywhere inside me and possibly take me out for good. It’s a morbid way to live, and I don’t let it keep me from going on with my life, but the fear sits there, under the surface, waiting to someday say, “See? I told you so.”

I never fought the battle alone. My family and friends showered me with support and encouragement. When I wanted to hide and cry, I had more shoulders than I knew what to do with. On the day of my lumpectomy, I was terrified but determined to put on a brave face. I needed to pretend that this was just some ridiculous adventure and that everything was going to be okay. My method worked until I left my mom and sister behind and shuffled into that cold operating room with a big knot in my throat. Somehow, I held it all in until I woke up on the other side in the recovery room.

My follow-up treatment consisted of 21 days of radiation, and I’m currently on medication for three more years. While I’m grateful that I didn’t have to lose my curls through chemotherapy, the treatment was draining. I tried hard to not let cancer affect my life in any way and kept working throughout my treatment, typing my stories with one hand while I healed from the surgery. Even when my body was crying for rest from the toll caused from radiation, I pushed through my to do lists, launched the stationery company I had developed just before diagnosis, and made the daily commute to the clinic every evening. I didn’t want the cancer to win.

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Years later, a psychologist would tell me that I didn’t process my battle correctly. To which I replied, “I’m sorry, but what exactly is the right way to process cancer?”

The thing is there, there couldn’t possibly be a “right way” to get through this. We all do the best we can with whatever we’re given. Throughout that whole experience — even on the very day I was diagnosed — I was a mess of tears and laughter? Yes, laughter! I needed to joke my way through this because the very idea that I could have developed cancer so young was beyond anything I could ever comprehend. Was I supposed to stay in bed sobbing all day long or did I have better things to do?

I tried hard to move on. Sometimes I’ll forget myself and tell my story a bit too flippantly to someone new as if it were no big deal. So maybe I didn’t process it “correctly” or maybe I needed that attitude to serve as protection. But the truth is it touched me very deeply. No matter how much I try to distance myself from the breast cancer, it doesn’t ever truly go away. Whenever I read a story about someone who has lost his or her battle with cancer, I get that familiar lurch in my gut and think, “That could be me someday.”