Happy young cancer survivor enjoying sunlight

A cancer diagnosis is obviously devastating at any age. Forget chemo-induced puking and hair loss, the issues facing younger women going through cancer treatment run much deeper, but are often ignored and belittled by healthcare professionals. However, with 10 percent of breast cancer patients being diagnosed under the age of 45, and approximately 850 a year under 35 in the UK alone, these issues need to be discussed openly:

1. Mortality rates. A cancer diagnosis is scary enough, but to find out that you’re more likely to die if you are diagnosed under 35? Well, that sucks! We have more life to live, yet are more likely to die from it. This is due to the cancer normally being more aggressive when it’s diagnosed at a later stage. It’s picked up when symptomatic, rather than at an early stage on a mammogram. Plus prognoses are often spoken about in one, five, or 10 years…but that only takes me to 43. I want to live much longer than that.

2. Fertility issues. Chemotherapy can cause infertility, and some women will be on drugs for the following 10 years, so even if they are not left infertile, the 10-year delay can push them past the “child-bearing age.” This issue is often the most heart-breaking side effect for younger women – having to mourn their infertility while their healthy friends are happily procreating around them. There is the possibility of freezing embryos and eggs, but only if there is time and funding is available, or they have the cash to fund it themselves. Shockingly, many young women don’t have their options discussed before starting treatment. That needs to change.

3. Having a young family. If infertility isn’t an issue, they may already have young children or babies. Many are diagnosed while pregnant or breastfeeding. They have to “carry on as normal” throughout their treatment, juggling the 101 things moms have to do, alongside constant hospital appointments, surgery, treatment and dealing with all of the “yucky” side effects. Alongside this, they have the heartbreak of explaining what is happening to their children and dealing with their children’s reactions and fears, while facing the very real possibility they might not be around to see them grow up.

4. Career. Many young women are diagnosed in the throes of their career. The constant hospital visits for surgery, scans, blood tests and treatments and the resulting side effects and recovery times make it almost impossible to continue a 9-5 job, let alone put in the additional hours. There are also other lingering side effects that continue long after treatment has finished, such as extreme fatigue and “chemo-brain” (cognitive impairment as a result of chemo that can make your head feel really foggy and affect your memory and ability to concentrate which is extremely frustrating) that can make it almost impossible to perform like before. I know of far too many young women who have missed out on promotions or been demoted following their cancer diagnosis. With the pressure on young women to prove themselves, this creates a huge hurdle and can lead to financial issues.

5. Early menopause.
Boom! Straight into hot flashes (volcanic lava hot), insomnia, night sweats, mood swings, anxiety, weight gain and dryness (whispers) *down there.* Rather than being eased into menopause over many, many years, our hormones are prematurely turned off and the result can be extreme. And since the plan is to lower estrogen as much as possible, it is difficult to take hormone replacement therapies (HRT) or natural remedies, and we are often left to just deal with it.

6. Body issues. I know we all have body issues regardless of our age, but even I have to admit that mine are fewer in my 30s than in my 20s and teens. My body is unrecognizable since my treatment and chemo. The younger you are, the more you don’t want to be seen as “different” and many are single and have yet to meet their life partner. To be left “one-boobed,” overweight and scarred can severely knock the confidence in many young women.

7. Isolation. No matter how amazing your friends are, they are less likely to understand, as we just haven’t had other friends go through cancer at our age. They also have their own busy lives to get on with. In hospital for my treatments and surgeries, I was often the only one under 50 — cue lots of tilting heads and pitying looks.

However, the good news is there are some brilliant resources out there for young women – and they proved invaluable for me. For breast cancer, Breast Cancer Care runs Younger Women Together weekends and there’s a brilliant secret Facebook group called Younger Breast Cancer Network (set up by my friend Vickie who was also diagnosed in her 30’s) with over 2,500 members all under the age of 45 in the UK. It provides support from diagnosis to beyond treatment, as well as those whose cancer has spread. It also offers the opportunity to meet others of a similar age and at a similar treatment stage local to you. Vickie also works tirelessly to make things better for us young folk with charities and hospital trusts. For those facing other cancers, Shine Cancer Support is for those in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and has regular local meet-ups and workshops. Just connecting with others your age going through the same thing is therapeutic and makes you feel less alone.

For those of us lucky enough to still be here, we try our best to go on and fulfill enriching, happy lives with many of us doing things that act as good examples to those in the early stages of diagnosis. Many women I’ve met through my cancer journey continue to fundraise, speak publicly, set-up businesses, campaign for better care or drug availability and and have created charities and support networks. They are all determined to make something good from something awful.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age. We need to make sure the relevant help and support is offered to each and every person.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.


In 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. I never would have imagined the whirlwind my life would become — mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, emergency surgery to remove the reconstructive tissue expander hardware because of a terrible infection, and finally, chemotherapy.

In the thick of it, my friend, Danielle, who only two years before had become paralyzed from the chest down after falling 300 feet in a rock-climbing accident, told me, “I’m sure you will go through a period of grief, but I’m glad they found your cancer. You’re going to be OK. Now you’re in the club of super-strong women who conquered this! Sometimes I feel like this accident is the best thing that happened to me.”

Part of me didn’t want to believe Danielle, but another part of me knew she was right. And she was! More than two years later, I not only conquered cancer, but I also kicked chemo’s butt. I refused to let myself feel defeated or depressed. I refused to curl up into a ball and die, even though there were days when I felt so fatigued I barely had the strength to breathe.

Just like Danielle learned life lessons from her fall, I learned important lessons from chemo:

1. It’s only hair.

Hair grows back, sometimes bigger and better than before. Besides, I’m not defined by my hair — none of us are, chemo or not. I started to appreciate the fact that a “bad hair day” was infinitely better than a “no hair day.”

2. Appreciate life’s simple pleasures.

There were days when I felt so awful that the best thing that happened to me was sliding between the bed sheets. When even your skin hurts, there’s something to be said for simple pleasures like those clean, soft sheets or the scent of lavender on your pillow.

3. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

In a weird way, being on chemo forces you to take everything else in stride. You realize pretty soon that everything other than cancer — missing a train or being late for your dentist appointment — is no biggie compared to the suck factor of chemo.

4. Savor every bite of food.

When you feel nauseous most of the time, even a morsel of food that doesn’t make you retch is a gift. Although I had meds to keep the queasiness in check, my mouth felt as dry as ash. I tried to savor every bite as best I could, and chew slowly and thoughtfully. And I try like hell to keep that thought with me afterwards.

5. Size doesn’t matter.

Only being, and staying, healthy does. I didn’t lose weight on chemo; the steroids I had to take along with them made me ravenous. I was getting up in the middle of the night and eating cold hamburgers from the fridge. My main goal was to get strong enough for my next chemo infusion, so I could get the nightmare behind me and focus on being well. So I stopped weighing myself. I stopped counting Weight Watchers points. I just fixated on staying strong. And even today, carrying around extra pounds from the meds I take daily to keep my estrogen level down, I still try to take that in stride. After all, there are worse things than a jelly belly.

This story by Catherine Gigante-Brown originally appeared on Ravishly.com, a feminist news and culture website. Follow Ravishly.com on Twitter and Facebook and check out these related stories:

• Calling Double Mastectomies ‘Overkill’ Misses the Point

• Ticking Time Bomb: Life as a Cancer Survivor

• I Was Breastfeeding, Until I Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

My relationship with the evil being called cancer started when I was only 2 weeks old, when my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t know a lot about it growing up, other than it was something that made people sick.

As I got older, more and more family members fought this breast cancer menace. Doctors believe it is genetically related to, but not the same as, the recognized “Jolie genes,” BRCA 1 and 2. My beautiful aunts lost their hair, but not their pride or dignity. When I reached my 20s, I was referred to the breast clinic and told my options to prevent this from entering my family’s little world.

Prophylactic, bilateral, preventative, mastectomy — the words floated around my mind for months. The hard truth was my healthy breasts, which were used to feed and nurture my two babies for almost a year each, had to be removed.

I found out the facts, spoke to psychologists, checked the boxes, and booked my operation in August 2015. The day came like Christmas to a child, the nervous excitement and butterflies that build up; the relief that it’s finally here, the day I can take a stand against this evil. It would not take me.

Amanda shows her mastectomy scars.
Amanda shows her mastectomy scars.

I had both breasts removed on August 6, 2015, and I felt like the weight had been lifted from my shoulders. No more worrying; my 97 percent estimated risk was obliterated. I now have far less of a chance (5 percent) of breast cancer developing than the average woman, who has a 12 percent risk.

Three weeks post operation, I got an infection in the wound area. I tried to defend my new body using antibiotics and IV drips, but to no avail. I was advised the tissue expander for reconstruction had to be removed. To make matters worse, the only surgery day available was on my baby girl’s fourth birthday. I hit a low.

I came home with a heavy heart and a hard-to-fill emptiness. Over the next few weeks of hospital visits, I had a decision to make. What should I do? Reconstruct one breast? Leave them both?

I had a holiday ahead; this did not fit my plans. I had not wagered on any problems occurring, but still. I was fortunate. I did not have cancer!

Three months down the line, reconstruction of the right breast aka Foob (fake, fantastic, fabulous and free boob) had taken place, and I was now unique, like a unicorn. I was a “unifoob!”

Three more months later, I received news (with some forceful complaining to my surgeon) that I had a date for surgery before Christmas. I had my expander replaced and have now reconstructed both breasts. I have used my chance to remove my ticking time bombs and prevent this from casting a shadow over my little world.

One thing I had decided on before going ahead with surgery was that I wanted to share my story. I wanted to help other women who were in limbo wondering how scary the scars would be, and if they would still be the same women they were before losing such a beautiful, womanly part of themselves. So I plucked up the courage and inner strength to document blog, and post every detail of my journey. I hope it helps any woman facing this decision.

Follow this journey on Mastectomy My Way: Cancer, You Lose.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

At 11 p.m. one night, there was a fateful ping on my Facebook page. It was my friend Julie in the Netherlands. It was 4 in the morning there. Julie had been diagnosed with a uterine tumor and couldn’t sleep. She wondered how she’d muster the strength to get through the coming weeks — and how she’d tell her two sons. I could relate all too well.

As I responded to Julie with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I realized that my Facebook message to her contained the key: how I survived my own difficult diagnosis — breast cancer in 2013 — could help others, like Julie, through theirs. (Update: Julie’s 11.6-pound tumor and all the surrounding tissue ended up being benign!)

I heard the news today, oh boy.

So, you sweated (and maybe even cried) your way through a barrage of tests and biopsies, trying your best to think positive. Your moment of truth arrives: You’re sitting in the doctor’s office, holding your breath for a good prognosis. Fingers crossed, you offer up tiny, silent prayers to whatever god or goddess you hold dear. Then you hear the words it’s impossible to prepare yourself for: “I’m sorry, but it’s cancer.”

“It’s cancer” might be the worst thing anyone has ever said to you, worse than the most tragic breakup, because after all, that’s not life or death — but this very well could be.

When my breast surgeon said those very words to me, I was stunned. I glanced over at my husband Peter, who looked as though he’d just been punched. Hard. In the stomach.

What came next was a jumbled swirl of events I couldn’t ever imagine: mastectomy, failed reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy. They were tough enough to endure, but getting through the initial blow of my diagnosis was the first seemingly impossible step.

Thinking back, I used a host of coping mechanisms which helped me through the shock and girded my loins for what lay ahead on the long road to healing.

1. Breathe.

Although it sounds simple, often the body’s response to upsetting news is to stop breathing — or more closely, to stop breathing correctly. Oxygen can be healing. Oxygen is cleansing. Our cells need oxygen. Evelina, my yoga instructor, constantly reminded me that the exhale is as important as the inhale. It pushes out the bad stuff, the stuff you don’t need. To relieve the stress, breathe deeply and fully. Repeat. Then breathe again.

2. Why worry?

Once upon a time, cancer meant almost certain death. Not so much anymore. And even if the worst happens, do you want to spend your time worrying or do you want to spend it living? My wise sage of a husband, who sees death daily as a firefighter/certified first responder, asked me, “Will worrying help you in any way?” Of course, it won’t. So stop.

3. Take it one day, one hour, one moment at a time.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by looking too far ahead. And dismiss the things that aren’t definite. E.g., don’t fret about how you’ll get through chemotherapy if you don’t even know if you’ll need chemo yet. Don’t look at everything that’s coming your way all at once. Take it one appointment, one test at a time.

4. Don’t give too much information.

Especially when telling my children, I found it best to only give as much information as was needed. Be honest and truthful, but you may not want to offer painstaking details, especially to younger kids. In our post-diagnosis shock, Peter blurted out to me that we’d just tell our 13-year-old son David, “Mommy has cancer and the summer’s going to suck.” Instead, I suggested we tell David, “Mommy has cancer. It’s going to be a tough summer, but everything’s going to be all right.” P.S. We did and it was.

woman in hospital having chemotherapy
Cathy during an infusion.

5. Stay positive.

Even if you’re scared sh*tless, even if you don’t believe it yourself, stay optimistic. Even if your gut says otherwise, convince yourself it’s going to be fine. Collect inspirational sayings like Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is that thing with feathers.” Let it be your mantra.

6. Stay strong.

You’ll discover a powerhouse of fortitude you never even knew you had. You’ll constantly astonish yourself. You’ll be as strong as you need to be. It comes from somewhere deep and true. It’s the essence that makes you, you. Revel in it. Cultivate it.

7. Build your army.

People you never even expected will rise to the occasion and be there for you while those you thought you could depend on may fade away. But that’s OK. It’s all OK.

8. Educate, don’t fixate.

Educate yourself about your treatment and your options, but don’t pour over every article ever written about your ailment. The problem with the Internet is that everything is up there, whether it’s true or not. Stick to reliable sources and be done with it.

9. Hug, love and laugh as often as possible.

You’ll be amazed how good a hug feels when you’re scared or feel like crap. You’ll be surprised how cathartic laughing at the fart scene in “Blazing Saddles” is. Surround yourself with people who love you. Allow yourself to be blown away by simple kindnesses. I’ll never forget the incredible scalp massage my stylist Aisha gave me after a wash; it was my last cut before I lost all my hair to chemo. When I called her on it, she confessed, “I knew this was the one thing I could do to make you feel better.” And it did.

10. Take time for yourself.

Take a moment to take it all in. In a post-diagnosis stupor, Peter and I drove to a quiet bench after we left my surgeon’s office. We just sat, staring at the water, too staggered to talk at first. “What the hell just happened?” Peter asked. Neither of us knew. We held hands, breathed and sorted it out. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

husband, wife and son in front of mountains
Cathy with her husband, Peter, and her son, David.

A version of this post originally appeared on Ravishly.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: If you could go back to the day you (or a loved one) got a diagnosis, what would you tell yourself? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I have a significant history of pre-term labor. Every one of my four pregnancies has been a challenge. We lost our triplets in the summer of 2007 because my body would not hold them long enough. In June 2011, I was in my third trimester of pregnancy with my youngest son. At the same time, my precious mother, one of my dearest friends in this world, was battling stage IV breast cancer. Just after she was put on hospice care, my doctor’s appointment revealed that I needed to be hospitalized for bed rest immediately. I was allowed one brief visit at her bedside before checking in to the antepartum unit. Having done this before, I knew how vital it was for me to stay very calm. Stress and strong emotions were my enemies as they tended to stimulate contractions. My expressions of worry and pain would have to wait.

The moment I found out that Mom had left this life — without me there to hold her hand, without being able to say goodbye — it felt like a punch in the stomach, then free-falling. I wanted to wail, sob, fall on my face, scream, do something, anything — but I could not. I was still in the hospital, and my child came first. My nurse came in just minutes after I got the news and saw me laying there, still and quiet, tears streaming down my face. She put her hand on my shoulder and asked me what was wrong. I told her.

mom and adult daughter
Rebecca and her mom.

After brief but sincere expressions of sympathy, she left and returned quickly with another nurse. One sat on the edge of my bed beside me, holding my hand and the other at my feet. They asked gentle questions in soothing voices. I told them I needed to let it out, but couldn’t. Then the most unexpected thing happened. They both began to cry — I mean really cry. It was remarkable. These two caring women did for me what I could not do for myself and for my mother. It lasted several minutes. I talked about my memories with Mom and they cried. When it was over, I felt relief from the pressure that had built up. I knew I could keep it together for awhile longer.

Later, one of those nurses brought me a card. In it she shared that she had lost her son tragically just a year before.

Grief can make us hard, or it can soften us. How blessed I was that day to have two soft hearts at my bedside.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

A little over a year ago, you were diagnosed with breast cancer. People often use the word “life-changing” for things like this and, though it sounds a bit cliché and trite, that is the only word that comes to mind right now.

I need to apologize for the considerable delay in writing all that will follow. I usually turn to writing as a way of sorting through my emotions, of trying to make sense of a senseless situation, but since your diagnosis I have written very little about it. I’ve avoided the subject, in large part, because much of the story isn’t mine to tell. You are the one who has lived it, who is living it. You are the one for whom the term “life-changing” accompanies, not me.

But there is another reason I have avoided putting it all into words. I’ve avoided writing about it — even in my most private of journals — because it felt too raw, the questions were too scary and the lack of answers was too maddening. Like pressing on a bruise, if I probed too much or tried too hard to answer the questions, I winced with a sharp intake of breath. The human heart and mind can only handle so much, after all. The depth of the unknowns were too deep and pressing was too painful, so I focused instead on the task at hand — taking care of you, my friend.

My fears and questions, large and dangerous, bounced around like lead ping pong balls, leaving dents and more bruises in their path. Over time, the questions developed their own aura, almost like an unnamable but unmistakably present scent lingering in the room. And frankly, there were times when I worried that the questions — not to mention the lack of answers to most of them — might not cause a million miniscule fractures in you and me and us, cracking and splintering until our friendship was nearly unrecognizable.

Not surprisingly, when you first told me that it might be (and then that it was) cancer, many of my questions were medical in nature. What stage? What’s the prognosis? When do you begin treatment? Other questions were more practical. What do you need? How can I help? When can I visit?

But there were also all the unspoken questions that lingered heavy in the air, infusing every conversation with the knowledge that there will forever be a “before” and “after” to the relationship. How will this affect our friendship? How will our relationship change? Will I be the friend you need me to be or will I somehow fall short? And, perhaps scariest of all, will you be OK? Like live-to-be-an-old-lady OK?

As soon as the diagnosis came, your entire world shifted on its axis, and in turn, so did the worlds of those who love you. Thrust into a new landscape, we were treading through unchartered territory. Though we’ve known each other for 30 years and our friendship has been through some serious sh*t, it has not been through anything as sh*tty as cancer. And at the back of my mind sometimes, there was tiny little whisper wondering what this would do to our relationship. Would our friendship emerge stronger, fused together in a way that only the scars of hardship can do? Or would this rocky terrain create fissures that might not be stitched?

Of course, many of the weightiest questions weren’t mine, but yours, and I was simply a conduit through which the questions were voiced. You asked me if I thought you needed a second opinion. (Answer: Yes.) You asked if you should get a double mastectomy or single. (Answer: I have no idea.) You asked about the etiquette on cancer gifts and whether you needed to send a handwritten note right away. (Answer: No, you’ve got a pass.) And you asked one of the hardest questions of all: Is this happening to me? Is this REALLY happening to me?

I hated that we lived so far away from each other, though we texted on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. Sometimes I raged with you. Sometimes I asked more questions in return. Sometimes I wrote “I love you” or “Stupid f*cking cancer,” depending on the situation. When we talked on the phone, I listened and cried. You would tell me to stop and I stopped. Then we would go on talking like usual, except that “usual” included words like port and mastectomy, information about biopsy results and chemotherapy schedules.

Some of the questions in the past year fed my curiosity. When I stayed with you during your first round of chemo, the first thing you asked was, “Do you want to see them?” “Hell yeah!” was my immediate answer and we sneaked into your walk-in closet so you could disrobe. Your body looked beaten and wounded, but you looked more powerful and beautiful than ever, like some kind of cancer-killing, shape-shifting superhero. A few months later, just before your final reconstruction surgery, you asked if I wanted to see what they looked like, and my answer was again “Hell yeah!” We raced off to the restaurant bathroom like two giggly teenagers where you lifted your shirt and we debated size, shape, and softness. You no longer looked beaten and wounded, but you still looked powerful and beautiful.

Since your diagnosis, I have worried constantly about bringing up my own trivial questions and problems. Do I have a right to complain about my children or job stress? Do you want me to ask you for fashion advice anymore, knowing in the grand scheme of things the shoes I take on vacation are of absolutely zero significance? Does any of this really matter?

I wish I could say there weren’t questions with a trace of doubt and second-guessing, but it would be a lie not to admit to having those thoughts as well. I wondered why you cared so much about your hair and continued to use the cold caps even though they made you so sick. Isn’t your body going through enough? I wondered. Don’t you feel beautiful enough, strong enough, loved enough without hair? But in the end, those weren’t my questions to answer, much less ask. The only questions I needed to ask were: How can I bear witness to your pain? How can I hold space for the discomfort? How can I make things a little bit easier?

Though the questions were deafening sometimes, they were subtle but pervasive at other times. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I didn’t know what you needed or wanted to hear. I didn’t know what was safe or real or true anymore. The only thing I knew was that if I waited to find the perfect thing to say, days or weeks or months could go by and the questions would continue to pile up, multiplying and breeding into new questions of regret and doubt and loss.

In the past year since your diagnosis, I’ve learned a lot of things. Some things I learned by asking questions, others I learned by bearing witness to your pain. For instance, I’ve learned that a string of expletives, a well-timed joke or a shared silence can bring more peace than the oft-cited but sterile “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve learned the difference between a port and a drain. I’ve learned that a woman’s definition of beauty may be influenced by society, but is honed from within.

But most importantly, perhaps, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t have feared the questions, their lack of answers or pressing on the bruise of uncertainty. In fact, I should have welcomed the questions, pressing harder, saying what needed to be said.

And so, though these words come later than they should have, I am telling you now that I promise to ask my questions, listen to yours and muddle through them with you – not because we need to find answers to all of them, but because it is through our questions that we show up, offer love and bear witness. It is in the questions that we learn. It is the questions that we love. It is in the questions that we live.

And so I have one more question for you. It is the same question that has been asked since the beginning of time. This question has been asked by million voices in a million languages in a million different ways. It is the only question in which, by asking the question in the first place, we begin writing our answer: Can this — whatever this is — make us stronger and change us for better?

In other words, how can we build something beautiful out of this?

Perhaps we already are making something beautiful out of it.

Follow this journey on Christine Organ.

The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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