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When a Breast Cancer Diagnosis Strikes in Your 30s

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When I was in junior high school in the late 80s there was a TV show called “Thirtysomething.” It was obviously about people in their 30s, and all I know is I wasn’t allowed to watch it. At that time I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be so exciting in the lives of 30-year-olds. But now that I am closing in on the ripe age of 37, I know plenty of things happen.

In my 30s there have been the typical things happening like building a career, buying a house and having a baby. There’s also been the not-so-typical; I currently have cancer. I’m one of the rare, “special” women who have the privilege of being diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40. I was diagnosed just shy of 36. It hasn’t even been a year since my diagnosis. My feelings and emotions are still “undeclared” at best. I don’t know if I’m currently “in” or “done” with the processing stage, but it doesn’t usually make me nauseous nor nail-spitting angry anymore.

I suppose that’s progress.

Our two children were 8 and 3 when I was diagnosed. When you have small children, and cancer in your 30s, parenthood and careers get interrupted. The “story” you had so carefully crafted for yourself and your long, happy life also start to get corrupted. Until now (as you are reading this) I have not shared one major thought that burst from my shocked and terrified brain that day I was diagnosed; what if I’m just the first part of their story? For a long time that thought was too cruel to utter. I imagine it is one of the most common worries that enters a mother’s head when faced with a cancer diagnosis.

“What about my family? What would they do without me? Would they remember me? Aren’t they too young to remember me? What if I was just his first love?

And the list goes on…

As we told people about my diagnosis they grasped for words of wisdom and ways to help. We simply asked for prayers of peace and comfort. Peace and comfort. I have to believe that as those prayers were answered my initial panicked question, “What if I’m just the first part of their story?” gave way to a more peaceful, more comfortable, “Maybe I’m just the first part of their story.”

Somehow thinking that I might have a purpose in all of this, regardless of the outcome, calmed me. I don’t know that I ever actually accepted that this was a true possibility… that I might die, that my family might eventually have another wife and mother to finish out the story that I started. But I think the stream of reassuring test results kept those possible realities in check. The sprint of appointments, decisions, surgeries and procedures took care of the rest.

A few weeks from now will mark one year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the most part, when I look at the last 10 months, it plays out like some surreal dream from which I’m still trying to wake up from. I will live the second half of my life having already experienced what we typically think of as “reserved” for grandmothers. In my 30s I have lost a major part of my womanhood and will never again look or feel “normal.” I will forever have the possibility of recurrence tucked away in my mind. I fear that the anger and disappointment associated with that will always be with me.

But it’s now that I realize there is power in recapturing that initial terrifying question for myself;  this really is just the first part of my story. My cancer experience is a part of me forever. It is something to grieve, and when I’m ready I hope that I can accept it. But it’s just the first part of my story. I believe that the second part will be cancer-free and a time where I am the one finishing the story of our long, happy life together, well beyond our 30s.

Photo credit: Ruslanshug/Getty Images

Originally published: September 19, 2018
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