The stats about breast cancer are as staggering as they are ubiquitous: 246,660 new cases this year. 1 in every 8 women. More than 2.8 million women in the United States with a history of breast cancer.
Behind the dizzying numbers are flesh-and-blood human beings going to war every day in their own ways against breast cancer. They are Power Figures in every sense of the word: raising awareness at the same time as they are making plans for the rest of their lives. Following our 4-part series last year on the science and politics of Breast Cancer Awareness Month with medical correspondent Dr. Sharon Mass, this year, we’re honored to introduce you to four of them. Taken together, they’re profiles in courage, in caring, in the conviction that we can and will turn this tide.
Meet Lauren Cohen who, at 33, is already a breast cancer survivor. She graciously opened up to Bare it All about her path from blindsiding diagnosis to the new normal.
Q: How did you learn you had breast cancer?
A: I found the lump myself. One afternoon while sitting on the couch, I noticed a pain in my left breast. First, I went to my gynecologist to get it checked out. That led to a mammogram and ultrasound. Even though everyone kept telling me I was too young and it was probably a cyst, they wanted to be sure. In December 2012, at 29, I was diagnosed with Stage II invasive breast cancer. I did get tested for the BRCA gene, which came back negative. Only about 10 percent of women test positive, but given my age and lack of family history I was encouraged to have it done. Positive results would have influenced decisions around my treatment plan.
Q: How did you feel when you found out?
A: I knew the doctor calling at 9 PM wasn’t good news. I was a complete wreck—stunned, terrified, sad, angry, confused and in denial all at the same time. My mom always says, “Whatever’s there is there, let’s deal with it,” but it’s hard to give up control. It felt like a bad dream. This was not the plan. There was no reason we could find.
Q: What was your treatment plan?
A: It was fairly aggressive. I underwent chemotherapy first, every two weeks for four months. If I was going to poison myself, it was encouraging to know it was working first. I did three types, which helped to shrink the tumor and ultimately save my breast. It was always a whole day process: the drive to the hospital, pre-medications to counter the side effects, hours of sitting. I dealt with extreme nausea, fatigue, hair loss, a fever that felt like the flu, my fingernails changed color. You have to get through it—what choice do you have?—but some days it’s minute-to-minute. Then I had a lumpectomy, then radiation daily for eight weeks. It makes you a level of tired I can’t explain. You could sleep an entire day and still be exhausted.
My oncologist and surgeon were both helpful and thorough. With treatment, you get into a routine; it’s actually worse when you stop because that’s the time to reflect on what happened. People thought my ordeal was over when it was really just sinking in. It’s not great when you’re alone and no one’s checking up on you anymore while you’re still healing and processing. I may have looked okay, but physically and mentally, I was spent. I went back to work for normalcy and would come home and cry because I was so overwhelmed.
I’m very thankful that I work in HR for a company that specializes in bio-pharmaceuticals with a strong focus in immuno-oncology. They were incredibly understanding along my journey. I was able to work out a flexible schedule and utilize short-term disability leave during treatment. Now I can advise others as someone who has gone through it.
Q: When did you get the all-clear, and what follow-up measures do you take?
A: The worst part is the waiting. You just keep going back to your diagnosis. After my lumpectomy and lymph-node dissection, I was deemed cancer-free. Margins were clear, and the cancer had not spread.
Because of my age, I’m followed very closely by an oncologist. For now, I have follow-up scans every six months, including both mammogram and MRI, given my dense breasts. I’m also taking Tamoxifen, a hormonal therapy, for at least five years. Since less than five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under 40, I’ll always be high risk and on alert—it never really ends. But each year out, I get a little further from the darkness.
Q: What surprised you most about going through this?
A: That there’s no such thing as too young for cancer. You get the most pitiful looks; it doesn’t make you feel any better.
Watching your body morph into someone you don’t recognize is hard. I was thinner, I had no hair anywhere, not even eyelashes. I would look at myself and think, “Who is this person?” You’re stressed, you’re taking medications that are killing cells in your body, your hormones are completely off, you wake up with a plan for the day that doesn’t turn out the way you expected at all. I was difficult to deal with, I know I was.
I was also faced with making a quick decision about protecting my fertility. I started going through the process but had an allergic reaction to a hormone shot and, after a night in the hospital that wasn’t strictly necessary, I decided to stop. Whatever happens, happens. It was one more thing to deal with that I was not prepared for.
Honestly, I was surprised by who was supportive and who really wasn’t. There were many people I considered good friends I never heard from, which was disappointing. At the same time, there were many people who did offer support in one way or another. My boss would text me the morning of every single treatment. My coworker started a sign-up sheet, and it took me awhile to realize I was getting a pick-me-up each week—cupcakes, games—from my colleagues. Those are the things you remember. Everyone has their own issues, so I was grateful for people taking the time. You don’t need to do anything other than be supportive.
Q: In what ways has breast cancer changed your life?
A: I’m more conscious about how I treat my body. Exercise, nutrition and limiting alcohol are all really important to prevent reoccurrence.
I try to appreciate the small things. My counselor helped me find coping strategies, and I started picking something to look forward to each day, even if it was just watching Real Housewives. That still resonates.
Life goes by really quickly. Move at your own pace, and do more of the things you really enjoy.
Q: Do you still think about cancer daily?
A: I wish I could said no but unfortunately, cancer is everywhere. There isn’t one person I know who hasn’t been affected directly or through a family member, friend or coworker. Every day, I see my scars. I deal with cancer through work—I really do think I’m there for a reason.
The worst time for me is when I have to go for a scan or follow-up appointment. While you’re awaiting your results, you just keep going back to your diagnosis. They call it “scanxiety,” and it brings back all the bad memories.
Sometimes I feel like I got off easy. It was a year of my life, and I’m back to normal. Personally, it can be hard not to have the “waiting for the other shoe to drop” feeling. I’ve seen people my age deal with recurrence, metastatic disease and some who have passed away. Why did I have a positive outcome? You go on this downward spiral of craziness. But I’m thankful every day that I’m healthy now and able to do the things I want to do—there was a time that wasn’t the case.
Q: Who did you lean on most?
A: My doctors. You need to have full trust in and support from your medical team. If you’re not getting what you need, speak up or find someone else.
My mom, fiancé, and good friends and family. It was a team effort. Everyone played a role in helping me get through such a challenging time. Whether it was being the voice of reason, an advocate or shoulder to cry on, a strong support system is really important. I would recommend bringing someone to appointments with you. “Chemo brain” is real—you’re not thinking clearly and forget things easily. Before each appointment, I would sit with my family and write down all the questions I had. They can take notes and make sure your questions get answered. I often found myself distracted and anxious during my appointments, so this really helped. I started a notebook to log how I was feeling, my medical information and resources I didn’t want to forget.
Finding a group of young breast cancer survivors who understood what I was going through and could give me advice was helpful at the time. I don’t want cancer to define me, but it’s nice to be connected to people who get what you’re going through, to be able to send a text about treatment questions or complain about weird side effects.
Q: In what ways do you now advocate to beat breast cancer?
A: Awareness is the first step—breast cancer affects people of all ages and genders. Do self-exams, be your own advocate! Early detection makes a difference. I also do fundraising walks and try to be a support system for others. Sometimes you need to see an example of someone who can say, “It sucked, but I made it through.”
Q: After all your breasts have been through, how do you feel about them now?
A: There are definitely a few scars. I try not to be self-conscious about them, but it can be hard. Many people have seen them at this point. If I can get away without wearing a bra, I will. Thankfully, my surgery left me with most of my breast intact. After surgery, sports bras offered the right balance of comfort and support. I wore a lot of them during radiation because you don’t want anything chafing your hypersensitive skin. Comfort is the most important thing for me now.
Q: For those of us who know people fighting cancer, what are some genuinely helpful things to do or say?
A: Everyone’s situation is different. There are different types of breast cancer, different courses of treatment and very different reactions, both physical and mental, to those treatments. That said, don’t wait for them to ask for help. Bring over food, magazines. Do a load of laundry, pick up a prescription. Sit and watch TV together, or encourage them to go outside for walk. Every text message, card, care package and phone call I received helped me through, even if it took my mind off things for just a few minutes.
Q: What do you wish you could tell yourself at the start of this journey that you know now?
A: Don’t Google. I still struggle with this, and it never ends well. It’s important to have information on your medications, treatments and side effects, but let your doctor or nurse provide it. Going down the search rabbit hole can lead to misinformation, unnecessary stress and, in my case, lots of tears.
You are stronger than you think. There are good days, not-so-good days and days you think you aren’t going to make it—and that’s okay.
Q: What were some of the resources that helped you?
A: Breastcancer.org, Young Survival Coalition and Bright Pink, which focuses on prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer. The Breast Cancer Resource Center through the YWCA in Princeton, NJ, is an amazing organization offering everything from a room full of wigs you can shop to educational programs, transportation, a young survivors group, and more.
Q: Is there a quote you live by?
A: It’s not what happens in life but how you react to it that matters.
Meet all the Breast Cancer Awareness Month Power Figures here:
Read our 2015 series here:
- Part One – You are Now Entering the Third Dimension: 3D Mammography
- Part Two – The Angelina Effect: Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
- Part Three – Breast Cancer Awareness: Pink is the New Black
- Part Four –