It’s a well-known fact that breast cancer risk — like many other diseases — surges with age. Until 25, a woman’s likelihood of getting it is close to none. At 30, your risk is 0.44 percent — or 1 in 227 women. By 40, that likelihood more than triples to 1.47 percent, or 1 in 68 women. Still seem pretty low? Fair enough, but after that, it increases terrifyingly fast. Here’s a less abstract number: About 246,660 women get breast cancer in the U.S. per year. Of those, 40,450 women will die as a result. When you take that number and multiply it by all of the partners, kids, parents, friends and other loved ones who are affected by those who suffer from breast cancer, that number increases exponentially.
Lauren Smolinski, a lingerie buyer based in Westfield, New Jersey, was diagnosed with stage-2 breast cancer at age 33 — she was 31 weeks pregnant at the time. One of the ironies of her case, in addition to being a statistical outlier in terms of being diagnosed so young: Women who give birth to their first child at 35 or younger tend to get a protective benefit from pregnancy. Read Lauren’s full story here. The three women below weren’t affected by breast cancer in such direct, extreme ways, but that doesn’t lessen the intensity of their experiences. Here, they share how they each coped with the impact of the disease in their lives.
“My Mom found a lump”
“I remember the moment my mom told me she was diagnosed. It was reading week of my first year in college, and I was home for a few days. We were sitting in the kitchen and she hesitantly said she found a lump a few weeks ago and her doctors confirmed it was stage-1 fast-acting breast cancer. Instantly, tears welled up. I could feel that she was trying to stay strong but she was scared. A month later, she underwent a full mastectomy, followed by four rounds of chemo, a year of Herceptin treatment and five years of hormone therapy.
“At the time, my father was also quite sick, battling a two-decade-old illness. Seeing both parents sick was earth-shattering. I realized the parent-child roles were now reversed. Years of my mom caring for me taught me to do the same for her. People are understandably scared of sickness and death, which often makes them afraid to talk about it. But ignoring it makes it much worse. At the time, none of my friends had experienced sick family members, so they didn’t know how to act, which distanced us. As hard as it is to ask tough questions, like ‘Are you truly happy?,’ ‘Are you scared?,’ or ‘What was it like to see your parent like that?,’ it’s important to have open and trusting dialogue with friends. Everyone will face hardships, and that’s when friendships come into play, helping loved ones face battles and support them along their journey.
“I’m thrilled to say that my mom is officially cancer-free now. Seeing her go through this opened my eyes, helping me realize cancer can happen to anyone. Without her being aware of her body, my mom would never have found the lump. I now make it a priority to be proactive, noting any changes in my body, whether it’s a physical change or a feeling. I’ve gotten over being afraid to ask questions about my health. I wish women were more informed, especially younger ones — I find women in their 20s think they can’t get breast cancer and once someone close to them is diagnosed, they realize it’s much more likely than they thought.” — Mary Young, 25, Toronto
“No one tells you how much pain there is”
“I was diagnosed with the breast cancer gene mutation three years ago, and had to make some tough decisions. Due to my prior history of thyroid cancer and my family history of cancer, I chose to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries. No one tells you how much pain there is after surgery, not to mention the emotional and physical exhaustion — plus a loss of confidence.
“I consider myself blessed to have such a strong network of friends and family who provided support after my diagnosis, throughout multiple surgeries and the process of starting my own company of massage pillows to help millions of other women suffering from breast discomfort. Without the support and encouragement of my mom, who is a 30-year breast cancer survivor, I don’t think I would have been able to come as far as I have.
“My health now is great. I’m forever changed by this experience and look at my diagnosis as a gift in many ways. I was able to take measures that potentially saved my life, find a new passion and begin a new path in life. Being diagnosed with breast cancer or the breast cancer gene mutation can be devastating, but it’s not a death sentence. When you have any kind of surgery, whether it is a mastectomy or something else, the recovery process can take a long time. I wish I were more prepared for the pain and discomfort that I experienced following surgery. Maintaining a positive attitude and helping others got me through the toughest of times.” — Marnie Rustemeyer, 48, New York City
“It felt like the floor fell out from beneath me”
“I talk to my mom every morning on my commute, and at the time of her diagnosis, I thought maybe I’d done something to upset her because she’d sounded ‘off’ on our calls. It wasn’t until I saw her in person that she told me she was diagnosed with breast cancer and would be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. It felt like the floor fell out from beneath me, but my parents were both optimistic, reassuring and confident in her doctor. It was going to be a long road, but there wasn’t a moment that we felt hopeless as a family.
“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, you see the good in so many people around you. I knew my parents had wonderful friends, but I never knew just how great until they came out in support of my mom’s recovery. Equally surprising was how close our family became. We’d always been tight-knit, but seeing my mom’s strength and positivity made me even prouder to be her daughter. She taught me a lot about finding good in even the worst of times and said that so many women had more aggressive and worse cancers. My now-husband and I were just dating at the time. My mom, who normally has a sweet tooth, craved McDonald’s fries and Bud Light Lime — of all combinations! — and he’d come over with them every weekend and we’d binge-watch Netflix. I think the worst thing people can do during these times is to say, ‘I know how you feel.’ You may have gone through something similar, but you never know what someone else is feeling exactly. Lend a comforting ear, bake cookies, sign up for HBO Go, write a letter — do anything but make the experience about yourself.
“My mom has since been granted a clean bill of health. Seeing what she went through, it challenges me to be the healthiest version of myself. I don’t drink much and I’ve given up soy, as I’ve read studies that point to breast cancer links. I also exercise most days of the week no matter what. I want women to know that there’s so much love amongst fellow patients and survivors. It’s really beautiful to see, although the ‘club’ is one no one wants entry to. My mom has become a champion to others going through treatment; she’ll offer to talk or make recommendations for resources. I’m proud to watch her be so strong and help others find strength with a diagnosis where there’s so much uncertainty.” — Catherine Willhoit, 34, New York City
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