These are three words no one wants to hear.
I heard them on Thursday, March 26, 2020, right before I was supposed to log on to a Zoom call. I was a healthy, 35-year-old mom of two with no pre-existing conditions. I was training for Dam to DSM and had been gluten-free for a decade, so basically, that means I’m in optimal health, right? Not true.
I remember the moment I found my lump vividly.
On March 6, I was putting on a sports bra, ready to hop on the treadmill and log a few miles. 2020 was the year I was going to do all the races I loved: a 20k for Dam to DSM, a 10K for the Drake Road Races, and the Des Moines Half Marathon. I had registered for the races, penciled in all my practice runs in my planner, and I was determined to have the most active year of my life.
But as I was putting on my sports bra that night, I noticed something different. It was a tiny little lump on my right breast, right around 1 o’clock, close to my sternum. I hadn’t noticed it before, but as I felt it, I had a sinking feeling.
I knew it right away: it’s cancer.
I immediately googled “what does breast cancer feel like” and “Des Moines breast cancer doctors” before texting one of my BFFs and asking who I should make an appointment with to get a physical. I didn’t have a primary doctor.
I had just been to my OBGYN the week prior and she had given me a breast exam and all was fine then. As the overwhelming thoughts compounded in my mind, I decided that googling wasn’t going to get me anywhere and I finally called it a night.
The next morning, I drove to my BFF’s house (she’s a nurse) and she gave me a breast exam. She confirmed what I knew—there was something in my breast. It felt like a tiny little marble. I was a ball of nerves that weekend, and there was a moment where my then two-year-old was holding my arm as he sucked his pacifier when I wondered how long I’d have to enjoy the sweet snuggles and everyday loveable moments. I held him for longer than normal that weekend, rocking and smiling at him. I spent extra, quality time with my oldest who was 4.5 then, reading and chatting and playing as much as I could. The household chores were put on hold. What mattered most was quality time with my boys.
When Monday rolled around, I made an appointment with a doctor at MercyOne Ankeny Family Medicine for March 18. The date seemed far enough in the future that if the lump disappeared (maybe it was a fluke?!), I could cancel and pretend nothing was wrong.
As the date got closer, there was growing concern about a scary virus called COVID-19. I didn’t know much about the virus, but I had just started working from home for what my office thought would be about two weeks because of it. Sitting in a waiting room with a bunch of people who could potentially get me sick made me feel nervous. I didn’t want to contract the virus, but I was also pretty scared about the lump in my breast. But, I figured as long as I was wearing a mask and following all the safety protocols, I would probably be OK. So I kept the appointment. The doctor confirmed what I knew—there’s something in there. She scheduled me to get a mammogram exactly one week later.
The whole experience of a mammogram is fascinating. At that point, my only experience in the medical world was giving birth to my two boys. This type of appointment was a very different world. As I sat in the waiting rooms, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. I was not among the millennial moms who filled the waiting room at my OBGYN’s office; I was very clearly the youngest in the room…by a generation.
When it was my turn to go back to the exam room, the staff was friendly and things seemed great. We indulged in small talk (one of my favorite things) and the exam went by quickly. After I gathered myself, I was ushered back into another waiting room where they asked me to hang out for a few more moments. Then, I was asked if I could stay a bit longer for an ultrasound. Oh, sure. Why not. I’m already here. After the ultrasound was complete, they asked if I could stay for one final test: a biopsy. At this point, I figured what’s another 30 minutes. There was a moment during the biopsy where the doctor said something about next door for next steps. I had just worked on a story about the NextDoor app and thought he was talking about that. Turns out, he was talking about how I would be meeting with the doctors next door…at MercyOne Katzman Breast Care.
I was a little nervous for the mammogram, but after my appointment lasted almost 4 hours, I realized that maybe this little bump might actually be a big deal. Then I got the call from Trish at 12:06 pm on Thursday, March 26. That little bump was cancer. Malignant breast cancer. I asked her to clarify what that meant…if that was like, the bad kind. She confirmed: it’s the bad kind.
On Friday, March 27, I got a call from Pam, my breast navigator (literally, the best job title ever). Pam got me on the schedule to meet my surgeon, Susan Beck, DO, FCAOS, on Monday, March 30. Not gonna lie—it was a long, hard weekend. I cried a lot. I went through my clothes and told myself I was Marie Kondo-ing…but I was really preparing for the worst. I let my mind go to some bad places. I sent my favorite photo of me with my boys to my best friends and told them it was the photo I wanted used if anything happened to me. It was rough.
I almost threw up before my appointment with Dr. Beck. I get a stress tummy when I’m nervous and anxious, and this situation is about as high-stress as I had ever experienced. Dr. Beck did an ultrasound at that appointment and showed me the cancer. I remember seeing the blob in the ultrasound at the appointment the week prior, except this time she called it what it really was this time: Stage 2, grade 3 breast cancer. Stage 2 refers to the size of cancer, grade 3 means the rate at which it grows (3 is the most aggressive).
After a series of tests, it was determined that I’m negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2 (the breast cancer gene). I went to appointment after appointment over the next few weeks: MRIs, blood draws, ultrasounds, biopsies, consults on consults.
And then on April 14, I heard yet another round of hard news: I needed chemo.
Why? Because I’m young, the cancer is high-grade, and the cancer is greater than 1cm in size.
This was hard to digest. I never imagined having to undergo chemo. I thought I’d just get a lumpectomy and move on and never have to really tell anyone about my health problems. And selfishly, I didn’t want to lose my hair. Losing my hair made it obvious that I was sick, and I didn’t want to be sick.
The next big blow: this wasn’t going to be a short journey. At that point, I was told it would be a nine-month road to recovery. That seemed like an eternity, and that estimate was on the short end. If I needed radiation, it could be longer.
Breast cancer is crazy like that. Everyone’s story (and treatment) is unique.
I was lucky to catch my cancer early. My doctor said it’s very likely that my lump hadn’t been there or detectable the week I had my annual exam. And because it’s a grade 3 cancer, the cells reproduce rapidly. It was a good thing I trusted my gut and got it looked at when I did. Even though I really didn’t want to do it. Even though I was scared I would contract COVID-19. Even though I didn’t want to hear the diagnosis I was terrified to learn.
April 23 marked my first surgery. I got a heparin port placed in my chest where all my chemo treatments would be administered. Under the careful eye of Dr. Bradley Hiatt and his amazing team, I would undergo 16 chemo treatments spanning 20 weeks starting on April 29. I became fast friends with the nurses in the infusion room and looked forward to catching up with my oncology nurses, Kim and Brooke.
Over those long five months, I lost all my hair. For most of my life I’ve had long hair and losing it all to cancer was almost like losing my identity. In August, a friend noticed my smiling face in a photo with my oldest son, and she pointed out that it was the first time since losing my hair that I looked genuinely happy.
In those grueling months where I didn’t know how I would get through each treatment, each day, or each week, I had somehow redefined my new identity. And through the tears and hair loss and all the ugly side effects of treatment, I was happy going through chemo. My incredibly wise therapist, Melissa Cribari, told me once that I had the choice to do the recommended treatment plan outlined by my care team, or I could disregard their advice. It was my choice to fight for my life or let cancer win. I chose to fight for my life.
September 9 marked my final day of chemo. I celebrated the end of treatment with a huge smile on my face as I carried around a sign much like little kids pose with on their first day of school, saying goodbye to all my chemo nurses. (And while I swear they are the kindest souls on the planet, I hope to never need the services of the nurses from the chemo infusion room.) Wrapping up the chemo chapter of my life feels good. Chemo was hard. Losing my hair was hard. Feeling weak was hard. But it was all worth it.
On October 13, I underwent a double mastectomy. Dr. Beck and Dr. Samuel Maurice removed all my breast tissue along with five lymph nodes in my right side. Soon after surgery, I heard good news: I had a complete response to chemo. My lymph nodes tested negative for cancer and I would not require radiation treatment (sorry, not sorry, Dr. Deming!).
I don’t have cancer anymore.
Chemo did its thing, and I’m incredibly grateful (thanks, Dr. Hiatt!).
Grateful to have such an incredible medical team. Grateful to have what I believe to be the best support system. Grateful to be alive. It was 332 days between the time I found my lump until my final exchange surgery on February 1, 2021. In those 11 months, my world completely changed. And while some days I didn’t think I would survive, I did.
I’m stronger than I ever knew I could be. Hearing those three words was the most devastating thing I could have ever imagined back in March 2020 when I almost canceled my initial appointment due to COVID-19, but it turns out that it wasn’t the end of my world. If anything, it’s those three words that have catapulted me into savoring each moment and living each day as if it’s my last.
A big thank you to my dear family, friends, co-workers, nurses, doctors, and local organizations like Can Do Cancer, Studio 409, and Strands of Strength that made this journey manageable. The kind strangers who became friends are forever imprinted on my heart.
Rachel lives in Ankeny with her two sons (ages 3 and 5) and mini schnauzer (13). When she’s not working full time as an editor at Better Homes & Gardens, she’s building LEGO kits, refereeing living room wrestling matches, and jamming out to Kidz Bop with her boys. Rachel enjoys volunteering as an adviser at Kappa Kappa Gamma, training for half marathons (at a leisurely pace), soaking up precious time with friends and family, and diving head-first into DIY and organizing projects.