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I got the call two days before Christmas 2020, and a couple of weeks before my 37th birthday.
“Ms. Hughes, your biopsy came back positive and your diagnosis is invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC).”
The cancer has spread to surrounding breast tissues. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 180,000 women in the United States find out they have invasive breast cancer each year.
I was blindsided. Breast cancer was not prevalent in my familyand my doctor had always encouraged annual mammograms starting at the age of 40. If it had not been for the tiny, mosquito-sized bump on my outer left breast, I would have gone undetected and can’t imagine the outcome.
Fast forward to the start of the new year. I underwent multiple tests to uncover if cancer cells had spread beyond my left breast and if I had the hereditary BRCA genes. My test results came back negative, but I still had some very tough decisions to make about next steps.
My breast surgeon presented me with two options: lumpectomy (removal of cancerous tissue in part of the breast) or mastectomy(removal of the entire breast). I quickly came to the realization that the choice would be my own based on varying factors and treatment considerations.
The right decision is different for each woman and every situation is different. For example, in my case, proceeding with a lumpectomy would require radiation after surgery. My doctor also made it clear to me prior to surgery that treatment could also include chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy depending on post-surgery results.
In the few short weeks of contemplating this life-altering decision things seemed to go in slow motion. It was a surreal time met with a rollercoaster of emotions, yet my faith remained high. I delved through as much data and research that I could find and sought out real-life stories from survivors and thrivers. To my surprise, examples of women who look like me were few and far between which was disappointing, especially after uncovering the breast cancer disparities for Black women. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer incidence rates are higher among blacks than whites for women under age 45 (Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women).
On the Feb. 23, I chose to have a skin-sparing mastectomy of my left breast with reconstruction set for a later date. I had an expander placed inside my chest at the same time as my mastectomy, and two drains that had to be monitored and managed over a two-week period before being removed.
What I did not know at the time of surgery is that I would lose range of motion in my left arm due to having a group of lymph nodes removed from underneath my arm. As a result, I underwent six weeks of physical therapy to get my range of motion back. Simultaneously, I had bi-weekly appointments with my reconstruction surgeon to expand the expander to the size of my normal breast. In early May, I had the expander removed and an implant placed while my right breast underwent a lift for better reconstruction results. This was a two-month process with more surgeries on the horizon to achieve symmetry. During this time period, I underwent fertility preservation as a result of being placed on hormone therapy to prevent reoccurrence. In my case, I did not have to undergo radiation nor chemotherapy once my tumor was tested post-surgery.
My body needed a beak and mentally I was maxed out. I took the next four months to heal.
On October 7, at the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I underwent a fat grafting procedure (i.e., fat transfer from one area of the body to another) and it went well.
The journey over this one year time frame has been long, but when I look at my scars I am reminded that I am strong and courageous. To anyone reading this with a tough decision weighing on your heart, know that you are strong enough to do the hard things.