How did you first find out you had cancer?
One night in the fall of 2010, at the age of 29 and just about 3 weeks before my 30th birthday, I noticed a drop of blood on my nightgown and realized it was coming from my breast. The very next morning I made an appointment with my gynecologist who sent me for a mammogram (which ultimately led to a core biopsy), sonogram, and a breast surgeon, just to be completely thorough.
How did you react when you heard the news?
Before I knew my specific diagnosis, I got a phone call from my doctor saying that the biopsy showed cancerous cells in my breast tissue. She couldn’t give me any more information. I cried. I was at work. I had just come back from interviewing for a dietetic internship program (a requirement to become a registered dietitian). I spent that night researching treatments and wondering if I would die, if I would lose my hair. The next day a breast surgeon explained that my diagnosis, DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ, a form of “early” noninvasive breast cancer), was not “immediately life threatening” but that it was so extensive that I would need a mastectomy. My husband and I were relieved. This was something we could handle. Before leaving the doctor’s office I decided to also have a prophylactic mastectomy of the right side. I would later change my mind about that.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
I had a mastectomy and five years on Tamoxifen (my cancer was ER+/PR+). Initially, it was thought I may need radiation, but after my surgery I was told it wouldn’t be necessary. I followed up the mastectomy with a silicone breast implant reconstruction.
What most surprised you about your treatment?
I was surprised that after the first month on Tamoxifen, the hot flashes were gone and I haven’t experienced anymore side effects since. I also feared that my surgeries would affect my physically active lifestyle–I am a group fitness instructor and lifelong dancer. I was surprised that I was able to get back to dancing and working out as soon as I got the clearance from my doctor. To this day, the only resulting negative physical affect of my surgeries is that pushups are extremely uncomfortable and I now avoid them.
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Everyone’s cancer is different. Do your research, but don’t compare yourself to others. Accept help and surround yourself with a supportive person or people. For young women (age 40 or younger) affected by breast cancer, the Young Survival Coalition is an invaluable nationwide organization that provides education, empowerment, and support.
How long have you been cancer free?
Almost three years.
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
1) Prioritize your passions. At the time of my diagnosis I was running around, as my mom says: “like a chicken without a head,” working full time in marketing while also doing everything I needed to do to make a career transition into nutrition: taking classes at NYU at night, volunteering, applying for competitive dietetic internship programs, and practicing what I preach by still finding time to work out and eat right. All the while, I was trying to nurture my relationships with family and friends. Despite being so busy, I found myself feeling obligated to also say yes to every little thing that got thrown my way. After my surgeries, I returned to work and school and soon found myself in a full-time internship program, but I also found myself managing my time differently. I suddenly had a new perspective and my free time was very valuable to me. I no longer felt obligated to say yes to those things that didn’t really matter or weren’t fulfilling in any way. Today, I’m a registered dietitian and group fitness instructor and I spend all my free time with my husband, friends, and family, traveling, working out and only attending professional events that are most important to me. The same day that I learned of my DCIS diagnosis, my husband and I drove to Boston for my Zumba instructor training the next day. He said having a non-refundable hotel room was really not a problem. We either would have a great place to order room service and wallow in our grief together or I would find the strength to wake up in the morning and go to my training and I would probably have a blast because I was doing something I love. He was totally right and I carry that new perspective with me every day.
2) Forget fear. Since my diagnosis, I find myself jumping into things that seem scary and turning that fear into positive energy. I realize that our regular, everyday troubles are not things to fear. There are people out there every day dealing with real scary problems and, fortunately, I’m not one of them–not today anyway. So, I try to dive right into life despite the fact that, by nature, I’m usually pretty timid. I’ve started my own nutrition and fitness consulting and counseling business, Piece O Cake Nutrition LLC, and throw myself into professional and personal situations that challenge me to put myself “out there.” After my diagnosis, but during my student days, someone suggested that I should be “terrified” of my superiors. I found myself amused at that comment. I am respectful of supervisors, but there are very few individuals I feel I should be terrified of. Terrified is how I felt the day my doctor called to say cancerous cells were found in my breast tissue (I wouldn’t know about the DCIS until the next day). Today I’m excited, inspired and grateful to be healthy, happy & doing what I love.
3) There are more people who love and care for you than you realize. When I was diagnosed, I was surprised to find people coming “out of the woodwork” in the best way: family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and complete strangers wanted to do anything they could to make my days easier. I felt so much love and positive energy aimed at me. I went to support groups at Young Survival Coalition and was surprised and humbled to find young women, often young mothers and facing more complex diagnoses than me, reaching out to me to share all the information and resources they’d acquired. After that, I knew I needed to get involved and started volunteering with YSC. Today, I continue to volunteer with Young Survival Coalition as a New York State Leader, using my own experience and skills to reach out to other young women facing breast cancer.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
We get only one life. Make sure you are living the one you want to live.
Diane was diagnosed with DCIS at the age of 29. After a mastectomy, implant reconstruction, and more than halfway through a five-year course on Tamoxifen, Diane is now a New York State Leader for Young Survival Coalition, an organization that provides education, empowerment, and support to young women facing breast cancer. Now almost three years post-diagnosis, Diane is a Registered Dietitian and Zumba Instructor living in Brooklyn, New York, with her high school sweetheart turned husband.