By Karissa Sanchez, as told to Michele Jordan
Before cancer, I was a normal twentysomething. I was newly engaged, working at a salon, and enjoying life. I’m a girlie girl, so I loved makeup, going out to dinner, and spending time with my friends. I have two dogs that I call my “little divas.” My fiancé and I had recently moved into a new home and were planning a wedding for that fall. Life was good.
One summer, I found a lump in my breast while doing a self-check in the shower. I went to a local clinic and they told me to come back in 6 months. I was only 30 at the time and had dense breasts, so they weren’t worried. They said it looked like a lipoma, a fatty, noncancerous tumor.
During those 6 months, I tried to put it out of my mind. I asked my fiancé to research for me so I wouldn’t freak out too much. I even watched the show Dr. Pimple Popper to see how a lipoma is removed.
When my 6 months passed, my appointment had to be pushed back due to COVID-19. During that time, I felt my lump get bigger, and then I started to freak out. I kept reminding myself that I was young and didn’t have a family history, so I should be fine. The truth is, I was starting to get very nervous.
They called me while I was at work and heading into a meeting and told me the news I didn’t want to hear. Cancer. I was in shock. I didn’t want to tell my co-workers when my family didn’t know yet, but I had to tell my boss. I just broke down. I cried. She cried. I had scribbled notes all over a paper when the doctor called, but I didn’t register any of it.
My 5-minute drive home felt like an eternity. My fiancé asked questions like: How can this happen to you? You’re a good person. You help everyone else. I had the overwhelming feeling of “Why me?” I went from thinking about wedding details to getting a diagnosis of stage II invasive ductal carcinoma, ER/PR+/HER2-negative breast cancer.
I really struggled with having to go through all of this at my age. Once I started chemo, I would be in treatment with women who were in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Here I am the youngest person in the room. They looked at me like, “Why is she here?” I had the same question.
A Blur of Days
The feeling of numbness continued with treatment. I went from a young woman planning a wedding to back-to-back treatments, surgeries, and medications. They’re telling me about all of this medicine. I have classes to attend, things to read, and so many appointments to schedule.
All of this is going on during COVID-19, so I’m doing just about everything by myself. I remember being so numb, so numb. I was not even present. It’s like an out-of-body experience. I felt like I was placed at this appointment, placed on this table, placed in this scanner.
Before I started chemo, I froze my eggs so my fiancé and I could have options later. The whole experience of IVF and my fiancé having to give me daily shots was a lot to handle. I felt so overwhelmed. Between one round of chemo and the second I had to have surgery on my back for unbearable pain. I was terrified. I never knew how one thing would affect something else.
Like most women, losing my hair was one of the hardest things. I am Latina and was so proud of my long, thick hair. I worked at a salon! My hair started coming out in clumps, and I knew it was time to let it go. My fiancé shaved my head and I had to take breaks in between to cry. Here I was planning a wedding and feeling nowhere close to pretty. Trying on wedding dresses with no hair has been tough.
After the numbness wore off, the sadness set in. When you’re going through treatment, you’re in survivor mode. Once you’re done with the routine stuff, it hits you. You have time to think about what you’ve lost. It’s like you’re grieving your old life. I was also grieving for what my fiancé lost and my mom since I’m an only child. This was all tough for them, too.
With everything I’m going through, I do acknowledge the emotional toll it’s taken on me. I see a therapist now. I am a member of a support group and I rely on my family and friends. There are good days, too.
The biggest surprise has been the support from complete strangers. I’ve been blown away. My job held a raffle fundraiser for me and the entire community chipped in. I’m from a small town and felt a little uncomfortable at first. But one thing cancer has taught me is to stop being a people pleaser. It’s OK to think about my needs and to allow people to help me.
Now, I’m on hormone therapy medications that come with lots of side effects. I have hot flashes, mood swings, and trouble sleeping. There are days I still cry in the shower. I’m learning to take one day at a time. I’ve found listening to some good music, venting to friends, and planning my fall wedding in Hawaii cheers me up. It still gets hard, but I try to focus on the positive. I know that mindset is everything.