Every person who fights cancer has a story—a unique journey that they and their loved ones have walked. One of the most powerful things we can do for someone is listen to their story, to share it with others, and to recognize that each person’s unique experience is like a thread woven into the fabric of our shared humanity.
I’ve been honored to hear others’ stories, and as part of our mission to educate, I’m going to start sharing some of them with you in a collection of stories we’re calling “Series of Hope.”
Today, I’d like to present a story of strength, of connectedness, and of hope. Any age is too young to receive a cancer diagnosis, but Crystal—a health and fitness coach and mother of three—never expected to become a breast cancer survivor by the age of 32.
Crystal was about to nurse her youngest child when she discovered a marble-sized lump in her left breast. At first, she didn’t suspect cancer. “I was 31 years old, the healthiest I had ever been,” Crystal recalls. “I was thinking it was breast feeding related but googled it anyway. I figured if it didn’t change in a week, I would call my doctor.”
The doctor thought it might be a cyst, but sent her in for a mammogram to investigate further. Crystal describes her first step into the world of cancer diagnosis and treatment. “I remember walking into the imaging center and feeling so out of place. I was the youngest person in the building!” Only 5% of women diagnosed with breast cancer is under the age of 40, so it was a feeling Crystal would become accustomed to.
Yet, even in this first strange experience, Crystal found connection and warmth. “All of the staff was so kind and made me feel very comfortable,” she says, remembering her first (and last) mammogram. “The tech and I actually giggled when I squirted milk during my mammogram.” That day, Crystal learned that ultrasound is the preferred screening technique for younger women, due to the higher density of their breast tissue.
Over the next few months, Crystal underwent three follow-up ultrasounds and two biopsies before ultimately being diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Adenocarcinoma, Stage 3 grade 3 triple negative breast cancer, with 4 lymph nodes involved. The mass was growing very quickly, quadrupling in size over the span of only four months, and the skin over the lump became red and angry looking. With no targeted therapies available, “triple negative” breast cancer is the least common form and hardest to treat. It’s also most likely to spread and recur.
Crystal and her doctors had to move quickly if they were going to stop things from progressing even further. She recalls, “I had to start chemo right away. The following week [after the diagnosis] was filled with so many doctors appointments, tests/scans, and blood work. I completed 5 months of some the hardest chemo drugs there are, and thankfully, I had a full response to the chemo.” Because of her youth and the high probability of recurrence, Crystal chose to have a double mastectomy. After the surgery, she then went through seven weeks of radiation treatment to lower her chances of the cancer coming back.
From her initial surprising diagnosis to where she is today, Crystal’s journey has taken several unexpected turns. Crystal confesses the most surprising part was the change to her relationships: “I had people in my life that just couldn't watch me getting sick, and so they disappeared. On the other hand, people I never expected to step up were there for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
Throughout her treatments and surgery, Crystal found support and connection in a resource she had used for her business as a health and fitness coach—social media. “My Facebook page was my therapy before I got a therapist,” she shares. “I was able to find a support group of other young women who had or was currently fighting breast cancer. It was amazing to have other women my age going through the same thing as me and knowing I wasn't alone.”
Crystal completed her treatment on May 8, 2018. Though she is now cancer free and looking forward to reconstruction surgery in November, the possibility of recurrence is always present. She cautions, “Even after a double mastectomy, cancer could still come back in the scar or somewhere else in the body.” But Crystal has channeled that uncertainty into a greater appreciation for life and for her relationships. “I always assumed I would grow up to be this amazingly awesome grandma,” Crystal confesses. “Now that’s not a guarantee. It sounds so cliche but I definitely appreciate life more now.”
For someone facing a cancer diagnosis, Crystal has this advice: “I know this is probably the scariest thing you will ever do, but you can do it!!! Find a support group. Accept help when people offer it. Bring someone with you to appointments or audio record them and ask for hard copies of all your test results. It helps to go back over all the info. But most importantly, listen to your body! Doctors are fantastic, but you are the one going through cancer, so speak up for yourself!”
And Crystal’s own experiences have provided her with a perspective she likes to share with anyone who has a loved one dealing with cancer. “Don’t disappear. I know it’s hard to watch your loved one go through this, but just show up,” says this breast cancer survivor. “It’s ok to tell them I don’t know what to say, but I’m here to listen. Take them to doctor appointments. Run errands for them. Help clean up their house. Set up a fundraiser or meal train for them.”
As Crystal reminds us, “There is no ‘good’ or ‘easy’ cancer.” No one should have to walk a journey like Crystal’s—at any age. But at every step of the way in her story, I was struck by the moments of joy, laughter, warmth, and personal strength that she encountered. Most of all, I felt hopefulness that her story can be a light for others who are traveling a similar path.