Lifestyle, Relationships, What's On Our Mind

I found out I had breast cancer…days before my 30th birthday.

Zara D'Cotta by Zara D'Cotta
October 20th, 2014

When I first felt pain under my arm and down the side of my breast I panicked, but I couldn’t feel a lump. I googled breast cancer symptoms and it said breast cancer is usually painless, so I decided my pain was a good sign and did nothing.

Two months later the pain was still there, so I went a doctor. He couldn’t feel a lump either, but thankfully sent me for an ultrasound. I was told the pain was nothing to worry about, but while examining the rest of my breast as a precaution, they found a 2cm lump that needed investigation. Nine days before my 30th birthday I was told I had cancer.
My life changed in that instant. My sense of security about the world as I knew it had been ripped from under me. One year earlier I had been whingeing about getting old, now I was filled with fear about the unknown journey ahead of me.

I remember my 30th birthday as a day of both extreme happiness and sorrow. I felt like I was floating on a cloud, buoyed by the outpouring of love and support from shocked family, friends and work colleagues. But I couldn’t shake the sick horrible feeling I had inside as I tried to come to terms with my diagnosis.

breast cancer

I had a lumpectomy and two lymph nodes removed – the surgical margins were clear and thankfully the cancer hadn’t spread. I tested negative for the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations, but just before I started my radiotherapy my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer too. Four weeks into my six weeks of daily radiotherapy she had a double mastectomy.

Mum’s diagnosis rocked my world yet again. I was overwhelmed with fear and thoughts about my own mortality. I was convinced it was only a matter of when, not if, cancer would come knocking on my door again.
Mum and I are now both more than one year cancer free. We have been extremely lucky because our cancers were detected early. My prognosis is excellent, with only a 2% chance of recurrence.

I did not go to my doctor thinking I had breast cancer. My message to young women is this: Pay attention to your body. If you think something is wrong, see a doctor. Don’t go to Google and fill your head with crazy thoughts about what you may or may not have. Don’t make excuses like being too busy, because without your health, you have nothing.

breast cancer

Zara and her mum on her 30th birthday

My biggest challenge now is the anti-hormone medication I’m advised to take for a minimum of two years (although there is new research to support being on it for 10). The side effects can be wide ranging and it’s different for every woman. For me it’s my energy levels. There are days when I feel as though someone has used a vacuum to suck every ounce of energy out of me, making it difficult to even go for a walk around the block and function properly. My oncologist says he sees more problems with this drug than chemotherapy, so much so that 42% of women stop taking it within the first two years – I can see why.

Are there moments when I wish this never happened? Of course there are, but I can genuinely say I now have a more positive outlook on my life as a result of this experience and I am grateful for the perspective it has given me.

It has inspired me to create a life I never would have dreamed of otherwise. It has brought me closer to the extraordinary people in my life and made me realise how much I have to be thankful for. I know now what’s worth worrying about and what isn’t. And I have learned to live in the moment instead of worrying about the past or future.

And of course, I will never complain about being old again.