With the increase in female breast cancer patients under the age of 40, the need to raise awareness among millennials and Gen Zs about the disease has certainly become more urgent than ever.
Communications professional Crista Daniel shared her experience with breast cancer–how the disease and her subsequent recovery have allowed her to change her perspective and adjust her approach to life.
Daniel was diagnosed early last year after she discovered a breast lump during a Christmas Day beach trip with a group of friends.
Referring to the mass she felt as a “strangeness”, she kept it to herself at the time, but still made it her business to have it checked the following week.
“The doctor was very concerned,” Daniel said. “He did an ultrasound, then he recommended that I do a mammogram and a biopsy.”
Just under a week after ringing in the new year, Daniel was told that she had a grade 1 carcinoma in her right breast.
“My mind went blank; I was in shock,” she said, explaining how it wasn’t until a few hours after receiving the news that she mustered an emotional response.
Daniel’s doctor, upon delivering the news, told her that the situation appeared to be quite manageable. ‘It’s not what you want to hear, but it’s not entirely bad news,’ he told her.
Further testing revealed that Daniel had stage 3 hormone receptor (HR)-positive, HER2-negative advanced breast cancer, and needed to act as quickly as possible. By the end of the month, she was scheduled for surgery to remove the tumour, after which she underwent chemotherapy and radiation.
She expressed gratitude to her partner and brother who supported and comforted her throughout the intense treatment.
The sisterhood of two other female breast cancer patients, also under 40, was yet another source of strength for Daniel as she went through the stages of treatment.
To this day, the three remain in contact, having a shared experience that took a lot to overcome. “We call on each other when necessary for support in different ways,” she said.
Daniel spoke of the experience of chemotherapy–the loss of appetite, weight gain, nausea and fatigue–saying that the mental drain of the process can be just as rough as the physical aspect.
“It’s also very emotionally taxing on you,” she shared. The fears of what might come next, the success of the treatment and life after extensive medication are all very real considerations that, for Daniel and others in her position, consumed their thoughts.
She said that while there is a sense of gratitude and relief to be cancer-free, much of the conversation surrounding survival doesn’t always take into account the prolonged parts of the treatment and the fear of the disease returning.
“You don’t ever feel like you’re in the clear,” Daniel said, referring to the fear that survivors call ‘scanxiety’.
“Every little dot on an ultrasound or an MRI is always cause for concern,” she explained. “You don’t know if it’s back or…if it has spread to other parts of the body. It’s always at the back of your mind: ‘is it going to come back?’ There’s a constant anxiety that you feel.”
In the aftermath of the treatment, Daniel must take three different types of medications for the next five to ten years: two sets of hormone blockers to slow down the early menopause triggered by the chemo and zoledronic acid to aid with bone pain and loss of bone density, also due to the chemo.
While she did her surgery privately due to delays in the public system as a result of the pandemic, Daniel completed her chemo and radiation through the public service after what she referred to as a “seamless transition” from private to public. All her subsequent medication and follow-up treatments are also being done through the public service.
“It has been a positive experience,” she said. “Everyone at [Sangre Grande] Oncology [Department] is always so professional and very, very supportive.”
After her treatment, Daniel said she found that people who were now themselves going through the process would approach her for advice, and she wanted to equip herself with knowledge that transcended her experience.
“Education helped me manage my fears throughout,” she said.
She credited the Caribbean Cancer Research Institute’s (CCRI) Cancer Patient Navigation Training Programme for its “holistic” content which includes ways in which people can support cancer patients through providing transport, discerning their needs, assisting patients through palliative care, and even estate planning.
Daniel’s involvement with the E.A.R.S. Foundation: Embracing All Real Survivors and its dragonboat team, Rock-Ah-TT was another way for her to build community with other patients and survivors, while adding hobbies to her list.
“It’s something that I started as a way to get exercise and to also be involved…with other survivors,” she said.
Now that she has resumed work, Daniels has adopted a slower, less frenetic pace, one that is more agreeable with a healthy lifestyle and that corresponds to the new limits of her post-treatment body.
“When I look back now, I realised that since probably April or May 2020, my body was trying to tell me something,” she said, adding that she would regularly experience immense exhaustion and brain fog. “I was constantly on the go.”
“This affinity with hustle culture doesn’t work to our body’s benefit,” Daniel said. “Coming out of this…[I say to] always make time for self–make time to have fun, make time to do nothing, make time for a hobby. Those are the things that I place priority on…now that I’m able to work.”
She called on the public to “lead with love” when interacting with others, as they may not be aware of their health challenges.
In a culture where we often make unsolicited comments about others’ weight and overall physical appearance, Daniels recommended that we could all do with exercising a little more forethought and extending more grace to those we meet.
“Be mindful of things you say,” she advised. “Because you look good, [people] assume you’re good–you may be having terrible bone pains. You look healed but there are still things that your body is going through in that moment.”
She said that everyone deals with the news of their diagnosis differently, and that loved ones should see how they can be of service during the sensitive time. She also suggested making conversation on topics other than cancer.
“If you have a friend of a family member [with cancer], check up on that person, not only to discuss the diagnosis [but to] ask them what they want. Don’t force people to discuss things they’re not ready to discuss,” she said. “Ask them what they need.”
Contact the E.A.R.S. Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or via their Facebook or Twitter pages.
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