Dealing with the Diagnosis
Too young for breast cancer? Two women under 33 looked at illness as opportunityto change their lives
Alisha Harrell’s life was in fast-forward. Married to a husband who traveled extensively, with two small kids and a thriving interior design business, she was go, go, go all the time. Her days slipped into nights and she fortified herself with four hours of sleep and ridiculous amounts of coffee.
She had no intention of slowing down, but her body had other plans, stopping her short when she learned she had breast cancer.
Devastating news for any woman, but it caught Harrell completely off-guard for one major reason. She was only 30, way too young to have the disease.
Sadly, no. The sobering fact is that each year almost 70,000 men and women between the ages of 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer (breast cancer accounts for about 15 percent of all diagnosed cancers). Even more alarming is the news that women 15 to 34 die more frequently from breast cancers than any other. In 2009, the American Cancer Society predicted that of the 190,000 new cases of breast cancer, roughly 18,600 were in women younger than 45.
Despite the statistics, Harrell never saw herself as a number. But her life came into focus fast, starting with her ob’s insistence she get a mammogram that very afternoon. From the mammogram, she had an ultrasound and then before she knew it, was referred to an oncologist. Harrell knew it wasn’t good news.
“The oncologist was crying and said you’re so young to have cancer,” she recalls.
The treatment whirlwind took flight almost immediately. Harrell had a port implanted for her chemotherapy treatments, which went on every weekday for six months in late 2009 and early 2010. Through it all, she carried on with her regular life as much as she could. Her design team came to the hospital and together they would work on client projects. Harrell even met with clients while she was taking chemo.
But those days weren’t all work. Some of the most meaningful moments came when friends would sit and watch a movie with her or simply just be with her, doing nothing at all.
Friends played a vital role during Harrell’s treatment and recovery. As a mother of two small children, she still had responsibilities that oftentimes only a mother can fulfill. But her friends came through with day-to-day tasks like cooking for the family, laundry and even more basic support.
She describes the entire experience as “her body being on reset.” The same applied to her life. The breast cancer diagnosis forced her to re-evaluate everything, starting with just how she developed cancer in the first place.
Harrell was already in a high-risk group, since African-American women under 35 have rates of breast cancer two times higher than Caucasian women the same age. Research shows young, African American women are more likely to get aggressive forms of breast cancer than any other group. After talking with her mother, Harrell learned not only was there a history of breast cancer, but also ovarian cancer in her family.
A laundry list of decisions
For Michelle Amos, another young breast cancer survivor, there wasn’t a single piece of the genetic puzzle connecting her diagnosis with family history. Amos’s doctor was initially nonplussed by a lump she discovered during a routine well woman exam in 2004, saying Amos was too young for it to be anything serious.
Since the doctor didn’t consider the lump serious, the 33-year-old Amos waited three weeks before getting it checked. Much like Harrell though, once she had a mammogram, the wheels started spinning at warp speed. A mammogram led to an ultrasound, which turned into a visit to a radiologist and then a biopsy. All of this happened on a Friday, which meant she and her family were forced to just wait.
“It was the longest weekend ever,” Amos said.
The diagnosis of breast cancer came with a laundry list of decisions for Amos and Todd, her husband, who were living in Tulsa at the time. Originally from Houston, Michelle was interviewing for jobs in her hometown and the couple decided treatment at MD Anderson was the best choice. They moved in with her parents and held their breath while she attempted to start treatment at quickly.
The plan was six months of chemo to shrink the tumor, which went according to plan, until the doctors discovered that the tumor had indeed become smaller, but it had shattered in the process. She was faced with more decisions. She chose another round of chemo, followed by a mastectomy and more radiation.
Perplexed by the origin of her diagnosis, Amos embarked on an ambitious genealogy project, tracing her history on both parent’s side of the family.
“I saw a genetic counselor and found I was the first in my family to have cancer. There was a case of colon cancer on my mom’s side, but that was all. It was very eye-opening for my family,” Amos said. She sent the information to her entire family, encouraging them to keep it updated and use it as the need arose.
It’s almost unbelievable how positive both women are about the breast cancer diagnosis considering all they endured. Harrell took the experience and did a major overhaul of her life.
“You know Miranda from Sex and the City? That was so me. I was focused on work and missed opportunities to take vacations and slow down,” Harrell said.
Before her diagnosis, Harrell noticed her stamina at the gym was decreasing, but she chalked it up to her over-stressed lifestyle. She and her family ate a lot of red meat and had very little down time together. Now, the menu at the Harrell home is heavy with fish, chicken, turkey and green vegetables.
She has also eradicated her home of as many chemicals as possible and instead embraces nature-based products from Melaleuca Wellness for everything from toothpaste to household cleansers. She schedules workouts for herself and doesn’t let work infringe on time with her family. She also put her interior design skills to work, painting her house to look and feel like a spa and her bedroom to be a restful retreat.
“I chose to be happy. I knew God was using this situation for good, so I was stepping out in faith. It’s a day-to-day walk,” Harrell said. She relied on the fellowship of support from Lakewood Church and Healing Night, where people would pray for her recovery and health.
“I never asked why me? Why did this happen?” Amos said. “I had a great support system-my mom, dad, sister and husband and it allows me to be more compassionate.” Amos is unflinchingly honest about her breast cancer experience. Before her diagnosis, she was completely healthy, leading a full and happy life.
“For a young person who is normally healthy and going strong, it forces you to relinquish things. It can be a positive thing,” Amos said.
To cope with the situation, she also joined a support group, which was a good idea, just not a great fit for her. Most of the people in her group were much older, had grandkids and not many of them had breast cancer. At her husband’s encouragement, she began looking for other outlets and when Todd came across the Young Survivors Coalition online, she was a self-admitted lurker, not quite ready to become vulnerable again.
“I was working fulltime, spending time with family and friends, we bought a house, but something was missing. I needed to find my own kind, my age. Breast cancer is mental and emotional,” Amos said.
Her quest led to what she thought would be a small role with the YSC, but before Amos knew it, she was put in charge of the In Living Pink silent auction for the organization’s gala. It was a perfect fit. The grass-roots group is all about support, but it values fun, an element of life that easily gets lost in the midst of treatment.
“You had a life before this and some people don’t get a lot out of sitting around baring your soul to strangers. We have fun.”
Many of the women in YSC are in relationships and have children, so events like beach days benefit the entire family and, Amos said, gives husbands and boyfriends a chance to be around other men going through a similar situation. Amos and another volunteer man the phones for newly diagnosed women looking for answers and support.
Both women encourage friends and family to stay connected even after the chemo is done and the hair starts to grow back. “Be there for them. Just because I was feeling better didn’t mean I didn’t still want them around. I needed people to be around me to feel normal,” Harrell said. “People start to back off when you are doing well,” Amos said.
As young survivors, Harrell and Amos get maximum joy out of life, reflecting on their past, without letting it determine their future. The women are cancer-free, but continue to be vigilant with their health. Open with their stories, they suport others going through what they did and remember lessons learned from the diagnosis.
“Breast cancer is just one element of who you are, but it doesn’t define you,” Amos said.