Breast Cancer Grad- Samantha
Name: Samantha Malanowski
Age at Enrollment: 26
Major: Stage IIIa Triple Negative breast cancer (the tumor does not express any receptors for estrogen, progesterone, or Her2 to drive its growth).
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? Nothing except a lump in my left breast.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? I wrote off the lump for a long time as a benign mass because it was unfathomable to me that it would be cancer. I’m a physician completing my medical residency, and even though breast masses aren’t really my area of expertise, my education allowed me to come up with a nice enough shortlist of “breast growths that aren’t malignant” to be able to live in denial. It was easily movable, seemed to have defined edges, grew and shrank with my cycles, psh, cancer doesn’t do that! Finally, it grew so large that I began having a small amount of bloody discharge from the nipple, and I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer. The radiologist, while professional and reassuring, totally knew before she even took my biopsy.
Courses completed: I had neoadjuvant chemotherapy which is becoming the standard for triple negatives, followed by a double mastectomy (I tested positive for the BRCA gene, so it was in my best interest to get rid of ALL my breast tissue) and then radiation.
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? Chemo was the hardest physically, but somehow easier on me mentally. It’s a clear cut mission with defined steps and a black and white goal at the end. Take this poison, kill the cancer before it can kill you. Come back in three weeks for more. I actually had a really hard time with radiation because I was so close to the finish line and knowing I’d be tossed out into the world to have to come up with my next mission all on my own. I leaned heavily on my now husband, because nobody else wants to listen to you cry AFTER the “hard part” is over. He’s my rock.
Any helpful (tangible) tips or tricks you discovered for dealing with your symptoms and/or cancer? In case there are still people out there who haven’t heard of this, Claritin is a miracle drug for bone pain! If you lose sense of taste like I did for a short while, Sprite and other citrus-y things will help you feel almost human again.
How did your family and friends respond? I don’t think anyone who I truly cared about ever let me down through this process. My husband teases me sometimes about keeping a small circle of friends. I’m just picky, and I like to think I pick well! Although I think it’s almost a universal experience among cancer folks to have those you thought you were close to go radio silent, and others who had only been sideline acquaintances step up in a big way. If you’re a cheerleader wondering what to do and say, honestly, the most meaningful responses to me were those who showed up to just be in the shit with me. To just sit next to me on the couch or in the chemo chair, even if you didn’t know what to say. There aren’t a lot of helpful words for cancer. Just show up. Bring snacks.
Have you created any meaning out of this experience? If so, what was it/how did you do it?Looking death in the face strips down all the window dressings and accessories of your life until you’re left with only your most authentic self and your most meaningful relationships. Who are you without hair, your job, your various body parts, your ability to walk a flight of stairs without getting out of breath? I found it to be a very powerful experience. But I’ve also watched cancer take the life of my 21 year old cousin, one of the most incredible people who had so much more to offer this world than dying young. So I don’t feel the need to constantly ascribe meaning and a grand plan to everything, because then I’d have to say, indirectly, that his death was the “correct” thing that happened. I just won’t accept that. Sometimes things just suck, and they suck for no reason, and the only thing that brings comfort is to look at someone you love and say “Holy hell, this sucks!” and hear them say in return, “Yes, wow, it sucks so much!”
How did/do you find joy during this experience? Cancer itself is sometimes really, really funny, in the way only the most awful and soul-crushing things in life can be. There’s also something really nice about laying on the couch for 12 hours watching Netflix and knowing no one can say anything about it.
How are you healing from this experience? I could probably use therapy, but I prefer to let it fester. Kidding...sort of. I’ve been using Instagram to connect with the young cancer community, which is surprisingly vibrant! Returning to my favorite hobbies - yoga and circus aerials - has been so healing. Getting married and making long term plans is healing too. There’s the fear that making plans is arrogant, we survivors all have the same fears, we know too well what could go wrong. But I try to tell myself that a recurrence will be just as devastating no matter what I do, so I might as well keep on like it’s not going to happen.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your life? If so, what was it? It made me stronger, and my relationships stronger too, though I’ll never be one of those people who was grateful for cancer. I’d pick “weak and never had cancer” every single time. But I now have a new reference point for life’s lowest lows, which makes the highest highs so, so spectacular.
Check out Samantha online!