Breast Cancer Grad- Anna
Name: Anna Crollman
Age at Enrollment: 27
Major: Stage II Breast Cancer (Triple Positive)
What were the primary symptoms you experienced prior to diagnosis? I didn’t experience any symptoms prior to my diagnosis. I was eating vegan, and sugar free and I was in the best shape of my life. The only change was that I had gone off birth control 3 months prior in hopes of getting pregnant. This was my first time off birth control in 12 years so my hormones were all over the place.
What symptom(s) lead you to go to the doctor? I found a lump in my breast while showering. I wasn’t in the habit of doing regular breast exams, but I knew right away that the lump was new and something was wrong.
Courses completed: I started my treatment journey with sentinel node biopsy to determine if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I was lucky that it had not. Two weeks later (August 2015) I had a single mastectomy of the right breast. Two weeks later, I began an IVF hormone cycle and egg retrieval. One week later, I began Lupron (ovarian suppression) and chemotherapy (Docataxol, Carboplatin and Herceptin). I did 6 sessions of chemo and then took 4 weeks to recover before going into a prophylactic mastectomy of my left breast. During this surgery they put in my expanders and the reconstruction began. In January of 2016 I began endocrine therapy and continued through Dec. 2017. I am now on a break from the Lupron and Femara while we try to start a family. Since January 2016 I have been through 2 more surgeries for the implant exchange, and fat grafting. I was also on Neratinib, a new oral chemotherapy for HER2+ breast cancer patients from Aug - Dec. 2017.
What was your hardest moment (or moments) and how did you you get through it/them? The hardest moment for me was losing my hair. For many women, our hair is our pride and joy. It’s our comfort blanket, our security. Some hair changes can be fun, a new style, a new color, a new look. But hair loss, now that was not a change I was excited for. I was terrified. My fear came in the form of those nightmares where you wake up naked in a parking lot with no clothes or cover in sight. I was fearful that without my hair I would feel naked and that I would be ugly. Losing my hair was more traumatic than losing my breasts because I no longer had my appearance to hide behind. A couple of months after losing my hair, I actually became quite fond of the bald look. Losing my hair forced me to appreciate my face more. It was all I had left at the time, so I decided to play it up and focus on the positive. My makeup obsession took on new value. It helped me find confidence during this awkward and uncomfortable time. I also found that I was one of the lucky few with a perfectly shaped head - who knew?
What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed? What advice would you tell them to ignore? I would tell them that this will be most difficult experience you will ever go through, but you are stronger than you ever knew. Seek information, soak it in, learn as much as you can and fight for yourself. You are a badass and you deserve the best. You will come out on the other side of this experience stronger, more determined and even more beautiful than ever. Most importantly know you are not alone. Reach out to the thousands of women around the country facing this battle with you. This community of survivors will welcome you with open arms and lift you up in moments of despair.
How did your family and friends respond? I was out of the country in Mexico on a girl’s trip when I got the diagnosis call. Away from my husband and my family, I felt scared and lost. Being in a beautiful location with my loving friends for the next 4 days ended up being a blessing in disguise. Though the new diagnosis was always on my mind, I ended up enjoying my myself and relaxing in the sun, which I never thought would be possible. From the pictures, no one would have guessed I had just received that kind of news. Throughout the next couple days as I began to adjust to the news, talking about my diagnosis made it feel real. When I was left to my thoughts, fear took over. I felt as if I was walking around with a big secret, living a lie on the outside. Sharing my scary news with my friends and family brought me solace and comfort. I no longer felt alone in my fear. I told most of my close friends by text. Many of them had been awaiting the results with me and the news though surprising, did not come out of left field. For every friend I told, I felt I had one more player on my team. Texting and emailing with friends and family that week got me through the hardest time.
Are there any bad platitudes or recommendations that you’ve heard from other people regarding your diagnosis? Everyone has an opinion about everything, so I learned to tune them out. My husband and I took our education into our own hands. I wanted to be an informed patient. I told people early on that sharing unsolicited medical advice was not helpful. I had a team of amazing doctors giving me plenty of reputable advice. If I want additional resources or medical advice, I asked for it. The worst comments I got from people were about getting a “free boob job”, which of course is the biggest misconception with breast cancer.
When you feel overwhelmed or anxious, what do you do? I developed severe anxiety during treatment and it became worse as chemo ended and I grappled with life after cancer and the fear of recurrence. What helped me was therapy sessions, medication, meditation and creative outlets (art, writing, crafting). I continue to use these tools now.
Have you created any meaning out of this experience? If so, what was it/how did you do it? I decided to take control of the experience and make it my own. Being diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 could have destroyed me but instead it catapulted me into an amazing life I never could have imagined. I started a blog to help other young women, I have worked with amazing organizations, I connected with thousands of other survivors world-wide and I am more confident than I ever was pre-cancer.
How did/do you find joy during this experience? I tried to focus on what I was grateful for. I had my amazing and supportive husband, my adorable puppy and a community of loving friends/family surrounding me. I felt inspired by my blog, which helped give me perspective and refocus my grief into goals. I also worked more on “choosing happiness” instead of waiting for it to come to me. I finally realized that I was in control of my own emotions.
Since your diagnosis, what new belief, habit or behavior has most improved your quality of life? The biggest thing that has changed for me is my self-confidence. I used to live life governed by my fear or the unknown and my self-doubt. Now, I live with anxiety but I have learned how to cope with meditation, journaling, and self-love practice. I am proud of the woman I have become and the future I have created for myself. I no longer put myself last and I recognize that self-love is not selfish, it’s essential.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your life? If so, what was it? I am one amazing badass woman. I am strong, I am beautiful and I am compassionate. I never truly believed these things about myself before cancer.
If you could write any life advice you wanted on a billboard that would reach millions of people, what would it read? You are one amazing badass woman. Never let anyone tell you otherwise, including your inner voice. Take care of yourself above all else and never forget that self-care is not selfish, it’s essential.