With adversity comes ease. Dana, 27, whose last name she chose to exclude, was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma at 26 in May of 2017. Dana reflects over the span of eight months when she discovered the breast cancer, her loving support throughout, and some of the different challenges she faced. While her experience proved to be trying, it was, however, lined with the affection and kindness from her loved ones.
“You hear about things like this happening to people all the time.” Dana began. “And it’s hard to hear those stories. But you truly never think it’s going to be you.”
Discovering her condition
Dana does not know why she felt compelled to visit her midwife a year and a half after giving birth. She often finds herself wondering why and believes part of the reason was most likely because she had a good relationship with her midwife. She considered her midwife a friend.
“I had heard she had a baby so I wanted to congratulate her.” Dana explained. “I needed a reason to make the drive, too, and thought I might as well go get a checkup.”
At the appointment, Dana had a pap smear and routine breast exam done. During the breast exam, her midwife stated she felt a lump on the left side and asked her if she had ever noticed it before.
“That was the first time I ever felt anything.” Dana said. Her midwife clarified that she wasn’t worried. The lump felt very small and movable. However, she recommended Dana follow up with it and sent a referral to get a mammogram.
“I think a lot of doctors would have said ‘let’s just watch over it’ because I was only 26.” Dana expressed relief that her midwife took the extra precaution. “I’m actually usually a worrywart. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t too concerned.”
When Dana tried to make an appointment for a mammogram, she was denied because she was under the age of 40. She was advised to have an ultrasound instead.
Her nonchalance continued at the ultrasound. The radiologist described it as a “little lumpy,” but stated she wasn’t overly apprehensive. “We will get a biopsy to be certain,” the radiologist concluded. She rated her suspicion as a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most worrying).
Dana left the ultrasound confident that everything was fine. “I reassured my family and friends that it was most likely nothing.”
Four days later, Dana got a phone call at 8 a.m. The technician asked Dana if she had a minute to review her results.
“She was very kind, but by the tone of her voice, I sensed it was not good news.” Dana paused as she recalled the exchange. “Her words were, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s cancer. You need to see a breast specialist. It’s called invasive ductal carcinoma.’”
The technician informed Dana that it was one of the most common types of breast cancer and fastest growing. A rush of questions filled her mind in response to the unexpected news. How far has it spread? At what stage?
The technician explained that nothing was known yet but urged her to make an appointment with a breast specialist that day.
Dana felt anxious. Although it wasn’t consoling, Dana thought briefly about people she knew in the past that had a similar situation and did not make it.
“I’d love to say that, at that moment, I was perfectly patient, brave and strong. But I’m only human.” Dana discloses. “If I could advise my past self, I’d say, ‘Take a deep breath. This is just a part of your life, your story. Yes, something bad and scary is happening, but something good is going to come out of it. It may be hard to see that. . . but Allah (God) is putting you through a test.”
Dana continued, noting. “It doesn’t mean it’s happening to you because you’re a bad person. This is only temporary, as are ALL good and bad things in your life. Take a deep breath. You’re going to be okay.”
The waiting game proved to be challenging. Because time is of the essence, Dana naturally wanted to find out as much as she could as soon as she could.
“But that’s just not how it works.” Dana explained. “It takes time. From scheduling the next available appointment and then waiting again for results.” She felt it could best be described as an emotional roller coaster.
Minor occurrences triggered her emotions. While watching her husband fill out her medical paperwork and check the box that read, “breast cancer” left her feeling a little disconcerted.
Dana’s Loving Support
When she received the phone call, her worries overcame her. She stared at her young daughter that she had only weaned six months prior, still fast asleep and phoned her husband. He was already at work but returned home within thirty minutes.
She found herself unable to speak, at times, but was able to lean on the support of her husband, family and friends.
“Can you tell us something positive about this situation?” Her husband asked the breast specialist.
“Well, while the cancer is fast growing – it isn’t growing as fast as you both may think.” Her doctor explained. “It’s only 2 cm,” her doctor said. “I don’t see any evidence that it has spread.” Her doctor ordered a mammogram and breast MRI. That took an additional week for results.
Dana would daze at her young daughter while her thoughts drifted away. She felt her family kept her determined to be strong. She knew everything that she was going through, they were going through, too.
“The most I ever saw was a few teary-eyes,” Dana said. She was grateful her relatives did not breakdown and cry hysterically. They kept it together when they knew she was struggling.
“I don’t know where I would be without some of the wonderful people in my life. I am so grateful, because I know not everyone can have a wonderful support system,” Dana continued. “My husband taking time off work and taking me to every appointment, my family watching my daughter whenever I needed help...Two close friends came over after I was diagnosed and brought me a planner to organize my appointments and doctors. I mean, I had a breast surgeon, an oncologist, a plastic surgeon. I was confused and I kept mixing up the names and the appointment times. Sometimes, it’s the little things that I will truly never forget.”
“Even though there’s so many women out there that had and have breast cancer... I couldn’t help but feel alone. Like I was the only one struggling.” Dana said softly. “So when my friends took the time to call and text every single day, and when others just remembered the dates of my appointments and would ask if I was ready for it or how it went, it really meant a lot.”
Sometimes it was hearing her friends’ voices on the phone that helped her get out of bed when she didn’t want to. Having normal conversations that did not revolve around cancer helped motivate her to start her day.
“But when I needed to talk about it, they were always there to listen.” Dana said. “They constantly told me that I was going to get better. That I was needed, wanted, loved. They helped me see the positives by saying things like. ‘It could be worse. It’s a struggle but it’s only temporary. You’re going to be okay.’”
Dana began chemotherapy two weeks after being diagnosed in order to shrink the tumor before having surgery to remove it. That wasn’t the only decision she had to make. Am I going to remove one breast? Am I going to remove two breasts? What’s the best decision to make for me? She thought.
“I had about six months of chemotherapy to decide.” Dana explained. “The doctors would give me the chances of it reoccurring and the percentages of people that get it in the other breast, too, to help guide me.”
After her first chemotherapy treatment, her friends brought her a big basket of face masks, slippers, pajamas, chocolates, and various types teas. “It was everything I could think of to pamper myself. I felt very lucky and blessed. They were there to listen and shoot down negative thoughts that most cancer patients have and responded with positivity.”
One of her best friends took the day off of work to spend her entire day keeping Dana company during one of her chemotherapy session. “I was touched that she made that extra effort to sit and do something so boring for hours just to spend it with me.”
Dana felt that they were a prime example of supportive friends.
Her struggles strengthened her.
Chemotherapy was a rough for Dana, but perhaps not necessarily the way it was portrayed in movies. While she did lose her appetite, she was thankful not to have incessant vomiting.
Losing her hair was what left her feeling low-spirited.
“It wasn’t until the second or third treatment, I decided to just shave it since it started falling out. It was very hard to get used to. There were times when I would wash my hands or make wudu in the dark so that I didn’t have to look at myself.” Dana professed. “I really admire women who were brave and take pictures of themselves proudly, I just wasn’t able to be one of those women.”
As hard as it was for Dana, she learned to come to terms with her new look. She found stylish caps online or kept half of her hijab on around the house, to feel more comfortable.
After every treatment, Dana stayed with my parents for a few days to recoup. She felt disheartened when she wasn’t able to take her daughter to story time at the library or playdates with friends.
“I reminded myself that no trial, no matter how difficult, lasts forever. I am so thankful for my parents and for the time they spent with her making sure she had fun. And I knew that, when I got better, insha’allah (God Willing) I would not take for granted to get to do those things with her.”
An important reflection for Dana was that it’s not accurate to judge how someone is doing or feeling based on how they look.
“Even though my hair was shaved off, because I wore hijab, I wasn’t a walking image of a cancer patient. I still wore make up sometimes, so when friends in my community heard the news, they would say well-intentioned things like, “you look so good!” or “you must be doing so well!” Even if sometimes I felt the exact opposite.”
After her six months of chemotherapy and because it took about three weeks for the drugs to leave her system, Dana decided to move forward with a double mastectomy. Even though Dana received unsought advice from the opinion of others, she decided for her situation that it was best to remove both.
“I reminded myself throughout the experience that I’m lucky I have options. Alhamdulilah. Not everyone does.” Dana said.
While Dana believes she can never be the same person she once was, she has and currently is gradually adjusting to her new life and her new normal. Her religion keeps her grounded.
Reading religious texts gave her solace. “There is no believer who is afflicted with pain as little as the prick of a thorn or more but that Allah will expiate his sins just as leaves fall from a tree.” [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5324]
“I think this was one of my tests and there was no way to avoid it. I am so grateful that God sent and allowed me to recognize the many gifts in my life that supported me through this difficulty. My family and friends also reminded me that the difficulty I was undergoing was not unnoticed by God.”
Dana felt motivated when she heard the Islamic stories of the Prophets. “They’re the people that God loved the most, and they were also tried the most in their life. It was motivating to me to remember that God loves me too and sometimes going through a test was just a part of life.”
Dana hopes to uplift anyone else who finds themselves in a difficult situation. She wants everyone to know that no matter how things seem or look on social media, every single person has highs and lows in their life.
“Just remember the dark cloud will pass. And after the storm there’s a rainbow. Realize that it’s okay to feel sad and frustrated. It doesn’t mean you’re weak when you have those emotions.”
While the road to recovery is neither effortless nor hasty, Dana strives to change her life by not taking a moment for granted. She believes every second of life is a gift and it can change in the blink of an eye.
“Whether you have cancer or not, life is short so make every moment count.” She says. “I remember to enjoy the little things like waking up in the morning cuddling with my daughter and watching cartoons. I feel grateful that this has changed my perspective. I used to dread chores like having to cook but now I remember to feel blessed that I get to cook for my family.”
According to BreastCancer.org, an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 63,960 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. Women under the age of 50 are experiencing better outcomes which are thought to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening and increased awareness.
“It’s not just a little pink ribbon we see in stores.” Dana encourages both men and women to be their own advocates and to stay up-to-date on their annual checkups. “I’m relieved I went in when I did. That little pink ribbon will never look the same to me, again.”