Larissa Podermanski's friends and family rallied to throw her the wedding of her dreams.
In 2015, everything seemed to be falling into place. I knew that my calling was to give a voice to others, so that year I quit my job to found my own nonprofit organization, helping people with intellectual disabilities learn their rights, and encouraging them to get involved in their communities. My personal life was going well, too. I bought my first house, and got engaged to my boyfriend of about four years, Martin, at a Mariah Carey concert.
There was just one problem: In December, a few weeks before I turned 30, I found a lump on my breast.
At first, no one took the lump very seriously. My friends said things like, “It’s probably nothing,” and, “It’s normal to have lumpy breasts.” Even my doctor suspected that it would go away after my next menstrual cycle. (Women’s breasts can swell and retain extra fluid before they get their period.) So I waited.
But by February, the lump still hadn’t disappeared. And not only that, it was starting to hurt. After calling my doctors repeatedly, they finally agreed to do an ultrasound for my "peace of mind." The results came back normal, but protocol required the doctors to do a biopsy, too, and three days after I went in for testing, one of the doctors called me and said, “Sorry, you have breast cancer.”
No one ever suspected that my cancer was incurable. Not me, not my fiancé, and not the doctors who performed my double mastectomy. Because I was so young, no one had biopsied the areas around my breasts to determine if the cancer had spread. If they had, they might have seen that the cancer was already in my liver.
As it happened, it was two weeks after my surgery when I was rushed to the emergency room with an intense pain near my chest, and along my upper back. Wanting to rule out a blood clot, the doctors ordered a CT scan. That’s when they determined that I had metastatic, or stage 4, breast cancer.
My fiancé looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do?” Thinking of my long, beautiful curly hair—which I straightened every day, go figure—I said, “I want to marry you, immediately.”
Finding my family
Once I decided to get married, my family and friends rallied. They helped me find a venue, photographer, and wedding dress in less than a week. My friend who owned a hair salon dropped everything to do our hair. My friend who owned a bar offered up his place. And the bridesmaids and groomsmen flew in without even getting their outfits tailored. It seemed as if every part of the wedding was a surprise—I didn’t have any time to worry or stress.
There was another happy event that took place around that time. Right after my diagnosis, I reconnected with my biological family. I had already gone looking for my mother, back in 2005. I was six months too late. The adoption agency informed me that she had just passed away.
Now, in March of 2016, I went looking for my family again: I needed to know whether my mother died of breast cancer. I wanted to know more about my genetics, and whether I inherited a predisposition to the disease. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. My mother had had a heart attack. During the search, however, I found my uncle, aunt, cousins, and grandmother, and they flew in for my wedding. I was honored and humbled that so many people cared about me enough to come.
Living with metastatic cancer
There are so many things I want to do with my life. I want to see as many parts of the world as I can. For my honeymoon, my husband and I went to Austria and Poland. I also want to go to Germany, Italy, and Ireland. And I want to share my story with others. Personally, I never knew much about breast cancer before I was diagnosed with it. At first, all I knew about it was what I read on Google. And really, nothing good ever comes from that.
For example, I read a lot of awful things about chemotherapy. People said that no one should do it and that it’s horrible for you, and so forth. That wasn’t the case for me. Sure, no one would voluntarily do chemo—myself, I sometimes feel nauseous and tired after the sessions. But for some people with metastatic breast cancer, it can extend your life for another year or more.
I went off chemo briefly, to try hormone therapy, and after three months, the tumors on my liver began to spread. When I went back on, the tumors started to recede again. I’m hoping that the chemo I’m on now will work for a long time. But when it ends, I hope that there’s a trial that I can qualify for, or that there might be another form of medication available for me.
In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done: advocating for others, and raising awareness—specifically about metastatic breast cancer. Even some of the leading breast cancer organizations in the country only donate a fraction of their money to research and treatment for people with stage 4 cancer. That’s one reason why I support the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. This year, they’ve given nearly one-third of their grants—more than $18 million—to research on metastatic breast cancer.
If I can help spread the word, I’ve helped in some way.
Larissa Podermanski blogs about her life at MetasticallySpeaking.com.
As told to Maria Masters