In order to give you a realistic head-to-toe picture of what this disease actually feels like, we've consulted breast cancer experts around the country and talked to a dozen survivors about the experience of getting through diagnosis and treatment—and back to the business of living.
Even with survival rates up recently, a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating, bringing equal parts fear and isolation. “It alienates you,” says Pamilla deLeon-Lewis, 57, a motivational speaker and poet in New York City, who did six months of chemotherapy and eight weeks of radiation after being diagnosed with stage II metastatic breast cancer. “In the Caribbean, where I’m from, people cut you off when you admit to having cancer. My aunt wouldn’t let me come close to her. I felt invisible.”
Friends—even some online—became more important to deLeon-Lewis during her treatment. “The women in chat rooms going through what I was going through made me laugh and cry," she says. "Because of them I felt like I could do this. I felt empowered.”
For Stephanie Gensler, 39, an advertising account coordinator in Baltimore, was diagnosed with stage II aggressive breast cancer at age 34. She had a lumpectomy, a six-month regimen of chemo, and 36 radiation treatments, but the most painful part was going through breast cancer without a partner. “What hurt the most was going to bed alone,” she says.
The biggest fear, of course, is dying—a worry that doesn’t soon go away. “I remember the Mother’s Day after I was diagnosed. My son was 6, and I kept thinking, I’m not going to be around to see him grow up," says Kim Regenhard, 51, a 10-year survivor who just published A Survivor’s Guide for the Breast Cancer Journey. “Mother’s Day is still very tough.”