I Was Diagnosed With Stage 3 Breast Cancer at 28
Ashley Rivera, of Texas City, Texas, found a lump when she was breastfeeding her third child a year ago. Here's what she wants other young women to know.
I was breastfeeding my son Caleb around Christmas 2016 when I felt a lump. I figured it was a clogged milk duct and that it wasn’t a big deal, so I thought I’d wait until things settled down after the holidays to get it checked out. I went for my annual physical in January. I mentioned to my doctor that I’d had this lump for a little while and asked her to check it out.
“This is too big to be a duct,” I remember her saying. “We need to look into it further.”
Still, I didn’t think much of it. I was only 28; I had always thought breast cancer was for older women. I had no reason to think I was at any risk. So I went home and told my husband, “The doctor must be overreacting, but tomorrow I’m going for a mammogram and an ultrasound.”
I went to a local non-profit organization that does breast cancer screenings for the tests. The doctor there looked at the results of my mammogram and ultrasound and said I’d need to come back the next day for a biopsy. She told me that I needed to stop nursing Caleb right away.
Caleb is very medically complex. We had tried seemingly every formula in the U.S. and even some we’d had shipped from overseas, but he couldn’t stomach anything enough to thrive. Probably 75% of his diet was breast milk, so he was very reliant on me. Hearing that I had to wean him was when all the emotions hit: This could be something really serious. What would we do for him?
I had gone to my physical on a Tuesday. On Friday, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, meaning it had spread to my lymph nodes. That’s how quickly I went from thinking this was no big deal to getting thrown into a cancer diagnosis.
Fighting for my life–and my family
As a family, we were about to start fighting for my life—but we had Caleb to think of too. I remember my doctor saying, “If you’re going to be here for him, you really do have to wean him now.” I did, with no real plan, just taking things day by day and using the formula that worked best for him. His doctors fought harder to find a diagnosis for him because they no longer had me to rely on. He did get a diagnosis and then medication; now he’s thriving, which helped me relax a little.
I was tested for genetic mutations and the results came back positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation. I knew my grandmother had breast cancer in her 60s, which I thought of as the typical age for the disease. I’m not very close to that side of my family, but I called her to tell her about my diagnosis, and I found out she had several cousins who also had breast cancer. If I would have known about my family history, maybe I would have been a little more proactive, but my diagnosis came out of the blue for me.
Within a couple weeks, I started chemo. After the tumor shrank from the chemo, I had surgery, followed by radiation. Now I’m doing immunotherapy until September. Chemo was terrible. I was stuck in my bed most of the time. My mom, dad, and sister live a block away, so they were at our house helping us every day. My husband has a great boss who had gone through cancer himself. He understood that when my husband needed to go home, he needed to go home. The support from our family and our community was huge.
Talking to my kids about cancer
Besides Caleb, we have another special-needs son, and just days after my surgery my daughter had an accident that took about six months of recovery. Honestly, I don’t even know how to describe the emotions. For a while, it felt like we were fighting every day to wake up in the morning and remind ourselves we could make it another day.
The whole time, my husband and I were open and honest with our kids—now 7, 5, and almost 3. One of my biggest fears when I was diagnosed was how to tell them. What if you say it the wrong way and scare them? My husband and I talked to our pediatrician and the social worker at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where I was getting treated.
With Caleb in the hospital a lot that year too, we didn’t want to say, “Mommy’s going to the hospital.” We didn’t want the kids to look at him and think he would have to do chemo or come back with no hair too. We didn’t want them to associate his hospital visits with cancer.
We said things like, “Mommy has cancer,” instead of, “Mommy is sick,” and “Mommy’s going to MD Anderson for chemo,” instead of, “Mommy’s going to the hospital.” We even said, “Mommy’s going to the oncologist”—we made sure we used the correct terms.
My kids knew I was sick, but they knew it was temporary. We gave them a goal: What do you want to do when Mommy’s done with treatment? Of course, they said Disney World. It’s a little expensive for us—now my husband and I look at each other like, “Uh oh, we promised, what are we going to do?” But we’ll make it work.
Getting my energy back
I had some scar tissue from the surgery to remove my lymph nodes, so I started physical therapy. I told the therapist how tired I felt, how I used to go on long walks with my kids and now I didn’t have the strength. Chemo wears you out so much. She made me an appointment to join the MD Anderson Healthy Heart program, which focuses on improving heart health and fitness in cancer patients and survivors. I thought it sounded great, like something that could really help me get my life back the way it had been before cancer.
I was given a Fitbit to track my weekly workouts. The doctor who runs the program helped me set goals that fit in with my schedule and also satisfied what she wanted from me. It was eye-opening at first to see how difficult it was to just find 30 minutes for myself three times a week. I was giving so much to the whole family and not taking care of myself. Sometimes I get my exercise on my own when my husband can watch the kids; other times, we’ll do something together as a family, like walk the trails at a local wildlife reserve. I’m going to get my energy and my life back.
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My kids want every minute with me now that I’m feeling good. They were so used to going out all day together on Saturdays for bike rides or to parks before my diagnosis. But when I was sick, even just reading a book or watching a favorite show with popcorn in bed was a treat, and somehow they saw it as just as exciting. Even if you do something little, it means a lot to kids. Just the other day, my older son said, “Mom, remember that time you let us eat popcorn in your bed? Remember how fun that was?” I was fearful they lost out on so much during my treatment, but they didn’t.
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I want other women going through cancer treatment and recovery to enjoy those little moments. When something is almost taken away from you, you realize how important just rocking your kids to sleep or reading a book to them is. You might be scared to ask for help, but it’s okay to have somebody pick up your laundry or bring you dinner. It’s hard to get to that place, but it’s something you have to do. Remember to make special memories, even in pajamas and with no hair.