When Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer during her third year at university, it interrupted almost every aspect of her life. Now, she’s focusing on recovery.
I was completely shell-shocked
My life has always felt so fragile. I have always had to fight for it. My childhood was quite turbulent, and I had been acting as a young carer since primary school to my mother.
I was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer when I was just 28. I’d been misdiagnosed six months earlier, as they thought I was too young for cancer. I was completely shell-shocked.
I immediately worried about my sister. We've been through so much together, and we only really have each other. I felt completely helpless and terrified for us both.
It all happened so fast
From that point on, my life didn’t feel like mine anymore. I had to put everything on pause and try to figure out how I was going to finish my third year of university.
My treatment began four weeks after my diagnosis with a round of IVF to try to preserve my fertility. It just all happened so fast. Then I had my lumpectomy. My entire right nipple was removed, and I also had lymph nodes removed.
Since I was young, I never cut my hair, so it was always long. My sister is a hairdresser and my hair was her pride and joy. She always managed to bleach it without damaging it and people would ask how she did it. Cancer took that away from us.
Being a younger woman with breast cancer is isolating
As a young woman you can be overlooked while awaiting diagnosis. You also might face dismissive attitudes because of your age.
When I was getting chemotherapy, one nurse seemed very discriminatory toward me - I think because I was young. She was sharp and rude, constantly acting as if I was being dramatic. I had to take it to the ward manager, and the woman was moved to a different department as my experience was not an isolated incident.
Breast Cancer Now’s Younger Women Together event is great for helping women share their experiences.
When I am better and have my degree and masters, I will work with charities to try and get more support groups organised at a local level. Being younger can have an isolating effect.
You don’t just ‘bounce back’
Everything hits you when you finish treatment. You anticipate a huge relief, but you almost feel like you are sitting in a huge post-explosion crater. You think, ‘where do I even start here?’
I think there’s a common misconception that being young means you can bounce back. That hasn’t been the case for me.
I have no partner, scars and only about two centimetres of hair (give or take). I hadn’t realised that treatment would mean being in a medically induced menopause for five to 10 years. There was so much information to take in.
I don’t know my fertility status, and won’t for a while. I’ve lost so many elements of my sexuality, including my desire to be intimate or close with anyone right now.
A year ago, I was a fully functioning student who worked at the weekends with a good social life. Now if I leave my room for too long, I risk a panic attack.
I try to focus on the positives
I have no idea yet how I will navigate life as a 28-year-old who would like to date and eventually have a family. I don’t think it will prove an easy task, and my self-confidence is in tatters. But I am determined to stay positive and keep trying to move forward.
Gradually, I had to slow down to avoid panic attacks and began going to a late evening yoga class. I try to meditate for five minutes a day to help me have greater control over my thoughts. It’s helped so much.
I try to undertake as much positive stuff that I can do in my room as possible: I read positive books about mental health and self-esteem. I undertake daily affirmations and gratitude practice and am constantly trying to keep my focus on all that is good and positive in my life.
I'm working hard to even like my reflection. It's an ongoing process, but I go with the 'fake it till you make it’ ethos. I hope I will get there one day.
If you're a younger person with cancer and need someone to talk to, please check out our Someone Like Me service.