By Sascha Cohen
Everyone wants to know how I found the malignant tumors growing inside my breast when I was 31 years old. The how of it is this: One April morning I woke up to discover that my once rosy-colored areola had turned ghostly white, and the skin around it swollen and thick. My left breast felt like a hard, tight water balloon. It ached on the side near my armpit.
Although these things aren’t classic breast cancer symptoms, which I know because I Googled them instead of sleeping for a week, I went to the doctor anyway. Because of my family history—my mother had early stage ductal carcinoma in her 50s—my primary care physician wanted to rule it out. “Just to be on the safe side,” she said, smiling. It hurt when the ultrasound technician maneuvered a lubricated device against the tender skin across my nipple and under my arm. I desperately searched the screen for clues and saw a big, black oblong shadow amidst a sea of moving white streaks. Then another shadow. Then a third one. The technician wouldn’t look me in the eyes. An hour later, I sat in a small windowless room, gagging down a chalky tablet of Ativan as a radiologist spoke of “innumerable” areas of concern. They’d been there for a while; by the time my pathology results were in, the cancer was regionally advanced, bursting outside of the breast and into my lymphatic system, skin, and bloodstream.
I was more interested in the why, and so was my oncologist. “What’s a girl like you doing in an office like mine?” he asked when we first met. I was a fit non-smoker, a vegetarian who exercised regularly and rarely drank alcohol, suddenly facing the prospect that, depending on my tumor staging, I might not make it to age 40, or even to 35.
I thought about this as expensive poison slithered and burned through my fragile green veins. I thought about it when I writhed on the bathroom floor in a ruffled adult diaper, my lips cracking with sores, as the chemo did its worst to my digestive system. I thought about it after I woke up from my double mastectomy in searing pain, drifting in and out of awareness, my finger glued to the morphine pump as my severed nerves sharply spasmed across my chest. And I thought about it when I submitted my wounded body to the beams of a spaceship-sized radiation machine 28 days in a row, watching the left side turn pink and raw, then deep crimson, then brown, until layers of skin began to peel off in slimy, sticky sheets. What I had done to deserve cancer? If it wasn’t poor health habits, could it have been karma?
This month’s #Our Stories is an excerpt from Tribe member Sascha Cohen’s article originally published in Self. Click here to read entire article.