I Lost Both My Breasts to Cancer at 35 — and Wound Up Learning My Greatest Life Lesson

No woman is ever prepared to hear the earth-shattering, soul-shaking news that she has breast cancer — including me. And yet, that’s exactly what happened earlier this year, as I sat in a doctor’s office and heard four little words I never expected.

When I discovered a hard lump on my right breast in April, I immediately went to see my gynecologist. She ordered a mammogram and breast ultrasound, which I scheduled right away. Imagine my relief when just a day after the two cans, I received the “all clear” news.

But in the days that followed, I was increasingly aware of the lump. It was in the one o’clock position, meaning it’s up high on the breast. Every time I put on my seatbelt or my cross-body purse, I felt it. Every time I picked up my infant and her little hand patted the lump, I cringed. When I would bend over to pick up my children’s toys, the lump felt large and heavy.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. I called my gynecologist’s nurse who asked me standard questions, like where I was in my cycle and did I drink a lot of caffeine. I insisted that I needed further evaluation, which led her provide me with a list of breast surgeons. I called the first one on the list and scheduled a consultation.

A few weeks later, I arrived at the surgeon’s office with my baby in tow. She administered another ultrasound and decided that because the lump seemed to be increasingly large and painful, she should biopsy the area. A week after that, I returned for the procedure, which was surprisingly painful, despite the numbing injection. Tears streamed down my cheeks as she injected a “marker” (a sesame seed sized metal ball) into my breast in order to identify where the cells were extracted.

Two weeks passed before I returned to the office once again — this time, for my results. I was anxious, but fairly confident that all would be well. I even snapped a few selfies in the exam room while I waited for the doctor. (I mean, I had two non-cancerous breast lumps removed in the past; surely this was no different.)

The doctor strolled in, casually asking how I was. And then she dropped the bomb.

“I never want to tell patients this,” she began, her voice low and careful. “You have breast cancer.”

The rest of the appointment is honestly a blur to me now. I left armed with 10 glossy new brochures featuring the words “breast cancer” in a pink, scripty font, along with a copy of my biopsy results. I stepped into the sunshine and to my car, no longer just “Rachel,” but “Rachel with breast cancer.”

Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

Then I began doing the exact thing you should not do when you get a diagnosis like mine: Internet research. I had no fewer than 20 browser windows open at a time. I was trying to figure out what all the fancy medical terms on my report meant, what steps I should take, the worst-case scenarios, the treatment options. Of course, my anxiety went into overdrive, and my mind raced.

Why me? I have four children! I already have a chronic illness — why in the world did I get more bad news? Was I going to die? Would I need chemo or radiation or surgery? What if I have to get a mastectomy? How could I be only 35 years old and lose my breasts?

I spent the days leading up to my next surgical consultation sneaking off to the bathroom to cry. My four children continued their typical summer agenda: swimming, bickering, and asking for snacks. Meanwhile, I performed my tasks mechanically, in a fog of denial, anger, and sometimes even apathy.

I ultimately reasoned that I should not have breast cancer — that this was some kind of terrible, horrible mistake — which was of course ridiculous, but also helped somehow justified my confusion and anger. I had done my research: Less than 5 percent of breast cancer cases are women under the age of 40. I didn’t have the common risk factors, either. I wasn’t overweight, had no family history, didn’t start my period at a young age, had never smoked cigarettes. I also tested negative for the breast cancer genes. In fact, my family and I have always made our health a priority: I keep a mostly-organic and vegetarian diet, get plenty of active exercise in with my kids, and as adequate a night’s sleep as anyone could with four kids under the age of 7. We used low-VOC paint in our entire house. I even buy that “healthy” nail polish for me and my daughters, and use paraben-free body products, for crying out loud!

After meeting a new breast surgeon, having second mammogram and third ultrasound, and going over the options for a woman with my diagnosis — Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ (DCIS) — I had to make a decision. Option 1 was a lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of radiation. Option 2 was a bi-lateral mastectomy, using a skin and nipple sparing technique.

Initially, I believed the worst thing that could happen would be to lose my own breasts. But when it came down to it, I knew that choosing the lumpectomy to spare my breasts wouldn’t be the end to all this. It has a moderate reoccurrence rate, and I’d be subject to bi-yearly MRIs, mammograms, and ultrasounds. DCIS is a tricky beast — it often comes back in the opposite breast.

In the end, the decision was surprisingly easy, because if I opted to have the mastectomy, my risk of the cancer returning was about 1 percent. I liked those odds.

When you’re young, you think bad things only happen to other people: people who are older, people who are less vigilant, people who are distanced from you. At least that’s what I thought.
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Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

So on August 30, I stepped through the doors of the hospital, anxious but also confident. I went into an induced sleep with my own C-cup breasts and awoke with new C-cup breasts, created by my own chest muscles and two silicone breast implants. I left the hospital the next day, armed with a special bra, medications, tons of instructions, and a new lease on life.

It’s nearly a month later as I write this, and I’m still in recovery from my surgery. I have cried more in the past three weeks than I have in my entire life. The tears stem from both sadness and relief, grief and thankfulness, fear and hope. I still have several medical appointments left to attend, as we aim answer the question: now what?

Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

But there is good news: I am one of the lucky ones. The cancer didn’t snake its way to my lymph nodes, as I feared. My pathology report from the surgery was excellent. I got to keep my own “outside” (my skin and nipples) and had a direct-to-implant surgery, saving me from a guaranteed second surgery. My doctor says I’m healing incredibly well, and I have the support of a steadfast husband, patient children, and close friends and family members around me. I am a woman of faith, and when I look back on the past few months, I see small miracles everywhere, even in the midst of my darkest days.

I know that when you’re young, you think bad things only happen to other people: people who are older, people who are less vigilant, people who are distanced from you. At least that’s what I thought. I considered breast cancer one of the tragic things in life that happens to another woman. But that simply isn’t true. You can be someone like me, someone mothering children and running errands and investing in her career, and cancer can sneak in, interrupting your life. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned in all of this perhaps my greatest lesson yet as a woman. And it’s this: I am not only gifted with a “still, small voice” (call it intuition, call it gut-instinct, or call it faith), but listening to that still, small voice can literally mean life or death. Was it scary to feel the tugging of my soul and know that deep down, something was wrong? Absolutely yes. Was facing a devastating diagnosis frightening? Of course. But had I chosen to ignore, dismiss, or even delay things even longer, I may not be the woman I am today: battered but not broken, haunted but hopeful, and most of all, alive and ready for life’s next adventure.

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