I’m only 29; This Can’t Be Happening to Me
Liz San Roman
El Monte, California

I would have to say that I was a very happy 29-year-old. I’d been married to my high school sweetheart for 10 years and we had 2 wonderful kids (one son, one daughter.) Life was going great. We had good jobs and were looking to purchase our first home. We had a happy home and were very involved with our kids in their school and sports activities.

November 1999, when I noticed some changes in my right breast, I thought they were normal changes due to my cycle. In December, I felt a lump in my breast that was really hard. My entire breast had become red, swollen, hot, and the skin texture had changed. It was itchy, and the nipple had become “inverted.” I went to see a gynecologist who told me that since I was so young and had no family history of cancer, it was probably a cyst or an infection. She ordered a mammogram and I went to radiology to make an appointment. By the time I got there, I was so scared, I was in tears. The technician said I was too young to have a mammogram and a sonogram was done instead. This showed two lumps. I was sent back to have a mammogram. It was so painful it felt as though the lump in my breast was going to explode out of my skin.

The radiologist said that there were two masses on the mammogram but they were not cancerous. He told me to call the breast surgeon to discuss having the lumps removed. My appointment was scheduled for January 06, 2000 so I celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve with my family with this lump in my breast and the fear of the unknown.

After the holidays, the breast surgeon took one look at me and said he needed to do a core biopsy. It was done 3 days later; I waited another week for the results. When I went back to see the surgeon on January 14th, my mother went with me. The surgeon told us he had had the biopsy tested by 3 different pathologists and all 3 had come to the same conclusion. I had a rare type of breast cancer called Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), Stage 3B. I sat there in shock. My mother held me tight and we both cried. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t want to die.”

My surgeon had already sent my case to an oncologist, explaining my age and rare type of breast cancer. He told me I’d need aggressive chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. With IBC, he said, a mastectomy must be done. That evening when I told my husband, we cried together. That weekend we told our kids, the rest of our family, and our close friends. There was more crying; but even more prayers, hope, and a determination to get through this together. We researched Inflammatory Breast Cancer on the Internet and I joined an on-line support group for women with IBC. The list helped me through my entire journey. I read letters from women who had the exact same cancer I had and who were going through the exact same treatments I was. It gave me hope and strength to know they were surviving and it prepared me to face what was going to happen next.

My appointment with the oncologist was scheduled for January 20, 2000. I started chemo that day. The chemotherapy worked so well that eventually my breast actually looked normal again. A modified radical mastectomy was done on my right breast April 2000. The tumor in the breast was 7 cm. The tumor and the lymph nodes they removed all tested positive for cancer. I then had 4 more rounds of chemo. In preparation for high dose chemo/stem cell rescue, I underwent numerous tests. The CT scan showed two very small new lumps, one along the mastectomy scar line and the other on the chest wall. They were so small, I couldn’t even feel them. Another biopsy and another diagnosis: CANCER. My oncologist called it a local recurrence. I was in shock all over again. How could I have a recurrence when I was still in the middle of the initial treatment plan? The recurrence disqualified me for the clinical trial HDC/SCR procedure. My plans had changed again.

I switched chemotherapies, developed an infection, and spent 5 days in the hospital on IV antibiotics. After 10 weeks of this chemo, I had a simple mastectomy on the left breast for preventative reasons. There was no cancer in the breast, but the one lymph node that was removed was positive. I had more chemotherapy from February 2001 to June 2001. During that time, I developed another infection, spent 5 more days in the hospital on IV antibiotics and went home on IV antibiotics for another 14 days. Hopefully I’m finished with chemo forever. Radiation is being saved just in case I need it in the future, which I hope and pray I never will. I’ll probably be on Herceptin for the rest of my life … but at least I have a life!

After being on disability for 18 months, I returned to work July 2001. Things were finally getting back to normal. Then, about 2 weeks later, my right hand and arm were swollen. I now have lymphedema in my right arm; I have to massage it and have it wrapped 20 hours a day. Soon I’ll be getting a compressive sleeve and glove to wear. This will be an everyday thing for the rest of my life. But again, I’m happy to say … at least I have a life.

I consider myself fortunate. Although I had to wait nearly 2 months for a diagnosis, I was not misdiagnosed. Throughout all my chemo, I never got sick to my stomach or had mouth sores. I had fatigue and nausea. My fingernails and toenails fell off, all my hair fell out, and I gained 40 pounds. I’m still trying to lose the weight, but my hair is growing back. My eyelashes and eyebrows are coming in slowly.

My support system has been wonderful. My husband, family and friends have been there for me since Day One. I’m closer to my family now than I have ever been. They love and support me. I know without them, I would not have made it.

I remember thinking, when I was diagnosed with IBC at 29, that I would never make it to 30. I had a great surprise 30th birthday party and the next thing I knew, I was celebrating my 31st birthday. I now have two birthdays, the day I was born and the day I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer. My life will never be the same as it was before that day. As I look back now, I know that surviving breast cancer and having gone through all that I went through, has made me a stronger person. I have met people through my experience that I would never have met. I don’t let the little things bother me as much anymore, and I cherish each day I spend with family and friends.

I’m starting to make plans for the future again. I am looking forward to buying our first home, seeing my kids graduate from high school, and being here when they graduate from college, get married, and have kids. Breast cancer will always be a part of my life; I will always have the scars. I hope one day a cure for this disease will be found so no one will have to go through what so many of us have gone through. I have become active in promoting breast cancer awareness, and I’m hoping that by sharing my story, others will realize that breast cancer can affect anyone, no matter how young, and that any changes in the breast need to be checked out!

Story Submitted 2001