Diagnosed at 25: Reassessing my life
I was diagnosed with stage II triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma at the age of 25 while I was living in Rwanda, halfway across the world from my home base in Florida. That was my normal before breast cancer. I moved often: Israel, multiple U.S. cities, the UK, and Rwanda. I was a free spirit seeking a life of service and adventure.
Then my breast cancer diagnosis turned my world upside-down. I left Rwanda to get a formal diagnosis and treatment back in the U.S., and because I didn’t have time to get a job nor money to get my own apartment, this meant moving back in with my mom.
At first, I simply felt lucky to be home with an incredible support system of family and friends. As time went on and treatment continued, though, I started to feel like the world was passing me by. I was living at my mom’s, undergoing cancer treatment, and working part-time as a food runner in a trendy new restaurant. I scrolled through my friends’ social media posts showing their career wins, engagement photos, travels, and more, while I recovered in my childhood bedroom. I felt isolated and distant as I could no longer relate to their experiences, and they couldn’t relate to mine.
Before cancer, I thrived in atypical work environments: I lived and worked with the AmeriCorps FEMA Corps and at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village with orphaned and vulnerable youth in rural Rwanda. In these all-in, team-based situations, I could be fully immersed in new communities providing an educational or public health service. My passion for helping others and my wanderlust guided my lifestyle. I was carefree, service-oriented more than financially oriented, and I truly felt like I was living my best life until cancer changed everything.
As I neared the end of treatment, I felt hopeful that I could pick my life up where I left it off but that didn’t turn out to be possible. With scans every 6 months and a need for health insurance and relative financial stability, I felt cornered into staying in the U.S. to get a more typical 9-5 job -- the type of job I never wanted.
I had to reassess everything, and I researched all the options possible until I found a position that combined my passion for helping others, my recent cancer experience, and my love for travel. My new job supported public health laboratories internationally by improving laboratory testing and diagnostics. Right after cancer treatment ended, I moved from Florida to Washington, D.C., for this position, but despite the meaningful work that I was doing, it never quite hit home like I had hoped and, eventually, I burnt out.
The truth was, I had been struggling with depression in the first year or so of survivorship. I’d never experienced this before, and I delayed treatment because I thought I could handle it. Cancer, I felt, was the source of all my suffering, because it had coerced me into this new life. I resented the loss of my professional ambitions in global public service. I wasn’t ready to “settle down,” and I certainly didn’t want to care so much about insurance coverage or financial stability at the age of 26. I felt like cancer forced me to grow up faster than my peers, and I felt a heavy burden that I never felt previously. The lighthearted, joyful, and youthful person I once was disappeared, and I missed her. I decided, though, it was time I learned to manage both my depression and resentment toward cancer, so I began talk therapy and antidepressant medication. It helped too that I met my (now) husband, Ilan, at the start of treatment, and he was with me every step of the way. With him, I felt adventure and freedom through kayaking, camping trips, relaxing in our hammocks by the water and much more, while still being there through the tough moments.
After a couple years, I was starting to feel more like myself again. Ilan and I moved from Washington, D.C., to North Carolina, and I started working remotely on Massachusetts’ Covid response in the early months of the pandemic. I began as a contact tracer, supervised a team, and eventually worked on outbreak investigations. I felt connected to the communities I served, despite living in another state. It was the closest I felt to my pre-cancer life thus far, filled with service, meaning, public health, education, and an incredible team of colleagues who felt like family. But, since cancer, I am prone to burnout from such intense work, which is something I have been working on accepting. Despite buying our first home and getting married during Covid, again, I felt compelled to leave my work position.
A few months later, I was still drained. I looked at public health job advertisements, and all I felt was overwhelmed. I had gained the “Pandemic 15,” and I wanted to be healthier for the IVF treatments Ilan and I were undertaking—and, of course, for possible pregnancy. I focused on my diet, and then, because Ilan wanted to try personal training, we both joined a small group personal training gym. Having this time to focus on my health, all while going through multiple rounds of IVF, really helped me feel better.
I realized I never gave myself the time after cancer treatment to truly heal from the trauma. I learned that, during treatment, I was in survival mode. I didn’t process what I was going through but rather just went through the motions to get medically better. As soon as treatment ended, I jumped straight into my new life, trying to immediately put cancer behind me. My baseline threshold was still survival mode though: Is the cancer back? No? Then great. I’m just fine. But I wasn’t. I had no idea that I’d struggle during survivorship physically, mentally, and emotionally, but I did. Talk therapy and medication helped tremendously, but I pursued those in the midst of figuring out my new life and trying to leave cancer behind. With time away from work, now I could focus and learn how to escape survival mode and adopt a positive, holistic version of health for myself.
My confidence grew as I started making positive life changes with diet and exercise while continuing to process the past 5 years. While motivating myself in this new way, I lost weight, gained a healthier relationship with food and learned to love the gym for the first time in my life.
That’s when it hit me. Personal health had begun to have so much more meaning in my own life. I felt empowered by prioritizing my own health, and I realized I wanted to help others do the same. This was my lightbulb moment. For all my concern about public health, I’d never truly focused on my own. I researched how to become a personal trainer and dove in. I was recently certified, and I am continuing my education in training and nutrition while moving toward this new career path.
It’s now been five-and-one-half years since my diagnosis, and I can honestly tell you I’m still figuring out how to create the best version of my life. It hasn’t been easy. Life became so much more complicated and difficult after my diagnosis, and cancer truly changed the course of my life. I loved my carefree spirit, but I love my post-cancer self now too. I may not travel as I did, but I dwell both firmly and lightly in love with my husband and Ivy, our Wheaten Terrier, as we work toward growing our family. Yes, I have to figure things out in ways I never would have otherwise, but there’s pride in that too. I’m confident things will only continue to get better, and I can’t wait to see where my life leads.