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Last June I got an email from my friend Sam in Portland telling me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I think it came as quite a shock to everyone. She hadn’t yet turned 30; I had seen her just a few weeks before when she came to Eugene to meet baby Paul and give him a quilt she’d made. She’d seemed vibrant, happy, and healthy when she visited. We’ve been staying in touch via email, and I asked her to share part of her story here:

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One of Sam’s lovely hand-made quilts. Photo credit: Samantha Breen

 

My name is Samantha and I am a fiery, passionate young woman. I am also an elementary school teacher, quilter, printmaker, salsa dancer, and Ed.D (doctorate of education) candidate.

In mid-May 2015 I was reaching for soap in the shower when I hit my left breast, hitting something different, something hard. By May 27, 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a very common type of breast cancer known as IDC (Invasive Ductile Carcimona). I got placed in the Multi-Disciplinary Team for Breast Cancer with an appointment for June 2.

In a PET scan ordered before the appointment, my worst nightmares were revealed: I not only had advanced breast cancer, I had metastatic breast cancer meaning the cancer was Stage IV and had spread to my lung and thigh. I had 0% chance of survival and was told by my all the oncologists in the little exam room along with my parents that they could make me comfortable until the end, but they could not cure me. I was 29 years old.

I ended up being one of the lucky ones. With further examination, they discovered I did not have Stage IV cancer — the spots in my lung and thigh turned out to be non-cancerous. I think that the initial horror that my time left was to be limited and unpleasant led me to be grateful for all moments. I remember waking up from my bilateral (double) mastectomy now breastless, hairless and infertile (from chemotherapy) thinking that these were just battle scars to a better life.

Cancer helped me to clarify my perspectives. I had many friends before I got cancer. Many of them left and stayed away after I got cancer. The friends that have stayed I have learned are true friends, not just friends who are there when it is convenient for them. The deep love my parents have for me is unmatched. I realized that more framed degrees on my wall would not make me happier, but that I should focus on slowing down and enjoying life with the people I enjoy being around.

To help me cope, I go to cancer patient groups. I go to a group that meets weekly that is people mostly 30 or more years older than me and along with a cancer counselor we help each other problem-solve. It is a group made up of people with many different cancers. I also go to a 40-and-under (when diagnosed) group for breast cancer; that group meets once a month. I also walk as much as I can and spend time with the people I love.

If you are just being diagnosed with any kind of cancer, I say you should find a group that works for you. There are writing groups, groups that are just for men, women, and young survivors. Not every group just sits and talks, many groups go on all kinds of outings. For me the greatest help came from another young teacher diagnosed with breast cancer who came to my house when I couldn’t leave for comfort. I hope to do the same for someone else someday.

If you want to be a supportive friend, I suggest finding yourself a job that you can do. The hardest friends to me were the friends who would make plans; I would rearrange many medical appointments, and then they would cancel. I had a friend who loved to drive so she would take me for rides at a good time in my chemotherapy cycle. Other friends lived far away and would send me care packages.

Remember that the worst thing to say or do to someone who has cancer is nothing—it completely invalidates that they exist. Having cancer, I thrive on connection. A hug, a letter, a phone call, they mean the world.

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Please join me in keeping Samantha in your thoughts and prayers as she continues to fight to regain her health.

 

 

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You’re still breastfeeding? How old is your daughter?

Yes, I still nurse my daughter, who is almost 21-months-old.

OK, that’s cool, but this topic makes me uncomfortable. Can we still be friends if I don’t read this article?

Sure, why don’t you check out these photos my husband and I took on our recent hike to the top of Spencer’s Butte. I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable,  but I do think it’s important to raise awareness about this topic.

Are you some kind of breastfeeding activist?

Not exactly. I’ve never been very comfortable nursing in public, and I never nurse her in public now that she eats solid foods regularly. But I would like to live in a society where any woman would feel comfortable nursing in public — since breastmilk is the healthiest possible food you can give a baby.

Is it normal to breastfeed a toddler? I thought you were only supposed to nurse until age 1.

Both the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend breastfeeding until two years or more. Check out this Huffington Post article for more on the topic. True it is not the norm in the U.S., but Americans have very low rates of breastfeeding when compared to the rest of the world.

But doesn’t it hurt? Toddlers have lots of teeth.

Imagine sucking your thumb. Would that hurt? Sometimes babies go through biting phases, but if they want to continue nursing they will learn not to do so.

My pediatrician said there was no medical reason to breastfeed past age 1.

This is what my daughter’s former pediatrician implied, and although he was a very nice man, he was apparently misinformed about this topic. According to the Mayo Clinic “Breast milk is considered the gold standard for infant nutrition…There’s no known age at which breast milk is considered to become nutritionally insignificant for a child.” In addition to high nutritional value, breast milk also contains your antibodies to viruses, which can help your toddler stay healthy while her immune system is still developing. Extended breastfeeding also has many positive benefits to the mother’s health including reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

I weaned my baby when I went back to work at 3 months. Are you trying to make me feel bad about myself?

No way girlfriend. Being a mom is oh so challenging — we’re all just trying to do the best we can, right? In fact, nursing a newborn was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do, so kudos to you if you made it through these early weeks!

I want to make new friends, but I’m too tired. Plus I forget how.

Probably the first step is to leave the apartment. Which I actually have been doing quite a bit lately. Mondays Baby Bear and I go to sign language class, Tuesdays to the library and on Wednesdays it’s yoga. We try to keep a busy schedule. Hence, I have not been updating my blog.

Going to these activities is great. They provide fun ways for Baby Bear and I to interact, and allow us both to see a little bit of the world. I’m feeling much happier than I did when we sat at home all the time.  However, I kind of wish I could make friends with some of the other moms in these classes.

But how to make friends? If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve never been great at making friends even in the best of situations. Maybe it has to do with being an only child. Or being really nerdy. Whatever. Either way, I’m just an extrovert wannabe.

This is not to say that I don’t have friends. I do. I have some wonderful friends. But it has taken years to make them.

I’ve read How to Win Friends and Influence People. It helped. I now have a general sense of how to converse at a dinner party. If you haven’t read it, the basic gist is: 1) smile 2) ask people lots of questions 3) remember their names 4) give compliments 5) never tell someone that they are wrong – even if they are.

Number 5 is kind of hard. Working on that one. All of them can be hard when you haven’t really slept much for 6 months, actually.

I have made one new friend lately. We’ve been spending a lot of time together. Some might say we’re even best friends. She’s not potty-trained yet, but she does have an amazing sense of humor. Her laugh can light up the whole room.

Me with friends — yes, I have them!