Diana Abehssera is a mother, breast cancer survivor, and the Patient Experience Lead at Leal Health, an AI-powered platform dedicated to improving cancer treatment. View Diana’s disclosures.
When breast cancer comes knocking on the door, most people are never quite expecting it. I sure wasn’t at the age of 32. With no family history of breast cancer, a thriving career, a new marriage, and seemingly great health, the last thing I could imagine was this intruder—cancer—bulldozing its way into my home, my world, or my body. Yet there it was, suddenly sitting square in the middle of my life and nestled underneath my left breast, spilling into my lymph nodes.
My official diagnosis was stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer with a BRCA1 mutation, which is a less common type of breast cancer that can be difficult to treat. This type of cancer had a high likelihood of recurrence, and there were no available maintenance drugs to provide support after treatment was complete. On top of that, my genetic mutation would give the cancer an 87% chance of recurring in my lifetime. It was an unimaginable situation.
Going through intensive treatment
I huddled with my oncology team and quickly realized that an aggressive attack by cancer requires an even more aggressive counterattack with treatment. Even though the most intense drugs I would be taking to stop the cancer from further ravaging my body could cause heart failure, other cancers, and permanent infertility, I was presented with few options and even less time to think them through. So, I decided to go full throttle and blast the cancer with everything the good folks at my cancer center and modern medicine had to offer at the time.
I first received dose-dense chemotherapy, which was injected for hours through my peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line every other Friday for 4 months. It left me weak and bald, with brittle nails, grayish skin, and a big appetite. I quickly gained a ton of weight, an assortment of wigs, and the realization that my survival depended on receiving continued treatment. With that in mind, my opinion of chemotherapy shifted to, dare I say, appreciation. After each chemo infusion, I believed I was getting better and becoming healthier. After my final chemo session, I even asked for 1 additional infusion for good measure. The nurse rolled her eyes, told me that another infusion would likely kill me, and then proceeded to yank my PICC line out of my arm.
My double mastectomy came next. The mental preparation for this surgery was not without challenges and fears. It took 1 month of therapy and soul-searching to get my head in the game, but I knew that the ultimate goal was to save my life, not my breasts. And so, on one particularly chilly January morning, bald, naked, and afraid, I willed myself to walk into the operating room, filled with bright lights, shiny equipment, sharp things, and most importantly, supremely skilled hands and minds. I closed my eyes and surrendered in hopes of waking up cancer-free, or honestly, just waking up.
Thankfully, the full-course radiation therapy that followed surgery was more merciful in my case. After getting measured and tattooed for the 6-week daily procedure, I stocked up on recommended lotions and ointments and made a mixtape with some of my favorite songs. The radiation nurses blasted my compilation of Madonna, U2, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews songs during the 20-minute daily zapping routine.
Radiation had a slow, cumulative effect, and while I started strong, ultimately, I was becoming pretty tired. However, I formed an unexpected sisterhood with all the women in the waiting room. We met every day at the same time for 6 consecutive weeks, sharing snacks, comparing scars, meeting each other’s caregivers, and sometimes becoming caregivers ourselves. We ranged from young to old, we were multiracial, and we all had a story to tell. We gave pep talks and cried a little, but we mostly laughed—a lot! It was both humbling and inspiring at the same time. We met as strangers and walked away as friends.
“Facing a breast cancer diagnosis, the treatment, and the subsequent recovery is often more like a marathon than a sprint. Having a strong support system is vital for navigating the journey and making it easier to cope with the hills and valleys that may arise along the way.” – Norah Lynn Henry, MD, PhD, FASCO, professor and Interim Chief of the University of Michigan's Division of Hematology/Oncology in the Department of Internal Medicine and the 2023 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Breast Cancer
Rebuilding my life after cancer
The procedures, surgeries, and years that followed were mixed with blessings, fears of recurrence, small wins, and setbacks. The waiting was a mental marathon: waiting for the cancer to come back (or not come back), waiting for my hair to return, waiting to feel stronger, waiting to understand myself in my new body, and waiting for people to start treating me normally. After being missing in action from my previous life and in survival mode for nearly a year, collecting the pieces of a life put on pause took patience and time.
Today, 17 years later, I am happy to report that I did rebuild after cancer. I did thrive. I did go on to become a mother and to re-establish a career that I love and take pride in. It took a great deal of work, grit, stubbornness, and gratitude to help me push through. I do know that I was more than fortunate to survive.
Now, what I can offer to others who follow in my footsteps are the things I learned along the way:
1: Age is not a shield from cancer. Know your family history and the genetics involved. Know your body and prioritize your health.
2: Knowledge is power, and you must be your own ruthless self-advocate. Learn about your treatment options. Advanced, cutting-edge treatments may be available to you, some of which may be outside of your normal hospital setting. Research them and ask your health care team about them. Be a partner to your doctor in your health care decisions, and feel empowered about your choices. During cancer, the stakes are high, and you should absolutely have a say in your treatment plan.
3: Treat yourself. Treat yourself to a new lipstick, a good movie, a manicure, or even some pretty lingerie. Don’t forget that sometimes the small distractions will get you through the day. Sometimes all you need is to just get to tomorrow, nothing more, and that’s OK.
4: You can rebuild a life worth living after cancer. It will likely look and feel different from the one you once knew, but it is there, and it is yours for the taking.
5: If you find a silver lining, grab on with both hands and don’t let go. For me, my silver lining during cancer was the people I met along the way. I’m still friends with the ladies I met during my radiation treatment.
6: If you are forced to take a dance with your mortality, I suggest you put on some comfy shoes. I found it helpful to build an armor of resolve, fortitude, and optimism. Also, don’t forget to drench yourself in hope, because hope sees what the eyes cannot, feels the improbable, and achieves the unimaginable. So spray that hope everywhere!