Keeping Aware of Breast Cancer: How To Gather Your Adversities and Come Out Stronger

Coming to terms with the possibility of malignancy can understandably uproot your life. Let me share what I’ve learned from my rather eventful encounter with cancer risk.

In continued honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I wanted to share my personal experience to help educate women and share the importance of breast health. Many women encounter severe anxiety and stress around breast health and annual checkups, but they are of utmost importance for prevention. It is essential to be on top of your annual checkups. 

I recently encountered my first personal experience with this process as I went for my annual mammogram and MRI. Due to my family history, I’m in a high-risk program and started going for my annual screenings before the age of 40 at Pink Lotus, under Kristi Funk, MD. With COVID, it was hard to make my annual appointment, but I was determined to stay on schedule with my annual screenings. 

The day after my appointment, I received a notice from my doctor’s office noting an “abnormal mammogram,” which required additional testing and evaluation. When I received the news, I was sitting at my regular local burger spot before class.  It felt like the world stopped around me and my heart skipped a beat. I immediately thought of the battle my mother went through fighting breast cancer for seven years. I thought to myself – This can’t be real. It’s not my turn! It was a surreal experience.

I was in the best shape of my life. I was confused since no one had walked me through the process or shared what this meant, so my panic took the best of me. Earlier in the year, I had seen my doctor and she assured me everything was clear. My life was in full force as I managed 16-hour days from my training, law school, my job, and didn’t have time for anything to slow me down. Not me, not now.

The anxiety and fear around the possibility of cancer are a heavy blow. In this moment, I realized I had to work to overcome this new fear as breast health is part of overall health. I instantly emailed the doctor’s office asking for a more detailed explanation. They sent over my mammogram, which was impossible to understand. All I knew was that reassuring words like “benign” and “nonmalignant” were missing. The office said they hoped to get more information the following day with the MRI. 

Two assets to understanding a mammography report: 1) Knowing that both dense and fatty breast tissue are normal. 2) Knowing the BIRADS system: this particular sample result is non-cancerous.

I waited anxiously. I called my mother, my father, and my coach. All assured me not to jump to any conclusions, but that we would take it one step at a time. Nothing could calm me down. All I could do was think what this would mean in the greater scheme of my life, my life plans, and my goals. For the next few days, I googled every word on the mammogram test results. That night, I tossed and turned, and woke up in a full sweat completely panicked. 

The next morning, I got up and went to UCLA to train with my coach on track. I wasn’t going to let something interfere with what made me happy, my time each morning where I honored myself as I trained. I did my typical warmups. When he arrived, I looked at him and burst into tears. He reassured me that he would help me get through whatever it was. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, Why is this happening to me, why me, why now? I had survived one of the most tumultuous years of my life—divorce, the death of my stepfather, the loss of a job, starting law school and training as a sprinter. Why was this hurdle put on my path now, and what was I to learn from it?

When I went to the doctor next, I found out that the MRI had come back as “nonmalignant,” but more tests still had to be done, including a 3D mammogram. I was trying my best to be patient and understanding, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around why someone hadn’t walked me through the process of all these details. I felt like I was completely in the dark. I spent hours trying to book my 3D mammogram. I called over 10 providers, and no one was able to see me for six weeks. Regardless of how frustrated I was, I knew that I couldn’t give up until I could convince someone to see me that Friday before the weekend. 

Through a friend, I was connected with an amazing doctor who helped me find an appointment for later that week, and I will be forever grateful for her help. As I was waiting for my next appointment, I leaned on my support system, including one of my best friends who is currently battling pancreatic cancer. Even as all of my friends assured me that I would be OK, I didn’t feel any better. I felt like I was completely frozen. Two days later, I received the results and another email from the doctor’s office. In the email, there was a section highlighted in yellow that said a biopsy needed to be done as there were two cysts, one complex, as well as an enlarged lymph node. It was then noted that the earliest they could see me was in 10 days for a biopsy followed by further screenings. 

In retrospect: waiting for medical confirmation can feel like an eternity. Follow the process and know you’re doing what you can.

At this point I was at a complete loss—I knew that there wasn’t much to do. Those next 10 days seemed like forever. Although I was physically present, my mind was elsewhere. I got through by continuing my routines, honoring myself with my daily workouts, and focusing on my health and happiness. I had always been the type of person who would let nothing stand in my way. This felt like the ultimate test of resilience, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep it all together. I just kept telling myself I had to take one day at a time. To breathe. To listen to how my mind and body felt and believe that all would be OK. 

Over the course of the following three weeks, I went through multiple tests and biopsies to determine the results of the two cysts found in my breast. It consumed my life, despite trying to manage it as best I could. I didn’t realize how stress-inducing the experience would be on top of managing a full-time job, law school, and my daily fitness regimen. I consider myself strong and resilient—I recently overcame losing a parent as well as divorce—but when your health is in question, it ignites a whole other cerebral experience. While I was processing the results, I was still juggling all my commitments with work, preparing for law school midterms, and continuing my athletic training as I gear up for indoor national championships. It felt like there was a gray cloud hanging over my head as I tried to juggle my responsibilities with sleepless nights of tossing and turning, and the sobering experience of the possibility that I might have to get ready to fight. The day before I received the results, I was sitting in my law school class as my professor began going through our next assignment and felt an overwhelming feeling, like a wave came over me. I was out of breath and walked out of the classroom as I broke into tears having to recalibrate and center myself and turn to a breathing technique to help ground me.

It’s often that day-to-day responsibilities stack on top of life’s struggles. Deep breathing definitely alleviated some of my combined pressures.

This process helped me realize that I need to create healthier coping mechanisms in life. It is essential to continue developing skills and techniques to help get us through difficult moments in time. I also was grateful to be so in touch with my mind and body as I was listening and knew what needed to be done and how to cope as I had reached a new threshold. The mental stress had drained me to the point where I was shutting down and unable to focus on my work and my passions, unable to wake and jump out of bed as I usually do with my morning run and training. I woke up often from bad dreams and endless nights of tossing and turning as I awaited my biopsy results. Through this stressful experience, I realized the importance of mental health and a support system to help you through. Tools such as my Calm daily meditation and mental strength can help during times of uncertainty, especially where the mind jumps to the worst-case scenario.

The overwhelming uncertainty was paralyzing for me, and affected my ability to get tasks done and focus for the first time in my life. It resulted in anxious thoughts and feelings that sporadically would come up throughout the day. I developed a coping system and did comprehensive research on steps to combat and prepare to be proactive. I learned how important it was to be in touch with your body, plan ahead, and speak up when you’ve reached your threshold of multitasking to ensure you are still able to perform at your peak. It even made me focus even more on healthy eating, along with staying hydrated, and shifted me to trying out a vegan diet to see the effect it would have on my system.

I realized pretty early on that I was triggered because of my past experience with cancer. My mother is a stage 4 breast cancer survivor, my grandmother survived breast cancer, and my aunt died from ovarian cancer. I couldn’t help but think of the years my mother heroically battled breast cancer, enduring three surgeries as she fought for her life. My mother is a Polish immigrant and has always been one of the strongest people I know. As I struggled through this period, I forced myself to find the silver lining and peace through the disarray. How would I take this experience and live my life differently?

As I waited for the biopsy day, I focused on the one thing I valued the most after years of working around the clock and prioritizing everything else over my own health and happiness. During COVID, I learned how to take the control back and honor myself, and my own well-being became my priority. In just a year, I had achieved unimaginable goals as a new athlete; now it was time to put my new skills and beliefs to the test and use all that I learned to heal and overcome. 

Honoring yourself is a powerful and positive coping mechanism. When I choose a vegan diet or choose to train, it isn’t the possibility of cancer choosing for me. The choice is more from my own drive that I’ve spent years identifying with.

The day my doctor called to say that the results were benign, I was overwhelmed with joy and relief and couldn’t be more grateful. However, my energy and body were rundown from the emotional duress. I had to get back in the saddle and regain my strength as I had less than a week to prep for my law school exam and deadlines for work. I realized that life doesn’t stop and you must recalibrate and do whatever it takes to take an experience and be healthier and stronger from it.

From this experience, I wanted to take my learnings and reflect and share to help other women, as this is something we all deal with. I am always one to live life to its fullest. Many would tell you I have a zeal for life and the way I live. This made me appreciate every moment and the moments that challenge us the most, which result in tremendous growth and sometimes even being grateful that you have a chance to reflect when something shakes you to your core, giving you an opportunity to recalibrate and reassess to live a healthier, happier, and all around better you. Now I have a system and process in place to cope. I found myself grateful like I’ve never been before for my health and happiness and will continue practicing self-love with a stronger foundation in life where nothing can stop me. I am no longer scared, as there is nothing I can’t take on.

Michelle Edgar is a runner, musician, and founder of The XX Project, which empowers women in business and supplements their professional journeys. Read more of Michelle Edgar’s thought leadership here.