In the months after giving birth to her second child, Michelle Friesen had mastitis a few times. She figured the lump in her breast was a natural result of breastfeeding, and part of the painful tissue inflammation.
Then, she received a diagnosis that seemed so unlikely: she had breast cancer at age 36.
“I can’t decide if breastfeeding tried to kill me, or if it saved my life,” says Friesen, who lives in Calgary and is on leave from her job as a HuffPost Canada news editor.
‘... technically too young to have breast cancer’
She’s young, she’s healthy, she breastfed both her children, and there’s no history of breast cancer in her family.
It never occurred to her that the lump, along with pain in her breast, might be cancer. And it didn’t occur to any of the doctors she spoke to when she went to walk-in clinics to treat her mastitis, either.
She’s sharing her story now — not to scare new moms — but to highlight the importance of listening to your body, breasts included.
“While you might technically be too young to have breast cancer, it happens. And it fucking sucks,” she wrote on Facebook.
Friesen went back to work last August, about a year after the birth of her second child. “My kids were born 21 months apart. So, I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for the better part of three years,” she said.
She was still breastfeeding in September when she got mastitis, a breast tissue inflammation that’s common in women who breastfeed.
“It comes on really fast and it’s really uncomfortable. I called my doctor, and she couldn’t get to me right away.”
So Friesen went to a walk-in clinic, where she described her symptoms to a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics.
Three months later, it happened again. She went back to the clinic, where another doctor prescribed the same antibiotics.
“He said, ’You need to stop breastfeeding, because you’re getting mastitis and you’re just gonna continue to get it.′ So, I weaned my son. It wasn’t a big deal, because he was 16 or 17 months at the time.”
I thought that it would go away once I stopped breastfeeding. But I stopped, and it didn’t go away.Michelle Friesen
At that point, Friesen would occasionally feel lumps in her breasts, which appeared and disappeared through the breastfeeding process. The same thing had happened when she was breastfeeding her first child, a daughter. One of the lumps seemed to recur more than the others, but Friesen was sure it was related to nursing.
“I thought that it would go away once I stopped breastfeeding. But I stopped, and it didn’t go away.”
She had just returned from a vacation to Mexico in January when she felt the same lump again while taking a shower. So, she did what we all do when we have health questions: she turned to Google.
She typed “mastitis lump never gone away.” The only thing she could find was a chat room of some kind, from years ago, where a woman wrote that what she thought was just mastitis turned out to be breast cancer.
That’s what prompted Friesen to make an appointment at her doctor’s office.
The doctor told her that because she was so young, and had breastfed, cancer was very unlikely. But she ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound, just in case. There was nothing abnormal detected in the mammogram, but the ultrasound did point out some tissue change, which prompted the radiologist to do a biopsy.
The day her life changed
A few days later, on Feb. 11, Friesen received the cancer diagnosis.
She was in total shock. She thought it was so unlikely anything serious was wrong that she’d given her husband the go-ahead to attend an annual ski trip overseas. He rushed home from Austria as soon as he heard the news.
“I was set up to believe what everyone had been telling me, that it wouldn’t be cancer,” she said. “I’m not blaming anybody, it’s just what everyone believed. But, it’s really heartbreaking, because I’ve connected with women all across the country, and so many young mothers share my story.”
Some of them, whose symptoms were also hidden by pregnancy and breastfeeding, now have terminal Stage 4 cancer, said Friesen.
A particularly scary part of the process came right after the initial diagnosis, when she was waiting on the results of other scans.
“It was the worst time of my life,” Friesen says. “Your mind just goes to the worst places.”
“One, I have a young family, and two, I don’t know how bad it is. It takes a couple weeks to get scans to make sure that the cancer hasn’t spread to my brain or my liver or my lungs or my bones.”
The day her oncologist called to tell her that the cancer hadn’t spread, and that it was curable, “was probably the best day of my life,” she said, laughing. Cancer is often like that, she says: a series of emotional roller-coasters.
She considers herself lucky: “My cancer is treatable. I don’t like talking about stages, because breast cancer is complicated, there are a lot of factors. But you can say that I’m between Stage 2 and Stage 3. Eventually, hopefully, I will be considered cured.”
About four to five per cent of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women under the age of 40, according to Rethinking Breast Cancer, a group focused on young women living with the disease. But breast cancer in younger women is often diagnosed in later stages, and so can be more aggressive.
I do wish that women were told more by their family doctor, and their obstetrician, what’s normal and what’s not.Michelle Friesen
Today, Friesen feels a bit like she’s on a mission to get women to be more vigilant when it comes to their bodies. She’s been documenting her experience on social media.
“I don’t place blame on the medical system at all,” she said. “But, I do wish that women were told more by their family doctor, and their obstetrician, what’s normal and what’s not.”
Both times she went to a walk-in clinic, she was prescribed antibiotics for mastitis, without being examined by a doctor. Make sure you regularly self-check, she insists, and go see your doctor if anything at all is abnormal.
Friesen is about halfway through her chemotherapy, which will end this summer. She’ll have an operation in the coming months, and radiation after that.
“I’m doing well,” she says. “I’m a lot better.”
But it isn’t easy living with cancer and chemotherapy, especially as a mom to two energetic children, aged 3 and 1.5. One of the major side effects of chemo is fatigue, and some days she just isn’t up for the hard work of taking care of young kids. But she says her family is lucky to have a lot of support.
“You struggle, because as moms and parents, we want to be everything and do everything. So, I have to give up some of that.”
‘A beautiful gift’
But the silver lining — and she insists there actually is one — is that cancer puts things in perspective. Friesen said she takes many things much less seriously now. And cancer has also reminded her of the importance to take time that’s just for her.
“Cancer … it’s awful. It’s not anything that I would ever want anybody to have ... but it’s also a beautiful gift,” she said. “I’m being surrounded by so much love. My thinking has changed.”
This story originally appeared on HuffPost Québec. Translation by Maija Kappler.
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