First person

Breast cancer treatment changes young survivors' social life

 

Multimedia producer and reporter Andrea Torres chronicles her breast-cancer experiences in Tropical Life.

atorres@MiamiHerald.com
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No one’s life stops because you get breast cancer. While friends have gone traveling, found new boyfriends, gotten married and had babies, my social life has come to a halt.

For a while, the only woman I could truly identify with was Stephanie Green, a pretty brunette who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32 and died after a recurrence 15 months ago. I never met her, but the Dishalicious blog she left behind really spoke to me.

We both loved journalism, fashion and parties. We shared a genetic mutation that cornered us into “chopping off” our 34-Cs. And a remark she made about the thought of dating after treatment resonated with me: “We eviscerate boys our age because most of them are weak. (Can you imagine a man having his [genitals] chopped off and remaining strong and manly? I don’t f---ing think so.)"

Two long-term cancer survivors have encouraged me not to give up on my social life.

Lynne Farber was a professor I especially admired at Florida International University. As a former public relations executive, she had a strong presence. And it was obvious that she had had a boob job.

“When I get to her age, I am getting them done for sure,” I remember telling a classmate.

I recently found out the plastic surgery was not done out of vanity. She’d had breast cancer, and she, too, had been diagnosed young.

“The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. I thought I was going to die,” Farber told me. “… I remember my wig got caught on a tree branch once.” We laughed.

“Your social life will come back,” she assured me. “And those who matter will be there.”

Alexandra Villoch was another surprise. I met The Miami Herald’s senior vice president of marketing and advertising a few years ago at a charity function. After my diagnosis, I was surprised to learn that this tall woman with a strong handshake was a breast cancer survivor. She recently invited me to lunch.

“The first year after treatment was very difficult. There are people who claim they met me then, but I couldn’t remember them. It was like a fog,” Villoch said. “Be patient; you will come out of this.”

I’ve also bonded with two fellow members of the young cancer patient’s club. The National Cancer Institute reports that about 70,000 Americans ages 15 to 39 get diagnosed each year.

Young adults have different psychosocial and quality of life issues, according to the Society for Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology, an international professional organization.

This weekend, for example, I didn’t set my alarm and slept for 24 hours straight, so I missed going out with a friend as I had promised. On Sunday, I watched The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival’s live stream online and cried. I had been planning to go this year.

For the past eight months, Michael Maryanoff, 25, who is being treated for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has been the recipient of most of my complaints. He recently texted me about his “overprotective” mom. My reply: “Well, if it makes you feel any better, my mom took my microwave” in the misguided belief that it could endanger me. (According to the American Cancer Society, the appliance’s low-frequency radiation does not damage DNA or increase cancer risk.)

Last week I met Christine Anderson at a co-worker’s party. The 26-year-old was diagnosed with a blood cancer called multiple myeloma in 2010, and is now in remission. We immediately bonded.

We talked about fertility and quality-of-life issues. We also had the “before and after” conversation. I showed Anderson pictures taken days before I started chemo. I wanted her to see that I wasn’t always the kind of woman who wore high-collar shirts and slept away the weekend.

When she asked to see pictures of me during chemo, I reluctantly pulled out the only one I took of myself without a wig. I cringed, but she said, “You looked so pretty.”

She told me about StupidCancer.org, a site by the I’m Too Young For This! Foundation, which offers advocacy tools and coping literature.

We discovered her birthday is two days after mine, and promised we would celebrate together in June. We talked about going to Ireland or New York. Or at least to Key West. I can’t imagine a more simpatico travel companion.

MY STORY

Part 1: At age 33, I’m dealing with breast cancer

Part 2: Cancer treatment complicates dreams of pregnancy

Part 3: Hanging in when chemotherapy gets rough

Part 4: Tough surgery choices: Mastectomy vs. Lumpectomy

Part 5: Silicone implans are not the only way to go in breast reconstruction

Part 6: Rebuilding the breast from body tissue

Part 7: Body fat can be used to build breast

Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy

Part 9: Taking control of the fear that comes with breast cancer

Part 10: Doctor knows about being a breast cancer survivor

Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope

Part 12: Finding strength from others

Part 13: Facebook, medication help breast cancer patient deal with depression

Part 14: A new outlook on 2012

Part 15: Breast cancer patient faces genetic mystery

Part 16: Using diversion to cope with harsh reality

Part 17: After radiation therapy ends

Part 18: Friend’s breast cancer journey is not as fortunate

Part 19: Anti-tumor meds come with scary story

Part 20: Reentry into the world after breast cancer treatment

Part 21: Too much fear, too little trust

Part 22: Chemo brain complicates return to work

Part 23: The Cancerous tumor is gone, not the fear

Part 24: Drawing strength from a singer’s defiant spirit

Part 25: A breast cancer message at Ultra Music Festival

Part 26: High hope for new drug

Part 27: Religion is an unavoidable topic

From the Editor: Journalist confronts cancer, takes readers along

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