It was the start of a global pandemic. Gigi, a 36-year-old mother of three, and her fiancée had just moved to Texas when she felt a lump shortly after going off birth control. She initially thought it was hormonal, but soon realized something else was going on.
“I’ve had family and friends go through breast cancer, but at the age of 36, I never thought I would be diagnosed. I was healthy for the most part, lived a great lifestyle. I did everything they suggest to do to lower your risk. When I go to the doctor, I always get a great report. The only thing was, it started to hurt.” But Gigi still thought the lump was likely a benign cyst.
Gigi has asthma and went to urgent care to address some related symptoms when “something in my head just kept telling me, ‘You need to get that lump checked. It’s not right.’”
The urgent care doctor told her, “You need to go get that checked immediately, like today.” However, hospitals and clinics were only taking critical cases early in the pandemic, and Gigi didn’t have a primary care doctor since she had just relocated.
“At the time, they weren’t doing any mammograms, so I had to push for it.” She adds, “We have to remember that we know our body, and our bodies are not the same as someone else’s. If someone tells you that ‘you’re too young’ or ‘we don’t think this is it,’ you still have to say ‘I need to get this checked.’ You don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Despite being told the diagnostic mammogram clinic would get back to her when they began taking new appointments, Gigi continued to call and advocate for herself, even asking her urgent care doctor for follow-up support. When she eventually received a mammogram, the radiology doctor brushed her off: “It’s just a cyst,” he said. “We don’t need to do a biopsy. You’ll be fine.”
Gigi was both surprised and frustrated. She believes she didn’t receive the proper care or attention because she didn’t fit their typical patient profile, being young, healthy with a healthy lifestyle, and no family history of breast cancer. “I went home, and it didn’t sit right with me, it didn’t sit right with my husband.” So she called her only resource—the urgent care doctor, who strongly encouraged Gigi to get a second opinion.
In retrospect, Gigi realizes what a pivotal and life-changing decision it was to get a second opinion:
“My life matters. My health matters, and one person’s opinion is not the end-all-be-all. It’s ok to get a second or third opinion until you feel comfortable enough with the answer for your specific situation. I was thinking about myself, my health, my children, my future.”
At that point, “I still didn’t believe it was breast cancer, but I wanted someone to tell me it wasn’t breast cancer.” The doctor I saw for a second opinion, however, responded immediately with, “I don’t want to upset you, but I’m more than 90 percent sure this is going to come back as cancer.”
And it did: Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma with lymph node involvement.
Gigi hadn’t spoken to her brother, a doctor in Michigan, in years. Shortly after her diagnosis, she reached out to him: “It took cancer for me to reunite with my brother. I was scared. It was uncomfortable. It was like, ‘Okay, we haven’t talked. After all these years, I need to tell you that I have cancer, and I need your help. What do I do?’ Because I had no idea what to do.”
Her brother’s close friend was an oncologist who happened to practice just miles away from Gigi’s new residence, and he was quickly able to connect her with a local oncologist. While her husband was allowed to come to Gigi’s first day of chemo, after that, “because of the pandemic, family couldn’t come in with you. It was a very lonely journey.”
Gigi lost her own mother when she was young. Her mother was just 36 when she passed away, and Gigi didn’t even know she was sick until she died. Gigi knew she didn’t want her own children to have that same shocking and devastating experience. “I didn’t know if I was going to survive or not, and I wanted to make sure they understood what I was dealing with no matter the outcome. I think [the news of my cancer] broke everybody, but they knew I wasn’t the type of person to give up easily. We all came together and came up with a plan and got through it together,” she said. “My goal was to outlive my mother. I’m 38 years old now. I outlived my mother. And I plan on doing it even longer. I got to see my son graduate from high school. I take everything day by day. The little wins, the little moments.”
Initially, Gigi resisted a friend who encouraged her to join an NBCF support group. But eventually, to appease her friend, Gigi relented and ended up finding a community of “breast friends.” While she never wanted to be seen as “just a breast cancer survivor, it was a relief, because I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. And I didn’t feel like my identity was just a breast cancer survivor. Being with those women and hearing their stories was really encouraging. Y’all have just been great. I feel like I’m with family.”
Today, above all, Gigi is grateful. “Gratitude for me is huge. I’m grateful that I’m here. I’m grateful that I don’t look like what I’ve been through. I recently graduated from college, and that was a huge accomplishment for me. God has a bigger plan,” she shared. “Without hope, I would be a lost cause. And without faith, I would be a lost cause. I want to be that light. I want people to know that the season they’re going through—it’s just a season. And there is hope after breast cancer.”
Gigi was even able to find the bright side of losing her hair, which grew back curlier and healthier than before. She laughs, “Okay chemo, you didn’t just cure the cancer; you gave me good hair.”
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