From college senior to a mastectomy at age 20, Rachel shares her story, her journey, and her insight.
Today, I am a special education teacher, a survivor, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a fighter.
Nearly two decades ago, I was preparing for my senior year of college and a breast reduction that I had wanted for years. I felt on top of the world.
A week after the procedure, it all came to a halt.
I was about to head out for the night when my parents told me that they needed to speak with me. They had received a call from my doctor hours earlier. After they sat and cried together in the parking lot of a Short Hills deli, they knew what lie ahead – returning home to tell their middle daughter the doctors found Angiosarcoma of the left breast during a routine biopsy. (Angiosarcoma is a rare cancer that develops in the inner lining of blood and lymph vessels.)
Soon afterward, our family of five sat on my parent’s bed, so we could share the news with my sisters. They said, “Rachel has cancer.”
The Big C. Twenty-year-old girls didn’t get cancer—I was not supposed to get cancer.
The next two weeks went by with lots of computer searches, phone calls, late nights, and tons of uncertainties.
We finally met with the phenomenal oncology team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. After numerous scans and blood work, we sat down with my oncologist, Dr. Cody. He shared that my odds of getting this form of cancer were 1 in 100 million and that his patients were typically women in their late 40s through 60s.
He was direct and to the point and told me my only option was a mastectomy since radiation and chemotherapy would exacerbate the cancer. There I was, 20 years old, making one of the toughest decisions of my life—but in reality, I did not have a choice at all.
The week leading up to my surgery, I made sure I looked my best. That way, when I looked my worst after surgery, I could still dig deep to feel my best.
On June 23rd at 5:30 a.m., we headed to prepare for 15 hours of surgery and the next chapter in my story.
I remember a few things distinctly — how hard it was to say goodbye to my dog, Zoey, handing my sister my beloved Chapstick with important post-surgery application instructions, and half-jokingly asking the doctor for a tummy tuck to tack onto my surgery. (Dark humor still gets us through tough times!)
The doctors, nurses, and staff were miracle workers. They took excellent care of me and always knew what to say and when to say it. Dr. Cody still remembers each one of my family members—my “entourage,” as he affectionately called them.
On the outside, everything looks okay. But every day I wake and look in the mirror with a reminder: My scars cover my stomach and chest. I cannot escape them.
I am reminded every day that life can change in an instant. I am reminded to keep moving, to look forward, to make the best of every situation.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to cry—but once you’re done, pick yourself up and look around. You’re not alone. Give yourself some grace and time. What you are going through is hard. Not everyone will understand, but people want to be there for you—so let them. The community around you is full of people willing to help.
Today, 17 years later, I have two beautiful children, a very understanding husband, and a forgiving and strong family that continues to fight and stand by my side daily. This is my story. The one I live and breathe every morning and night.
National Breast Cancer Foundation is here for you and your loved ones. Whether you need support, education, or help during treatment, we have a team dedicated to get you the help you deserve.