Fashom: What do you do for a living?
Alyssa: I am currently a PhD student doing my studies in the department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My thesis work is focused on combinatorial immunotherapies for breast cancer.
Fashom: Did your sense of style or clothing choice change since being diagnosed with breast cancer?
Alyssa: I have still maintained a similar style since being diagnosed, but I am much more aware of the way that things fit me (particularly on top). I lost about half the mass of tissue on my right breast and therefore things shift/fit differently than before, so I am very aware of this.
Fashom: What is one misconception about breast cancer or surviving breast cancer that everyone should know?
Alyssa: There is a huge myth out there that only women who are 60 and older get breast cancer. Although the stats show that MOST women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are of this age, that is not always the case and women need to be self-checking themselves and be aware that it can (and does) happen at earlier ages as well. I was 23 when diagnosed and found the lump myself through a self-examination. Even after finding the lump, it took a lot of convincing on my part to get a doctor to send me for proper screening. The one phrase I heard repeatedly was “You are too young to have breast cancer”, and sadly, that ended up being far from true.When I was diagnosed I began wondering what was going to happen to me fertility-wise. I was only 23 at the time and had hopes of having children in the future. When I asked my oncologist about fertility preserving options he was at a loss for words and flat out told me “I don’t know. I’ve never had a breast cancer patient as young as you before.” He looked into things for me and I wound up (through my own perseverance) meeting with fertility consultants at a big cancer hospital in Toronto. I weighed my options (expensive and confusing as they were) and in the end decided not to proceed with treatments. This was a personal choice on my part (and I am fortunate to say that since completing treatment I have indeed given birth to my son, who is now 2.5 yo) but as I meandered my way through this foggy path of “fertility preservation” it became increasingly more clear to me that there really was no good path set out for young patients with cancer, for whom this could be a very challenging and important issue.
Fashom: What was your biggest challenge when you were in that situation?
Alyssa: After being diagnosed I really wanted to keep my life as “normal” as possible. I kept working my two jobs, tried to work out when I could muster the energy and wanted to keep a normal rhythm to my life. That schedule helped me to stay focused on life itself, instead of focusing on the negative situation that I found myself in. That being said, by keeping myself busy and putting on the “blinders” I wound up with tunnel vision, so to speak. I was completely oblivious to how my diagnosis and how my state (particularly how sick I looked) affected those around me. It never even occurred to me that my friends and family might not be able to deal with things the same way that I did and that were silently suffering in the shadows.
Fashom: What was the best advice you ever received about being true to your-self?
Alyssa: I had spent many years as a competitive athlete, coach and mentor to those in the sport of rowing. I had dedicated countless hours through volunteer work and loved spending my time helping others. One of the athletes I coached (who also happened to be a cancer survivor) repeatedly told me when I was going through treatment, “You are number one. It is time for you to look out for you. No one will care for you the way you can.” And he was right. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care to put others ahead of me. I focused on myself and in the end, it helped me to push through my treatments and come out the other side stronger than before.
Fashom: Any message you would like to send out to the world?
Alyssa: Statistics are just that. Stats. Though they are significant and can generally predict how things will happen, there are ALWAYS people who defy the statistics. I am living proof of this. It is so important that people (and particularly young people) be aware of the fact that young, healthy people DO get cancer too. Everyday. I was only 23 years old when I was diagnosed and had I not been proactive in finding the lump myself and in pushing the healthcare system to adequately screen and check me (against all odds), I would have found myself in a much different situation than I am today.
Check out Alyssa’s blog : http://www.allthingsalyssa.com