Breast Cancer Diagnosis while Living Abroad

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and what better way to bring awareness than allowing one of our members share her story? Mariah was brave enough to dig up these memories and share them with the community. As always we encourage our members to CHECK YOUR BREAST this month and every month. As fat people many of us have experienced discrimination from health professionals. We acknowledge that seeking medical help can be triggering for some. Which is another reason we’re so thankful for Mariah to share her story. 

*Warning there are some graphic photos. 

In August 2017, I moved from Louisville, Kentucky, USA to Amsterdam, Netherlands for a graduate program. For the first time, I was living the life that I had envisioned for myself.  I was traveling throughout Europe, working towards my graduate degree. Finally, on the path to my future.

When my partner decided to return to the States, I was left understandably heartbroken. Luckily, I had a few friends in the Netherlands who were supportive. However, I must admit, for about three months, I was in a dark place, wondering how I would survive in a country 4,000 miles away from home, nearly alone. It did not help that wintertime in Amsterdam consists of the disappearance of the sun and assaults from the wind and rain. 

To cope with the separation and my feelings, I allowed myself to cry. To vent. To be angry. To be scared. But also, to be hopeful. Finally, I understood that life was not over because a part of it had ended. This realization coincided with the start of spring in Amsterdam, and just like the tulips, I was blooming. I became creative in the kitchen and cooked more. I walked in the warmth of the sun. I traveled and met some amazing people, while continuing my graduate program. Honestly, I don’t think I had ever loved myself as much as I did. I found my independence and I was genuinely happy.

iamsterdam rainbow

Then BAM! I was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

At the age of 26, I had my first ultrasound, first mammogram, first biopsy, first genetic testing, first MRI, and first surgery (lumpectomy) ever while living in the Netherlands. Being diagnosed with cancer while living abroad brings challenges that most people don’t have to grapple with, fortunately. I had to navigate a health care system in a country wherein I did not speak the language and all the paperwork was in Dutch. I had Dutch acquaintances who offered to accompany me to appointments, but I did not want to burden them, so I politely declined most offers. I had my phone to assist with the translations; it was time consuming, but it distracted me from the reason I was even at the hospital. Luckily, with my student insurance (through the Netherlands), I did not have to worry too much about bills.  

Because cancer is unpredictable, even after my diagnosis, I still made it a point to travel. I wanted to take full advantage of my opportunity to explore new countries. It also took my mind off the cancer, even if only briefly. 

innsbruckInnsbruck, Austria

  I decided to do the lumpectomy instead of the mastectomy at first because of my attachment to my breasts. I had a fantastic oncologist who spoke English and truly demonstrated that she cared about my well-being and allowed me to make my own decision regarding the surgery options. After the results from my lumpectomy came back and it was determined that I would need chemotherapy, I made the difficult decision to return to the States.

Once again, I was heartbroken. This time because I was not leaving on my own terms. Yes, I could have stayed in the Netherlands, but I did not want to go through chemotherapy alone. I was looking forward to seeing my loved ones, but I was sad for the life I was leaving behind. The life where I gained complete autonomy. The life where I was discovering/exploring myself. Leaving it all behind to return to Kentucky. 

bye bye amsterdam

In August 2018, exactly one year and one day after my arrival to Amsterdam, I boarded the plane back to my old life. As I reflect, the first eight months is now a blur to me. I am not sure if it’s because everything happened so quickly or if it’s because I placed it in the back of my mind, only allowing it to present itself when it’s the topic of discussion. 

From late October 2018 to early February 2019. I completed six rounds of chemotherapy that I would not wish on my worst enemy. Within a month after the completion of chemotherapy, I started my medication regimen: nightly Tamoxifen pill and monthly Lupron shot. Initially, I was hesitant due to the possible side effects, but I had a long talk with myself and realized that although those side effects and myself would battle for many years, it was necessary for my overall health. To keep me alive at least a little longer.

chemo 1Chemo Treatment Selfie

The drastic life changes did not stop there. I was told that having the mastectomy of both breasts was the best option for me, due to my BCRA 2 gene mutation, and it was best to have the operation within two weeks. Talk about reality hitting one in the face! This may sound superficial to some, but I was devastated. I was becoming completely unrecognizable to myself.  Body dysmorphia was in full gear due to hair loss and other body changes. Now I had to say goodbye to my breasts. I quickly fell back into depression but could not linger there for long because I had to decide. I chose to have the mastectomy procedure with tissue expanders inserted. Waking up after the operations, I felt like an experiment. No longer the same person at all. 

surgeryPost surgery

Over the next few months, I would see my plastic surgeon weekly, to fill the expanders with saline. When I was at my desired size, it was time to have my exchange surgery, where the tissues expanders were replaced by saline implants. The “foobies” just reached their first birthday. It has been a process, but I have come to terms with them.

Now that my life is back to “normal”, I reflect on the past 2.5 years of my life and just think, “Wow”. Oftentimes I find myself missing the person I was before my cancer diagnosis. The person who had the world in their hands, ready for the next adventure. Little did I know that the adventure I would go on would not be a travel destination, but rather, an adventure into myself. It has taken me this entire journey to accept what has happened to me and I still have difficulty sometimes.

Cancer stole many aspects of my physical being, but it has made me realize that life is precious, and we are only here for a short while. Since my treatment and procedures, I have continued my travels, because that is when I feel the most alive and after this battle with cancer, all I ever want is to live and be happy. And although I am much different than I was before, I am still blooming.

huber's farm sunflowers

If you want to share your Breast Cancer story with our community please submit it here.

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