In Loving
Memory of Julie

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This is Julie’s story.

Diagnosis: Just as I was figuring out how to be a mother, when I was breastfeeding my six-month-old baby, I felt a lump under my arm. Something really didn’t seem right to me. Since I had an appointment with our family doctor for my little one, I mentioned this to her. After examining me, she was immediately proactive and ordered the necessary examinations to see what the lump was, sending me to a specialist.

There are many stories of young adults whose cancer was detected too late, due in part to the preconceived notion that cancer only hits older people. But because of my doctor’s proactivity, in a few weeks I had a diagnosis of Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer. I was 31.

Treatment: On top of the difficult side effects of treatment, I remember the grief and the questions I had about my role as a parent and the future. How many times I cried. It’s hard for our loved ones to understand the disease’s physical and psychological challenges.

I started reading up on it and following the blogs of women telling their stories. I had been feeling as though I was the only young mother in the universe with cancer, so that helped me feel less isolated by my (our) exceptional circumstances.

In 2012, a year-and-a-half after my treatment ended, I was invited to attend Rethink Breast Cancer’s Breast Fest Film Festival in Toronto. It was on the plane that I realized that I had a lump near my collarbone. It was more than just stiffness: I had a feeling of déjà vu. I went to the doctor and I was referred to the specialist who was already monitoring me. Since I was informed and aware, even if deep down inside I was hoping that my fears were all wrong, I knew that it meant a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Unlike my first diagnosis which came out of nowhere, with no family history nor obvious risk factor, I knew what a diagnosis of mBC meant. At age 34, I was told I had metastatic breast cancer.

Living with mBC: When I got the initial diagnosis, I remember quite clearly how my mom reacted at the doctor’s office, how my dad, who was babysitting at home, reacted, how my partner reacted – he collapsed in the hallway when he heard, how my sister, who came over right away, reacted, and the many phone calls to close friends. But when I think about reactions to my mBC diagnosis, it’s like looking through a distant fog. I really don’t remember much.

The words recurrent and metastatic are often confused, which meant that a number of people mistakenly believed I had to have treatments again, moving on to another topic. Even today, some of my family and friends are confused about what the treatments are for and what the prognosis realistically is.

All my family, friends and colleagues rallied to offer assistance and support. When you’re sick for a long time, in reality, the initial momentum fades and offers of help become less frequent. Everyone carries on with life, and natural selection takes place. True friends remain. Over time, the cancer looks further away to those who are not at the centre of the storm. Maybe my hair makes them think that everything is good and my life is easy...

The treatments leave me tired and worn out, feeling like I'm living two lives. Even though now I can look ahead, it’s still difficult for me to ignore this enormous shadow over my life, our lives. Shortly after the prognosis, I couldn’t even make any commitments or plans more than three months away: I was living from scan to scan. Soon, I will be among the 22 per cent who survive beyond five years. Even so, often I really don’t know how to resume my life again. Each time, it gets put on hold. This life, between two treatments, two scans, two breaths.

I am not special, no better or braver than anybody else with cancer. I’m vulnerable, sensitive and stubborn, just like I always have been. When I'm alone, I collapse, I cry, I get angry, I question what my life has become.

Over time, I've built a network for myself, mostly remotely, making connections with other young women with cancer. The friendships are honest and realistic, but the dark side is seeing them disappear, one after another. Of the four women with triple-negative mBC, I'm the only one still around today. No matter how positive you are, it’s still the same outcome: you have to come to terms with your own mortality.

Sharing my history means speaking on behalf of those women who helped me move forward, like Anna, an extraordinary friend. I’m doing it for the ones who are no longer here to speak, to give them a voice.

Maybe people see me as the woman who advocates for regional access to services adapted to the needs of young adults with cancer, or maybe as the woman who promotes communicating accurate information and a real picture of metastatic breast cancer. The people I meet virtually recognize my reliable sources and my indignation at the miracle cures circulating on the Web. But for my family and friends, I really hope that they recognize my strength of character, realism and intelligence in the face of the disease, and my self-deprecating manner. We can build memories by living together.

Currently without a cure, and with a 22 per cent median five-year survival rate, cancer can become metastatic, no matter what stage the disease was detected at. Young women are not spared.

As the disease goes on, our reality and our needs are different from people with an early cancer diagnosis. Research is our only hope for being still here tomorrow.
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