By Aliya Whipple
“Hello, Aliya? We found a little cancer.” On January 21, 2020, those were the words I heard over the phone from my breast specialist after having an abnormal mammogram and biopsy. In January 2019, I learned I carried a BRCA2 gene mutation and then on January 28, 2020, I found out I had breast cancer. I was preparing myself to have a preventative bi-lateral mastectomy hoping to never have to hear those words. Let’s rewind.
Four months before my diagnosis, I had the weirdest experience. In September 2019, my husband bought me an Apple watch for my birthday. After about a month of wearing the watch, I began to feel pain running up my arm to my left breast. I know, it sounds crazy but it’s true. The first time I felt this pain, I was at work sitting at my desk. I felt an electrical shock-like pain go from the tips of my fingers, up my left arm, and then to the left side of my breast. I remember being puzzled and thinking to myself, “Wow! What in the hell was that?” As the weeks went by it happened more frequently and only when I had the watch on. I eventually took the watch off but noticed the area on my left breast where I felt the pain was itchy and hard. Although I knew the signs of breast cancer, I questioned everything about the Apple watch. I asked every person I knew who had one if they had ever experienced this type of pain. I even googled for answers. The response was always no or not found. In the back of my mind, I thought of my BRCA status and the possibility of the pain being breast cancer. I also knew I needed to get back to my breast surgeon’s office to finish planning the preventative mastectomy. My mind was racing. Is it the watch or something else?
Back to the call. For a moment I hesitated in confusion and said to her, “Wait, whhaaaat…cancer?” And what is ‘little cancer?’ Big or small, I didn’t want it. Never in a million years did I expect to hear those words, but to be honest, deep down inside I wasn’t surprised. I was silent as she explained what the next steps were. “Yes, I’m sorry. We (since all of us were preparing for the preventative mastectomy) definitely weren’t expecting this. It’s Stage 1, Triple Negative. We need to see you in the office as soon as possible. Triple Negative is aggressive, can you come in tomorrow?” The appointment was set, and I was advised not to Google anything. But of course, I did.
When I hung up the phone, I immediately called my mom and told her of the news. My mom’s response was so energetic and positive you’d thought I told her I was pregnant! Sadly, I wish that was the case although I had my tubes tied years ago. Her optimistic response and positive energy didn’t give me time to be sad. I finished the call with her and then called my daughter in the room to break the news to her. She responded with a smile, “Oh wow, Stage 1 is good mom! It’s early. Listen, you’re not going to die.” How could I be sad with that response? Finally, my husband came through the door on his lunch break. Earlier after speaking with the doctor, I sent him a text asking if he’d come home for lunch. I didn’t want to break the news to him over the phone. I needed to see and feel his response. I wanted to be there to hold him in case he broke down. I wanted him to feel my strength and see that I was ok. I needed him and his strength to hold me in case I broke down. I needed the energy of our love to hold us together when I shared the news. “Hey babe. The doctor called and said I have breast cancer.” I said it matter-of-factly without any emotion. I was trying to be strong as if I had it together. He looked at me for a moment and said, “Ok.” Our daughter is standing there, with a smile on her face, just watching us. (She’s always smiling. I am so blessed.) He continued, “Ok, we just got to do what we got to do.” I felt so relieved. The assurance I got from my family set the tone for the journey I was about to take. Optimism, positivity, fortitude and faith. By that Saturday, I cried so much my face swelled up. The shock was over, it was real. I had breast cancer at age 43.
Aliya Whipple, Fort Lauderdale, FL