By Ashleigh Armstrong
Basketball, dance, work, it never stopped. I am a 31-year old single mother to 11-year old twins. It was business as usual until February 2020, when I felt a hard lump in my left breast. I called to make a doctor’s appointment, but they couldn’t get me in for a month. I thought ‘’if they don’t think it’s a big deal then I shouldn’t either.’’ March came along, the pandemic hit, and the entire world shut down. Suddenly, I wasn’t busy anymore. No more dance, no more basketball, and no more work and I was now at home. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Governor shut our state down quickly.
I had a little bit more time to think and to “Google”. Just when I had determined by “Doctor” Google that I absolutely had cancer. I received a voicemail from the clinic telling me they were canceling all appointments due to Covid. I frantically called back pleading with them to get me in. I knew something wasn’t right. I could feel it. Literally and figuratively. They told me they’d keep the appointment and put a note in that this was for a breast lump. Maybe, they didn’t make the note big enough, I received a cancellation notice 3 more times. I called the clinic 3 more times telling them something isn’t right, I need to get in! Every time I had to wait for a nurse to call back, then I’d explain what I was feeling and they decided it was enough for an appointment. The 4th time must have been the charm. I didn’t receive any more cancelation notices.
March 30th, 2020, I saw my regular doctor. She examined me and I’ll never forget her reaction, “Wow, that feels pretty large. I’m sending you for a mammogram.”
April 2nd, 2020, I received my first ever mammogram. There was something there. They sent me across the hallway to the ultrasound room to get a better look. The ultrasound showed a 2.5 cm mass. They decided to biopsy it on the spot. The team was amazing. I knew this even though I couldn’t see their faces or the expressions on their faces that they were all supporting me. Everyone was wearing masks and extra protocols were in place due to COVID19. They did everything they could to keep my mind off of what was happening. We talked about becoming homeschool teachers in the pandemic. I barely felt a thing.
Once the biopsy was done the doctor reassured me that no matter what they’ll take it from here. That I didn’t need to worry about the next steps. They would handle every part of this process for me. My gut knew right then and there, they saw something.
April 7th, 2020, I got the call. “You have Triple Negative Breast Cancer. It’s very aggressive. You should prepare to start treatment next week.” I didn’t even know that there were different types of breast cancer. I had so much to learn.
I was working from home as a result of the pandemic, when I got the call. I emailed my boss and told him I needed the rest of the day off for personal reasons. He asked if everything was alright and I just blurted it out “I HAVE BREAST CANCER. THAT’S ALL I KNOW. I JUST GOT THE CALL. I NEED TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL THE TWINS. TELL MY FAMILY. I NEED TIME.” Like I think any sound boss would, he told me to take all the time I needed. I needed so much more than time. I wasn’t sure what I needed but time just didn’t feel like enough.
I didn’t even take the time to think, I just started making calls. My adoptive mom first. You see, I lost my biological mom, Char, 10 months before to colon cancer. This just couldn’t be happening to me. I knew it would hit my family even harder after watching my mother deteriorate in 6 months’ time. It had to be done though, it never crossed my mind to go through it alone. One by one, I called those closest to me. After my adoptive mom, Lissa, I called 2 of my friends. They flew to my house. They even showed up with an extra-large chocolate banana malt from Dairy Queen, my favorite. I couldn’t eat though. With them by my side I continued the calls. I was most afraid of calling my grandmother and brother. They both live across the country and they just lost their mom and daughter to cancer. Everyone took it hard.
Probably one of the hardest parts of this journey was the tears everyone else shed on my behalf.
I met with my oncologist for the first time on April 9th, 2020, just two days after my diagnosis. In those 2 days, I had Googled and Googled and Googled until I couldn’t Google anymore. I knew that Triple Negative meant that the tumor lacked progesterone, estrogen and the HER2 protein so this meant there weren’t any targeted treatments like hormone therapy. What this also meant according to “Dr. Google” was my only option was chemo and surgery. I knew this going into the appointment but part of me hoped for something else.
My oncologist was a very kind woman. She gave off warm energy. She kept saying I was so young but not to worry, we would fight this. The plan was chemotherapy, two of the strongest drugs, every week for 12 weeks and a new option called immunotherapy starting April 17th, 2020. The oncologist explained to me that as of that moment, she was staging me at 2 but, it doesn’t matter for Triple Negative Breast Cancer because my tumor was a grade 3 and very aggressive so we would treat it aggressively. She asked me to hop on the table for an exam and moved my hair to the side. She told me it was beautiful. I saw her eyes squint. I couldn’t see the rest of her face because of the mask. I asked if I would lose it. She said yes but not for a couple of weeks and for only about a year.
She explained to me that I would need a port and asked if I knew what that was. I just started crying. I can only guess what she thought my reasoning was but after a minute or so I told her that my mom had to have a port. I was having a hard time separating our experiences. Everything was reminding me of my mother and of her battle.
I went home, I cried a little more, and then I decided to share my story with the world. Or at least my Facebook friends. I wanted women to know that it can happen even at 31-years old. Even in the middle of a pandemic. Even when you are a single mom, and you don’t have time for cancer. The support was overwhelming in the best way. But again, my heart broke from the pain on my behalf. I felt naked. I felt raw. I felt loved.