‘It’s harder when you’re younger’: A thirty-something recent breast cancer survivor looks for silver linings in the challenge of a lifetime
Kristina Gustafson wasn’t surprised when she was told she had breast cancer at 34 years old.
Surprise would have meant she wasn’t expecting it to happen at some point in her life. The young mom has known for a long time that she’s genetically predisposed to breast and ovarian cancer, and she’s been getting proper screenings every six months since she turned 30.
But when she was sat down with the news that it had happened after all in late 2019, surprise or not, the news still hit Gustafson hard.
“Going into it with the predisposition, I was always kind of prepared for the conversation,” Gustafson said. “But the gravity of the situation set in then. Now I have to take steps. It’s not just going to go away. I’m going to have to do some major things to make sure I’m safe and healthy long-term.”
For Gustafson, the decision — based on the advice of her medical providers — was a bilateral mastectomy, the technical name for the surgical removal of both breasts. Because she’d been getting regular screenings, the cancer was found early enough that she was able to take quick action to stem its tide.
“They had a biopsy done after the mammogram (found the cancer) to get an idea of how aggressive it was,” she said. “It was aggressive. I was left with that option, pretty much. I was essentially guaranteed the cancer was going to spread, and it was very likely that I would get cancer in the other breast, too.”
The decision was easier than the ordeal.
“It was a difficult thing,” Gustafson said. “I didn’t want to have to go through the surgeries. I did reconstruction, too, which I knew would add to the healing time. There’s risk of infection, nerve damage, all those things that are scary to think about. But ultimately, I said, if it comes down to it, so many of my relatives have died from cancer.”
Among those relatives is her own father, who’s currently battling Stage IV cancer.
“I have young kids,” Gustafson said. “I don’t want that to happen. I have to be around for them. There was a lot of emotional stuff in it, but at the same time, it was like, I have to do this for my kids.”
But removing a part of herself — even if it was something she could have surgically added back in prosthetic form — was hard to handle. It still is.
“I didn’t have friends going through this,” Gustafson said. “Everybody I’d see in waiting rooms was much older than me. So it was this feeling of I shouldn’t have to deal with this. But here I am.”
That strange dissonance — experiencing an ailment often associated with the elderly while in her mid-thirties — made an already hard experience a little harder.
“It’s harder when you’re younger because a lot of what you see is aimed at older women,” Gustafson said. “I did find some Facebook groups of women that have my genetic condition, and they tend to be younger, so that’s where I’d vent.”
Thank goodness for technology, Gustafson said, because just a couple months after the beginning of her surgeries, it was suddenly the only outlet for her — age-appropriate or not.
“Surgery was January of last year — 2020,” she said. “So essentially, I went from the hospital in January to kind of getting back to normal, and then it was lockdown. One of my surgeries was even postponed because of COVID. The pandemic kind of took over. More than even having breast cancer or going into recovery, it was major world things happening. I guess it took my mind off recovering from surgery.”
But her mind rarely wandered far. Physical therapy, necessary because complications from the surgery rendered her unable to lift her arms, was postponed. Reconstruction was postponed. And the pain continued.
“I’ve come to accept pain is something I’ll have on a daily basis,” Gustafson said. “I don’t think that’ll go away. A lot of stuff they don’t tell you about when you have a double mastectomy is the weird nerve pain that comes with that. It just — I think it’s going to be there forever. That’s a bummer, but it’s better than cancer.”
All of that could make some bitter, but Gustafson says she tries to remain positive.
“To me, it is what it is,” Gustafson said. “I think everybody will ultimately have some kind of health challenge, if you live long enough. I do get frustrated seeing healthy people not doing what they should to protect their health. But I understand you have to live life, not being afraid death is around the corner.”
Thankful for help from her husband, thankful for time with her children, thankful to still be here, Gustafson feels she’s in a reasonably peaceful place in spite of the continued physical struggle. But the ordeal she referred to as a “mutilation,” is still a big part of her life, and may be for some time.
Her message to someone just entering the front gate of the long and winding path she’s a ways down the road on isn’t simple, but it’s hopeful.
“I think knowing you’ll feel better, that the pain will get better, even if it’s not necessarily gone — if you have to get a double mastectomy, that’s a big surgery,” Gustafson said. “I think they really should know to put themselves first for a while. Don’t be scared. There are so many treatments and things that have progressed so far. There is hope.”
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