Alison Chavez is an attorney who lives in Palms, Calif. She was recently the subject of a video produced by Facebook about her battle with breast cancer. Watch it here.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 8, 2013.
A few weeks before, I was winding things down at work on a Friday night when I felt a stinging sensation near my armpit on my left breast. I thought it might be a bug bite – probably from a recent trail run – and I poked around a bit and felt a lump. I called a few friends, and they all tried to calm me down and tell me that it had to be a cyst. You can’t feel cancer, they assured me. Still, I was worried, and made an appointment with a doctor. A few weeks (and tests) later, I was diagnosed with stage 2/3 invasive ductal carcinoma, a common, but aggressive, form of breast cancer.
The first “person” I told was Facebook, meaning I told every single person that I knew – several hundred of them, actually – all at once. I was still on the phone with my doctor when I typed the status update.
I instantly received virtual hugs, love and support, as well as several Facebook messages from friends that had also been touched by the disease and wanted to help. Right away, I knew I wouldn’t have to go through this alone.
Life before diagnosis – like now – was very busy. I live in Palms, Calif., and have been an attorney in a high-paced environment for the last 12 years. I love trail running and triathlon training, and Palms is just a few minutes away from swimming in the Pacific Ocean, biking on Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica and Malibu or running in the Santa Monica Mountains.
I wanted to keep my life as normal as possible while going through something so strange and traumatic. Normal for me is working and exercising a lot, and I wanted to feel strong as I entered treatment. Ultimately, I think starting chemo with a lot of endurance helped me get through it as well as I did – my oncologist thought I was going to start feeling bad around week 5 or 6, but I didn’t really feel bad until week 10 or so – and I truly think that was because I went into it healthy and tried to remain that way as long as I could. From the time I was diagnosed, I ran and biked eight races, including the Calabasas Classic and Kickin' Cancer Run, to help raise money and awareness for breast cancer research. And just like with my treatment, my friends were always there to cheer me on. They even helped me raise money on Facebook.
It never occurred to me to keep my diagnosis a secret, and I’m so glad that I didn’t. Cancer became such a huge part of my life; I would have had to hide from the world if I didn’t want anyone to know, and that’s no way to live. Instead I chose to share almost every moment of it with anyone that would listen, and I was lucky to have so many listeners on Facebook. I even created a note to document all of my doctor's appointments, surgeries and chemotherapy appointments.
I shared it all: pictures and videos of treatments and scars, thousands of status updates describing my appointments and what I was going through emotionally. I don’t think I went to one doctor’s appointment or chemo treatment or surgery without sharing what I was doing, and when I look back on what I went through, I feel good about being so open. I’m only 37 years old, and I feel like I’ve brought an awareness to the disease and perhaps put a younger face to it, and hopefully I’ve helped some people along the way that are in a similar situation, or just need some inspiration.
I’ve met hundreds of women that have gone through this and have come out shining on the other side, but for most of us, it’s the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. Yes, this disease made me stronger, but I also owe a lot of that strength to my friends and family, and the community of breast cancer patients and survivors I’ve met along the way. People I connected with inside breast cancer groups on Facebook have become mentors who virtually held my hand through five surgeries, five months of chemo, doctors appointments and my many setbacks and triumphs.
I’m one of those mentors now, and the first thing I tell new patients is that they have to learn to lean on people. They have to share what they’re going through, and depend on the people in their lives to help them through it. No one should ever have to go through cancer alone – it’s just too hard.