On Friday, May 15, 2015 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.
I had been feeling some intermittent discomfort in late 2014 so I went to the doctor who did a full exam and felt nothing unusual. They asked me a whole host of questions, and since I was “so young and have no risk factors (so the likelihood of cancer is very small),” they suggested I keep an eye on things and come back if things got worse. The pain/discomfort continued off and on but never got worse, and everyone online stated that occasional pain was completely normal.
The weekend of May 1, I started having pain that was uncommon - more sharp pains rather than the dull ache I had noticed previously. While my boyfriend and I watched a movie, I decided to do a breast self exam and noticed a fairly large “dimple” in the breast next to my armpit. The best way I can describe it: it’s like I have an implant and the left side of it popped and deflated. When I felt that, I knew something was very wrong. I jumped up from the couch and went to the mirror. Brandon (my boyfriend) asked me what was wrong and in a fit of anxiety I yelled at him to leave me alone. I was too afraid of what I deep down knew was something very serious.
That was a Saturday, and I had to wait through the rest of the weekend before being able to make an appointment on Monday. In the meantime I did all of the research I could, and while pain evoked the “it’s likely nothing” message, the dimple evoked messages of, “Danger! Danger!”
On Tuesday I had an appointment with a physician’s assistant, and though she assured me that I was “so young and I have no risk factors (so the likelihood of cancer is very small)” she immediately referred me to a radiologist. who gave me a mammogram (most painful thing EVER, jesus christ on a cracker!) and sonogram that same day. The mammogram came back clear, but the sonogram came back with a suspicious area. They immediately scheduled me for a biopsy for Thursday, and I was told that it would take 4-5 days for the results. Again, the radiologist said I was “so young and I had no risk factors (so the likelihood of cancer is very small)” but they would get me an answer as soon as possible so not to worry.
Less than 24 hours later I receive a voicemail from the radiologist asking me to call him back right away on his cell phone. I looked at the clock. It was 5:22pm, and I thought, “Well, they wouldn’t give a cancer diagnosis over the phone, so maybe he wanted to give me the good news before the weekend.” But I had a sinking suspicion this would not be the case.
Me (ringing his number): Hi, it’s Erin Cronican returning your call.
Him: Oh...hello. It’s Dr. Lee, who did your biopsy. Um, I got the results back from the pathologist, and...um...it was positive.
Me (knowing that doctors often say things that are the opposite of how it sounds): What does that mean?
Him: You have cancer.
Yep. They give cancer diagnoses over the phone.
The rest of his very short call was a blur. The lesion is less than 2cm...maybe Stage 1...meet with a breast surgeon tomorrow... In the midst of this conversation, Brandon is staring at me trying to convince himself that everything is ok, when I mouth to him, “I have cancer.” I hang up my phone in a daze, dial the number he gave me for the surgeon (this was about 5:25pm at this point) and by 5:30pm I have an appointment for the next morning at 11am with a breast surgeon. I take a moment. I call my mother and when she picks up I ask her where she is and if she’s alone. I realize pretty fast that this is a terrible way to start a phone call so I make it even more awkward by blurting out, “I have cancer!” It didn’t help that my mother was currently visiting my aunt who just finished treatment for her breast cancer which was diagnosed at age 65. (Not a risk factor, as it turns out.)
After giving my mother all of the vital information I hung up the phone, paced around the apartment half crying half panicked, and then cleaned up my face, gathered myself together, and prepped the apartment for a pre-production dramaturgy session with the cast of the play I’m starring in this summer. The rest of the night I struggled to hold onto the last bit of normalcy which I already knew was gone. The roller coaster had left the station - my life will never be the same.
[UPDATED 6/25/15] Since then I have had additional biopsies, mammograms, sonograms, an MRI, a lumpectomy (to take the tumor out) and been stuck with more needles than I am comfortable mentioning. Did I mention that I have severe needle phobia that leads to panic attacks?
Here’s my official diagnosis (for those who research these sorts of things):
First, less than 5% of breast cancers happen to women under the age of 40. So, apparently I’m special. And rare.
Type: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma
Size: 2.1cm (initially it was thought to be 9mm, but the MRI and surgery showed otherwise)
Stage: IIB (They initially though it would be Stage 1 as my surgeon did not think it has spread. But one of my lymph nodes had the presence of cancer and was removed along with another which turned out to be healthy.)
Grade: 3 (which means it’s very aggressive)
ER: negative (not responsive to estrogen hormone)
PR: negative (not responsive to progesterone hormone)
HER2: negative. Initially I was scored as 2+. This is considered a “borderline” score, so they did further testing and discovered that I'm HER2 negative.
So, I'm considered "triple negative" which means they do not know what is giving the cancer strength. Only 10-20% of breast cancers are triple negative.
Prognosis: Very good if I follow all treatment protocol.
Treatment Recommendation: Surgery (lumpectomy, completed June 16), radiation, and Chemotherapy (which will likely happen starting in August, once my breast has healed fully from the surgery.) There is a slight chance that they may forego recommending chemo and head straight for radiation, but because I’m so young and my cancer is aggressive they usually recommend chemo to make sure no cancer has traveled anywhere else in my body.
I’m also awaiting results on genetic testing to see if I have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic variations that make me predisposed for cancer.
Moving forward, I will be using this blog to explore the many questions and concerns that come up for me as a person living with cancer - How does a workaholic learn how to take it easy? How will losing my hair affect my acting career? Will I find a silver lining (like finally being able to lose weight)?
I have also started a medical journal where I will be posting updates from appointments, treatments and procedures so that you can see how things are going for me, medically. I’ll also have guest posts from close friends and family who are accompanying me on my journey. You can find that journal here: PostHope: Erin Cronican. There you can leave comments, read my story, or (if you're so inclined) make a donation (since I’m self-employed and will have no income when/if I have to take time off for treatment.)
I have done a ton of research and can answer any questions you have about what is happening with me. Emails or texts (917-574-0417) are best. I may not be able to get back to everyone right away, but I will sure try. I would also welcome your support and love. I usually try to appear like I have everything under control, but this is one thing I can't manage on my own.
Much love to you all...
Some people have asked me how they can help. For you, I have created a post on my medical blog which will keep you updated on what kind of help I could use. You can find it by clicking here.
Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit http://www.erincronican.com.