Health

Triple Negative Breast Cancer Diagnosis: What It’s Really Like

“Most patients with triple negative breast cancer are going to be referred for genetic testing,” Nancy Mills, M.D., a fellow of the American College of Physicians, medical oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital Cancer Center, and assistant professor of medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF. That’s in addition to people who are diagnosed with breast cancer under 50, those with multiple cases of breast cancer in their families, and other factors that can raise the risk of getting this cancer, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Dr. Kalinsky explains that finding out about a BRCA gene mutation isn’t only important for potentially informing blood relatives that they may be at risk, although that may matter a lot to you, too. On top of that, a BRCA mutation can influence your treatment options. For example, your doctors may recommend you get a double mastectomy and consider removing your ovaries instead of a less drastic surgery. You can read more about triple negative breast cancer treatment (and how a BRCA mutation might influence it) here.

Receiving a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis

Tatum-Brown is far from the only person whose world shook after a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis.

In July 2015, at 62, Deborah Smith was told she had stage 4 metastatic triple negative breast cancer. “It was like the rug was pulled out from under me,” Smith, now 66, tells SELF. “I remember waking up the next morning and remembering, ‘I have breast cancer.’ It all came rushing back.” She says that she became hyper-focused on her breathing, realizing that she would one day draw a breath and never take another one.

However, Smith, a former scientist, is a pragmatist. “A couple of days later, I realized that triple negative breast cancer or not, I was always going to take my last breath one day,” she says. So she started reading up on the disease. “I like to have all the information, even if it’s bad,” she explains.

Smith also found support from other people who were, unfortunately, familiar with how life can change due to cancer. A friend of hers was diagnosed with melanoma at the same time, so they each had someone who could relate to cancer-specific problems, she explains. And Smith’s partner, David, stepped up to do all the cooking, cleaning, and zipper-fastening she couldn’t manage during the worst of chemotherapy. (She also underwent immunotherapy, which tries to encourage the body’s immune system to fight cancer.) Despite the hard days, she says she felt lucky to have the support and resources available to her.

“Going through this process is not easy, not just physically but emotionally,” Dr. Mills says. “Having psychosocial support in addition to the physical and medical support and the medical expertise is really becoming much more important for many [people with breast cancer].”

Connecting with others who’d had similar experiences also helped Tatum-Brown throughout her diagnosis and treatment. She especially sought out other young African-American women through organizations like Sisters Network. Navigating a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis can be particularly isolating as a black woman, as can going through treatment. Tatum-Brown had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Doctors would frequently cite research that didn’t include young Black women like her, she explains, adding that other tough parts of the process included prosthetics often only being available in white skin tones and discussions about hair regrowth after chemotherapy often ignoring Afro-textured hair. “Having a Black woman that I could ask those specific questions to was important to me,” Tatum-Brown explains.

When a diagnosis means a re-evaluation

Receiving a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer has, understandably, had ripple effects in both Smith and Tatum-Brown’s lives. Smith made some major changes, starting with cutting back on her work hours and buying a house outside New York City, where she gets to garden when the weather is good. And she got a puppy, a poodle named Pagan. “I love him, he’s always so happy to see me,” she says happily.

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