“For women under 40, the chance of getting breast cancer is under 2%. The factors that contribute to your likelihood of being part of that low percentage include a sedentary lifestyle, being on birth control for a long time, eating a lot of red meat. All things I was not. Nope, nope, nope, nope and nope. My percentage should have been even lower [than 2%]. So how did I get it? What was this golden ticket I just received?
Rebecca Batterman was diagnosed with breast cancer this July. She is 34 years old and cancer is the last thing she ever thought would happen to her – which is exactly why she is sharing her story. When most of us hear the word “cancer,” our minds go to the worst possible scenario. Rebecca, however, is moving through her first few weeks of treatment with inspiring boldness and sobering logic. Knowledge is power, she has realized, and opportunity always lies within the unknown.
“People don’t think [breast cancer will] happen to them. Because what they see is unrelatable. Pink scarves and shaved heads and people walking. It feels very foreign. Hopefully people can see me – a single professional who lives in New York City – and connect with a different story. Because the truth is, if this could happen to me, this could happen to you. I don’t mind being the person who is not part of the traditional pink world, who is over to this side saying, hey guys, if I got cancer, you all should be paying attention, too.”
“Breast cancer had nothing to do with my life. It was ‘over there.’ I have always been very healthy, a clean eater, active, in tune with my body. I’m not a big drinker. I’m not a smoker. I had no family history. In my mind, I was the last person this would happen to.”
“Stress is one thing I can take responsibility for. There is a lot of conversation around the effects of stress on your life and your health. I’ve lived in New York City for 10 years. I’m that person who is always bopping around. Busy busy busy. I recently watched a documentary about fight-or-flight response: how your body is meant to go into these spikes of stress to get you through to safety. But we live in a constant state of stress today. If nothing else, [my story] is an important takeaway for us – the people who get massages and workout and really try to have this balanced life – who are still carrying around the stress every day. We have found a way to live in the stress – and more and more young people are getting cancer. It’s really hard to think that they’re not related.”
While stress is worth paying attention to, Rebecca’s surprising diagnosis cannot be pinned to any specific factor, which makes her story so defining for those who think they are exempt from the numbers. We have a trillion cells and cancer can happen when one spins off. One doctor told Rebecca that the highest factor contributing to her diagnosis was simply that she was a woman.
“I first felt the lump in April, but, by the time I got the diagnosis, it was July. I felt it, then it went away, I felt it, then it away. I didn’t think much of it, because, well, I couldn’t have breast cancer. Not me.”
In April, Rebecca routinely scheduled a week of annual checkups and doctors appointments. She went to her physical, her OBGYN appointment, and then to the dentist. A week of health, she called it.
“The first two appointments did physical checks which were totally fine, just like they always are. Two weeks later, I felt a little tiny knot and thought, that’s different. But I just got professionally checked by two different doctors. This is nothing. I ignored it. The next month, it came back at the same time. Again, I didn’t think about it, because I don’t have breast cancer. Not me.”
After several reappearances of the lump, Rebecca scheduled an appointment with her OBGYN, who wasn’t too concerned. To be safe, however, she wrote Rebecca a prescription for a mammogram. Rebecca showed up at the hospital two weeks later, thinking more about being late to her next meeting then the forthcoming results. Then, the radiologist came out, very concerned, telling Rebecca that the were going to schedule a biopsy that afternoon. This was not common practice.
“My first reaction was, ‘What are you talking about? What are you concerned about? Everybody, there’s nothing going on!’ What’s interesting is that the little thing that I had felt that had gone away a couple times was just one tiny little cluster. The area was actually was a lot bigger. But the doctor couldn’t tell me anything until we received the results of the biopsy. So I was sitting there thinking, oh my god, I have stage two cancer.”
“I walked out of the hospital and thought, OK, I have cancer. This is so weird. I called my friend, who is a very good doctor in San Diego, and told him everything I knew. I didn’t want to wait to get the results. I wanted to know what the doctors knew. I wanted to know what was happening to my body. He connected me to his dad, a radiologist, who took the time to really walk me through the scenario. Over the weekend – because my appointment was on Friday and I had to wait until Monday for the results — I became very prepared for the situation [I was about to face.]”
“I wasn’t spinning. I wasn’t feeling totally out of sorts. I wasn’t scared. I had that conversation with my friend and his dad, then I educated myself some more. I really had time to think about it. By the end of the weekend, I had a better understanding of what I was dealing with.”
Rebecca found a great doctor in New York, connecting her with an incredible team of support from the get-go. Given her age, they recommended freezing her eggs. This was the first step in her treatment plan. She was referred to a fertility doctor, who recommended she start that day. Rebecca walked out of the office with medication in hand. 14 days later, on a Sunday, Rebecca underwent the egg retrieval. By Thursday, she had started chemotherapy.
“I don’t think of [the chemo or the egg retrieval] as major. I was kind of just going through the motions. Next, next, next. What is the next thing we have to do? Life is not all smooth sailing. How you deal with things that come up really makes a big difference. How you handle them, how you go through them, how you get to the other side of them. That is what people around me have said inspires them.
“The unknown can be exciting. The most important step [when diagnosed] is coming up with a treatment plan. Once that’s out of the way though, you begin to wonder, what will open up? What opportunities will come out of this? Even in just the first few weeks of being diagnosed, my life looks so different. Look at who I’ve connected with, who friends have connected me with, how this shift has taken place inside of me. It’s kind of exciting in that way, not knowing where I’ll be on the other side of this. How will I be different because of this experience?”
“[When it comes to femininity,] hair was the biggest thing for me. I’ve never known myself to not have long, thick hair. I knew there was a chance that, going through this process, I might not have long, thick hair the entire time. So in my own way of taking control, I cut my long hair to a lob.”
“That was a big jump for me, but I didn’t want phantom hair. I didn’t want to lose the hair and not recognize myself. My intent was to find a new version of myself, and I kind of expected it to be a less attractive version – but everyone like the haircut! They told me I should have cut it years ago. I thought, wait a second, I’m trying to prepare myself!”
“A few weeks later, I cut [my hair] to just below my chin. A bob. I had the same intention: to get to know myself with short hair. Do I feel sexy? Do I feel feminine? I was expecting to feel less feminine, but I really liked the haircut! And again, so did everyone else. I don’t know why I had long hair [for all these years]. I had a bad haircut in the fourth grade and then I never cut my hair again. I think, in a way, I was using it as a crutch for femininity.”
“One day, my doctors were running through all the things that might happen to me. They said, ‘We might have to do surgery on your chest, you might lose your hair, you might lose your eyebrows, you might get puffy from all the hormones you are on.’ And I joked, ‘Wait a second! You’re taking away all my favorite things!’
“Everything is temporary. So that’s the silver lining. Whatever I’m going through, I’ll be on the other side of it in 5 months. If I lose my hair, it will grow back. All these things will return to factory settings. But it’s kind of an interesting – what happens if, for a few months, all the physical things that you have focused on for years were challenged in some way? What happens then? I don’t know. I don’t know what happens. I haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
“Who am I when all the things I’ve always known are stripped away? I have an opportunity in front of me to figure it out.”
Interview by Kate Mack. Article by Molly Virostek. Photographed by Stephanie Lavaggi. Styled by Emily Newnam.