Overcoming A Cancer Diagnosis At Age 26

Tiffany Stewart Shares Breast Cancer Story, Twentysomething with cancer, walgreens, young cancer survivor


Jan. 16 2018, Published 3:00 a.m. ET

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This post is brought to you by Walgreens and SheKnows Media. The opinions and text are all mine.  

Society shows us that your twenties are designated for a few things. During that pivotal decade, we have this extensive list of things we’re supposed to sort out and accomplish so we can successfully flourish throughout adulthood. Things like figuring out our career path, which city we want to start life in and if your college sweetheart is your forever after. All these factors are stressful but I would never believe it if you told me on top of all the 20-something crisis points, cancer would also be added to my list of obstacles to overcome.

It was February 2016 when I first felt like something was wrong. It was a regular day and at the time I was working at a major television network. That called for long stressful days and dedicating most of my time to work more than my personal life. I was staying with a friend in Astoria and was hustling and bustling to and from Manhattan like the average New Yorker. It was fulfilling yet stressful.

One morning, I was at my desk and felt sharp chest pains. Pains I’ve never felt before. I tried to brush it off but it was clouding my work productivity. I called my mother that night and in her very authentic Jamaican way, she simply said, “maybe it’s gas from you not eating properly. Drink tea.” If you know anything about West Indians especially Jamaicans, they believe tea can cure all. So, I took her advice.

The rest of that week, I made sure I didn’t skip breakfast, had a balanced lunch and ate dinner. I drank as much tea as possible and eventually the pain did go away. For a while.

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Fast forward to the end of March, I had just come back from visiting my best friend in Texas and the pains had returned. I wrapped my project at my prior job and had more free time so I couldn’t blame it on stress this time. Not only did the pain return but I realized spots of blood showing up in my shirts overnight.

Again, I was ready to place the blame on various things. Did I not drink enough tea? Was I sleeping on my stomach too hard? Remember that piercing you got in college…was it finally catching up with me? I decided to contact my GYN office who then gave me a number to an imaging center to get an ultrasound done. It was the scariest appointment but I was relieved when the technician reassured me that nothing was coming up on my scans and I was in the clear. Whew! What a relief. Or so I thought.

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One random morning in June, I woke up and the occasional spotting on my shirt was no longer spotting but a full mess. I was scared and knew that something was up. As women, there are times when we know something is up with our bodies no matter what we’re told. This was one of those moments. I went home to Eastern Long Island to visit my gynecologist in person this time and much like the technicians at the imaging center, she felt and found nothing. However, she believed me when I told her something wasn’t right and she referred me to a breast specialist to run some tests.

I went to the breast specialist on a Wednesday where she took some samples of the discharge. On Friday, I had two biopsies done on both breast. That Monday, I had another ultrasound, a mammogram, and MRI all done. I knew I couldn’t go through another month with these pains and bleeding without getting the answers I needed.

It was a Wednesday. The first day of summer, my favorite season, when I got the call. The breast specialist said oddly the ultrasound and mammogram came back clean but it was the MRI where they discovered a tumor 7.5cm on the back of my chest. With tumors so big and so far back, nipple discharge is rarely a symptom but it was like it wanted me to know it was there. Ultimately, the annoying bleeding and sharp pains saved my life.

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It was two months before my 26th birthday and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Wow. WOW! That is something no one can ever prepare you for. After the initial shock wore off, I did research.

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I researched options and plans like never before. I spoke to different doctors and hospital across Long Island to make sure I got the best plan. I chose a strong team of doctors at Stony Brook hospital that helped me choose the best plan for me long term. After quitting my NYC job, giving up my Brooklyn apartment and moving back home under the care of my mother, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy on Monday, July 25th. When I was in surgery, they also found cancerous cells in my armpit area which changed my cancer from stage 0 to stage 1 and the removal of 21 lymph nodes.

Recovery was painful. I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. Between the drains hanging from my chest and the tissue expanders preparing me for my plastic surgery was a lot. Bad enough thanks to the removal of the lymph nodes, I had to undergo weeks of physical therapy to regain the use of my arm. I could do nothing for myself. My mom bathed me, my friends drove me anywhere I needed to go, my nurses would check up and feed me. It was literally an all hands on deck situation.

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When I went in for my one month check up, my oncologist presented me the option of undergoing radiation or not. After speaking with my team of doctors and doing more research, I opted out of chemotherapy or radiation treatment. That’s when he decided to put me on a maintenance therapy medication for the next five years. Hormone receptor-positive breast cancers need estrogen to grow. Maintenance therapy drugs block estrogen from attaching to the hormone receptor in the cancer cell, ultimately slowing down or stopping the growth of the tumor and cancerous cells. By being on such a strong medication for various years, it affects the different things I put into my body such as food, alcohol and other medications.

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When in doubt, my pharmacist at Walgreens Specialty Pharmacy is always a big help and there to offer assistance with my side effects. From the best over the counter medication to take while battling a cold while on a maintenance therapy drug or a pain reliever for my arm, they’re always a great help. Not many people realize the importance of having a knowledgeable pharmacy to have added support, especially for something serious like cancer. I was happy to learn that Walgreens offers elevated pharmacist care for cancer patients. These pharmacists have completed additional training specific to cancer that aid them in their ability to offer support I can truly trust.

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Now, 18 months later I have done all my necessary surgeries as well as physical therapy. Some days are easier than others when it comes to my physical, mental and emotional state but I allow myself five minutes to be sad and keep it pushing. This will most likely be the biggest obstacle of my life. If I was NBA superstar Michael Jordan, this would be my flu game during the 1997 finals. If I was the queen of pop like Beyoncé, this would be me crafting and perfecting my Lemonade. If I was one of the greatest to ever pick up a pen like Maya Angelou, this was me publishing “Still I Rise”. Long story short, I came, I saw, I conquered and I’m here to stay through the long haul.

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I’m back in the city working, dating and living my best life. There’s a lot to get done and time waits for no woman. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this situation will play a great deal within the rest of my life but I have decided it will not determine how I live my life. Most people cannot say that in their twenties they’ve beaten such a beast as cancer. I guess it’s just one more thing to add to my “accomplished” list.

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By: Tiffany Stewart

Tiffany is a young storyteller born in Jamaica and raised in New York. Whether through contributing to online editorial publications, digital streaming services, or televised programming, Tiffany's goal is to display the various facets of Black culture on every level. She plans to evoke emotions through her writing and educate and uplift consumers in a healthy yet realistic manner. She graduated from St. John's University, where she studied Communication Arts, and then The New School, where she earned her Master's in Media Studies. She relocated to Los Angeles in 2019 to pivot her career towards scripted television. Outside of contributing to HerAgenda for the past eight years, you can enjoy her work on theGrio as well as HBO Max, Netflix, NBC, and Peacock. No matter how many accomplishments she has under her belt, Tiffany considers herself a student for life with an unwavering passion for using her voice as a catalyst for women everywhere. You can experience her journey through @astoldbytiffy across social media platforms.

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