In 2013, Lyndsay Sung noticed something new on the edge of her right breast. “I felt something weird—an odd thickening along the rib,” she recalls. At the time, her son was only a year old, so she thought it might have been related to breastfeeding. But then she felt it again in September 2014. Lyndsay knew she was at risk for breast cancer because her grandmother had had it, and she also knew her breasts from years of self-exams. So she went to see her family doctor.
Her doctor said it didn’t feel like much, but scheduled a mammogram and an ultrasound for Lyndsay’s peace of mind. “She could have just sent me home,” Lyndsay says. The mammogram was clean, but the ultrasound showed two small masses. Then she had to wait for the biopsy results over the holidays. Her doctor told her it was probably nothing and to enjoy herself.
But when her doctor called in January, she said, “It’s cancer.”
Her doctor went on to explain that it was invasive ductal carcinoma, and that was all Lyndsay could take in. “It was information overload, I couldn’t hear any of it, I freaked out,” she says. Her doctor was talking in one ear and in the other ear her son was asking her to play. “I burst into tears,” she says.
Then she had to wait a week for the results of follow-up tests to find out if it had spread. Luckily, it hadn’t. Next came a lumpectomy in February, which showed her lymph nodes were cancer-free, too. “My prognosis is good,” Lyndsay says.
It was a close call, though. “My surgeon said, ‘I can’t believe you found this—if you had waited, it would have been a completely different story,'” Lyndsay says.
Lyndsay needed to decide on a course of action. To reduce the chances of recurrence, she opted for chemotherapy, followed by radiation. Chemotherapy was particularly rough. “You feel like you’re being poisoned,” she says. She had an allergic reaction to docetaxel and cyclophosphamide, the first chemotherapy she tried. “I had huge welt hives from head to toe, and my face and hands puffed up,” she says. “It was very painful.” Next, she tried paclitaxel, but she had an allergic reaction to that, too; “It felt like I couldn’t breathe.” By then she was anxious about trying any more chemotherapy, but the third time was the charm: she tolerated doxorubicin.
Radiation was better. While her energy levels were down a bit, Lyndsay finally felt well enough to resume her daily exercise. “It made a huge difference in my mental health,” she says. “I was depressed during chemo.”
Lyndsay also kept her spirits up by deciding to focus on her immediate treatment rather than worrying about those to come. “Everyone’s telling you so much that it’s really hard to process,” she says. “Taking it one treatment at a time keeps you from feeling crushed by the weight of the mountain of treatments ahead of you.”
Her tumor tested positive for HER2, a mutated protein, as well as for estrogen receptors, giving her even more options for follow-up treatments. So now she’s decided to take Herceptin (trastuzumab), a targeted therapy for HER2, and next she’ll take tamoxifen, a hormone therapy for estrogen receptor-positive cancers.
In between, though, she’s planning to take a break. Before Lyndsay was diagnosed, she and her husband were trying to have another child. But then she learned that her cancer treatments might cause early menopause. She was only 38 years old. “It was devastating to be told that I might not be able to have more children,” Lyndsay says. “It was worse than hearing that I had cancer.”
Soon they’ll get another chance to give their young son a brother or sister. Before her lumpectomy, Lyndsay and her husband decided to do two rounds of in vitro fertilization, which entails collecting a woman’s eggs, fertilizing them in the lab, and freezing the resulting embryos for later implantation in her uterus. The first round failed, but the second gave Lyndsay and her husband three embryos. She’ll have them implanted this spring.
Another thing Lyndsay made sure to do before surgery was take a long-planned trip to Disneyland with her whole family, including her mom, and her two sisters and their children. “It was my last hurrah—I didn’t feel sick and I looked normal,” she says. Later, looking at photos of that trip helped her get through treatment. “They brought me joy,” she says.
Lyndsay also copes with cancer by sharing her experiences. “It helps normalize what you’re going through,” she says. She is open about it with family and friends in real life, as well as with online support groups like Rethink Breast Cancer, which is for young women with breast cancer.
Lyndsay also shares her story on social media. She runs a cake baking business, and already had a blog that mixed the professional and the personal. “I had already shared a lot of my life and it didn’t feel right not to say anything,” she says. Her followers responded by showering her with love. “I’ve gotten packages and cards from all over the world from people I’ve never met,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
To pay the support she’s received forward, Lyndsay honored Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October by baking a series of breast cakes and blogging her cancer story from diagnosis, to surgery, to chemotherapy, to radiation, and follow-up therapies. The last pair of cakes is captioned “Cop a feel, save your life.” Good advice. As Lyndsay says, “It seems to have worked for me thus far, fingers crossed.”
Editor’s Note: Like Lyndsay, other breast cancer patients were the first to find their cancer during a self-exam. Based on large studies, however, many organizations do not recommend breast self-exams as a monthly screening tool for early detection. Nonetheless, it is good to pay attention to any changes a woman may observe.