October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we are shining a light on those women who have experienced or who are currently undergoing treatments for breast cancer. We asked Rethink Breast Cancer to link us with women who wanted to tell their stories.

Meet Ashley Warburton. Active and adventurous, she’s passionate about anything to do with the outdoors. “I bike 16 km round trip daily to work, which is in the investment management arm of RBC,” she says. “I am the Senior Manager of Portfolio Solutions, overseeing the investment communications and product management of Canada’s largest mutual funds.” She’s also driven: As a young mom to an energetic two-year-old son, Ashley is an advocate for women in finance and even completed her Masters of Finance degree while on maternity leave. “My current challenge is different this time,” she explains. “I’m in the midst of treatment for breast cancer.”

My first doctor’s appointment about my suspicious lump was on March 4, 2018. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 13, 2018, at 2:35 p.m.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The past two years had been incredibly busy for me. I had my beautiful son, Anders, completed my Masters of Finance degree while on maternity leave, and had returned to work the previous summer. Things were going really well. I had been nominated to lead a high-profile committee at work, and I was heavily involved in advocacy for more women in my industry. Lastly, my husband and I were eagerly trying to get pregnant with our second child; we had been trying for about six months.

I thought the fatigue I was feeling at the time was related to the fast pace of the past two years. Nope, it was cancer. My biopsy tests revealed I had Stage 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) Breast Cancer with a small component testing positive in one of my lymph nodes.

When I heard the words “You have cancer,” all I felt was fear. Nothing prepares you for the shock of hearing those words spoken out loud and the visceral fear that follows. Chemotherapy was to start as soon as possible once my eggs had been frozen. The surgeon was recommending a full mastectomy, and radiation would likely be a month-long process.

The news hit me like a tonne of bricks. I realized the speed at which things were happening and the length of treatment meant that this was serious. As much as I tried to remain calm, I clearly remember my hands shaking uncontrollably as I texted my husband: It’s cancer…in lymph nodes…please come asap.

In the days following my diagnosis, my fears gave way to profound sadness and grief. I mourned the life I thought I’d be leaving. I no longer could skim over medical forms and absentmindedly tick all the “no” boxes. I was not going to have another child this year. My plans for the summer and beyond needed to change. The emotional toll on the ones I love would be huge. I would need to put my career on hold. This cancer diagnosis was going to disrupt everything I had worked hard for.  

The months following my diagnosis were a bit of a blur. I met with medical, surgical and radiation oncologists, fertility specialists and pharmacists. I had blood drawn too many times to count. I had my eggs extracted and frozen. I went through eight bi-weekly rounds of chemotherapy and lost all my hair in the process. I had four hours of surgery for a unilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, and fifteen lymph nodes removed from my armpit. 

Throughout this entire process, I’ve learned that I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought I could be—both physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was amazed by the resilience of my body and my determination to maintain a positive attitude. When I began chemotherapy, my new reality set in, and I eventually accepted and made peace with it.

I also made the conscious decision to fight my battle with cancer with everything I’ve got. During chemotherapy I continually told my cancer, “You may have won the war over my breast, but I’m going to win the war over my body.” I started pretending that my bi-weekly chemotherapy sessions were spa appointments where I could relax and quietly focus all my energy on healing (the pre-warmed blanket the hospital provides helped). I said goodbye to my right breast, honouring it like an old friend, reminiscing about all the things we’ve been through (with a glass of champagne).

In the coming weeks, I’ll undergo twenty-five daily radiation therapy sessions, begin hormone therapy, and have exchange surgery to replace the expander in my right breast with an implant in about a year. 

The physical toll of cancer treatment is obvious, but the mental and emotional toll it takes is less visible and can be just as debilitating. While only 5% of women with breast cancer are under the age of forty, we are not immune. At a time in our lives where most of us are focused on family and career advancement, suddenly issues of treatment, fertility preservation, recovery and survivorship take top priority. That is why some of the most difficult aspects of this process for me have been mental. My diagnosis came as a complete shock. I’ve always been a very active, physically strong and healthy person, rarely getting sick. While there is some family history of cancer, the thought of being diagnosed this young never crossed my mind as most of my relatives had been decades older.

The hardest part was coming to terms with my new appearance. You immediately stand out as different. It took me a few weeks to get comfortable leaving the house without a wig, and I eventually became less self-conscious about my bald head and saw it more as a symbol of strength. To me, it meant the drugs were working.

My cancer diagnosis has really made me understand that life can be unfairly short. Time is precious, and it’s important to slow down and get the most out of every moment. To me, that has been the proverbial gift of cancer–it’s a significant bombshell that caused me to take stock of what’s important, refocus my energy on the things that matter, and deepen my level of intention and integrity in life.

The last couple of months have also made me see that my optimism and strength are a powerful force and that I cannot be easily defeated. It reinforced that I will always see the glass as half full and that this belief is unshakable, a fact that I can take great comfort in when the going gets tough.

That said, I am thankful I found the lump in my breast when I did. It’s really important to be breast aware and keep tabs on what looks and feels normal for you. Nobody knows you better than yourself and when things change, don’t ignore them. Make time for your health, no matter what age you are.