- I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 and received treatment for 10 months.
- I hid what I was going through from almost everyone in my life due to the stigma in my community.
- Now, I raise awareness about the importance of screenings, and I help others like me find support.
My husband and I had returned home from a romantic anniversary dinner on a Saturday night and were making love when a concerned look crossed his face — not what you like to see during moments like that. When I asked him if something was wrong, he winced and said he’d felt a small, solid mass on my breast. I was only 30 years old at the time, so I assumed it was nothing. I hadn’t even reached the recommended age for a mammogram.
The following Monday, I was heading to my office when my husband stopped me in the kitchen and said I needed to see a doctor. He was clearly more worried than I was.
A few days later, a physician used a long syringe to extract fluid from the mass in my right breast while assuring me that because I was young, it was probably just a benign cyst. He was wrong. The next week, when I heard the dreaded words over the phone: “You have cancer,” I doubled over in my kitchen, sobbing.
I thought I had to go through my cancer diagnosis and treatment alone
This was in 1979, before the internet, so I hurried to the library to read everything I could about breast cancer. Fortunately, we had good health insurance, and I was able to see three oncologists, driving around the Los Angeles area with a folder containing my X-rays and pathology report. I’ll never forget one imperious, gray-haired doctor’s words: “You have a very sick breast; you have to cut it off.”
The last doctor I consulted, a younger one at a major medical university, said recent research suggested less invasive surgery could effectively treat my type of breast cancer.
Three weeks later, an orderly wheeled me into an operating room for a lumpectomy. Ten months of energy-sapping radiation and grueling chemotherapy followed.
Still, during those awful months of treatment, which included days spent wiped out and sick in bed from chemotherapy, I didn’t tell the people closest to me, including the members of my Chinese American church, my friends, and coworkers. I was scared they’d avoid me, talk about me, or question my competence.
This is because I was afraid of being stigmatized by my Asian American community. I knew only one Asian woman who talked openly about having breast cancer. Her Chinese next-door neighbor refused to speak to her afterward. Perhaps the neighbor believed associating with the woman would bring misfortune to her household. She might have even believed the disease was contagious.
I feared some Asian Americans might think I was sick because of karma or my own poor choices. Some followed traditional Chinese beliefs that my ancestors or I did something wrong for such bad luck to fall upon me. Even my mother blamed me. She asked my doctor if I caused my disease because I ate so many sweets.
I was ashamed to have a malignant growth in my breast. I was ashamed to be imperfect. For most of my life, I had worked relentlessly to succeed — graduating as high-school valedictorian and from one of the top MBA programs in the country. Yes, the model-minority myth had done a number on me, and cancer wasn’t supposed to be part of that image.
But while hiding my cancer from those around me might have kept some of the shame I was feeling at bay, it also isolated me in my pain. Save for my husband and immediate family members, I was alone and wallowed in depression for much of the time.
Almost 3 decades later, I’ve started to talk about my experiences — and opening up has helped others, too
After 10 months, my treatment was finally over, and I tried to forget the entire experience. For 28 years, I continued to keep my illness under wraps. And then, five years ago, I was at lunch with a Chinese friend and said I needed to leave for a mammogram appointment. She declared she never gets screened. I was incredulous. This was a smart, dynamic, college-educated woman. After sputtering briefly, I shared my story and urged her to get a mammogram. Moved, she said she would.
I finally recognized how cancer stigma and shame hurt Asian Americans — Asian American women get breast-cancer screenings at a rate of 64.1% compared to 72.4% of all women in America, and a 2017 study showed that self-stigma affects cancer patients’ quality of life. So I decided to tell others about my experience and helped organize a breast-cancer seminar at my Chinese American church. A month later, one attendee was diagnosed with breast cancer after her first mammogram in years. Watching others hug and encourage her at church and hearing that others brought her meals, called, and visited her, I understood how I’d suffered needlessly.
Now that they know, every year before my mammogram, my family and I pray for my health. There have been a few scares when a suspicious mass was detected, but thankfully, I have remained cancer-free. I am alive today only by chance. Through sheer luck, my husband found a lump and urged me to see a doctor. When I shower and towel myself dry, my lumpectomy scar reminds me to never take life for granted. I’m grateful to be alive and share my story to help others.