ST. CROIX– Cancer can come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. It’s also nondiscriminatory when it comes to choosing the age of its host. Annie Paulson, a graduate student at Brown University, was 28-years-old when she was diagnosed with an invasive form of breast cancer.
Paulson recounts being shocked when her doctor insisted on scheduling a mammogram after feeling a lump during a routine, female wellness check-up in 2007.
“My first thought was, ‘Women of my age don’t even get mammograms! I’m sure it’s nothing.’ But I went forward and got a mammogram, and I’m so glad I did. It WASN’T nothing.”
When most people think of breast cancer, they think of middle-aged women who received the news after getting their yearly, routine mammogram. The sad truth is that breast cancer can strike very young women too.
According to the National Cancer Institute, women ages 15 to 34 and 35 to 54 die more frequently from breast cancer than any other cancer. Paulson refused to end up one of those statistics, and she refused to let the idea of chemotherapy bring her spirit down.
Paulson was slammed into chemotherapy after three short weeks of extensive tests and biopsies. Before treatment began, she had her long hair shaved off, so she could stay one step ahead of chemo’s nasty side effects. Paulson then donated her hair to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that makes hairpieces for disadvantaged children who lose their hair due to a medical condition.
Paulson soon learned to love the idea of wigs. She used the head coverings to keep a sense of humor through the very serious process.
“In order to cope and keep myself sane, I began collecting and wearing colorful wigs. By the end of treatment, I had gathered 17 wigs, including purple, green, blue, red, blonde, snakes like Medusa, and fruit like Chiquita Banana. I matched my wigs with colorful feathered boas and various sunglasses made of leopard print or purple-velvet polka dots,” said Paulson.
During the process of treatment that Paulson referred to as “no cake walk,” Paulson became an advocate for breast cancer awareness. She met a lot of other young women at different conferences throughout the country. At one particular event, Paulson claimed there were over 800 women attendees who had breast cancer before the age of 40.
“It was incredible to see the energy and sad to meet women even younger than I was. All of them said similar things about their doctors not believing them or their insurance refusing to cover a mammogram for a woman of their young age,” said Paulson.
Fortunately, Paulson had good insurance that covered the cost of the surgeries and treatment that she incurred over a couple years.
In 2009, after treatment was over and a lymph node was surgically removed, Paulson said that she wanted to prove to herself that she was as vibrant and alive as she was before cancer. To prove this, she decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money for a doctor doing research for a breast cancer vaccine.
“It was an amazing experience, and I didn’t realize the impact of the metaphor until I was at the summit of the mountain. Quite incredible to be on top of a glacier at 19,000 feet, watching the sunrise, and feel alive and know that I had made it through to the other side,” said Paulson.
Six years after overcoming what she calls her “cancer adventure,” Paulson has returned to graduate school and claims to try to live every moment as joyfully as possible. She also tries to pass the love forward by being a mentor and friend to other young women who are about to embark on their cancer adventures.
“I think deep learning can come out of any experience. I can’t say that I’m grateful for having had cancer — but I can say that I had a whole lot of growth through the ups and downs,” concluded Paulson.