Kyla Comins is a medical doctor living in Cape Town. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2016, at age 28 – a significantly young age to be diagnosed (majority of women diagnosed are 40+). Despite this, she has chosen to share her journey, which she describes as ‘a celebration of love and strength through adversity’ with others.
Keep reading to learn more about her and her experience with breast cancer so far.
What Stage Were You Diagnosed With?
I was stage 2B when diagnosed, meaning I had a tumour larger than 5cm (mine was 8cm) and glands under my arm on the same side.
How Much Did You Know About Breast Cancer When You Were Diagnosed?
Being a doctor, I probably knew more than most. However, I don’t work in surgery or oncology and the field is ever-changing, so my knowledge from medical school and early general practice was largely outdated.
How Was The Cancer Initially Detected?
I found a lump in my breast one evening while self-examining. Actually, I had recently lost a bit of weight (I had started training quite intensely) and my breast volume had shrunk quite substantially, so I think I managed to feel the lump sooner than I would have otherwise. When I first found it, it was about 2cm in diameter.
The initial biopsy was inconclusive so I waited a few weeks and then went for an ultrasound, on which the mass also didn’t look too suspicious, but by then it was 6cm which concerned me so we decided on a repeat biopsy. It was on that biopsy which the diagnosis was made.
How Did You Feel When You First Received The News?
I consider myself very in tune with my body and from the day I felt the lump I had a gut feeling it was cancer. That’s probably why I was so persistent for a repeat biopsy, despite the initial results not confirming my diagnosis. So when I received the results, it was hard to hear, but I wasn’t really surprised.
How Did You And Your Family Deal With The News?
I immediately went into admin mode – checking that all my insurance policies were in place, what my medical aid would cover, and then phoned a few friends and my mom. She knew I had found the lump and that we hadn’t had a clear answer, and was quite anxious about it, so when I gave her the news she was devastated. I think it was very different for her too, because we are very fortunate to have had almost no one in the extended family who has had cancer of any sort. Unfortunately though, that meant that her frame of reference was very little, and she expected the worst. I on the other hand, have had many patients who have gone on to have great outcomes so I was very optimistic. It was a bit of a challenge initially to bring my family’s expectations in line with that, and I really only realised how different their experience was when my brother asked me, already a few months into treatment, ‘but are you going to die?’ It had never occurred to me to even broach the subject of death because for me it was absolutely not a consideration.
Is There A Family History Of Breast Cancer?
My father’s grandmother had breast cancer, but I only found this out after my diagnosis. I’ve since done genetic testing and I don’t carry the common breast cancer genes.
Did You Have A Support Network? If Not, How Did You Overcome It Or Find It?
I was so lucky to have an incredible support network. Although my family is in Durban, they have been great cheerleaders and my mom has spent quite a bit of time with me. I have been in Cape Town since 2012 and have some really amazing friends. On the day I was diagnosed they came over with flowers, chocolate and wine, and we had a wonderful party. They also all took turns shaving my head when the time came. They have been integral to my ability to stay focused and optimistic on this journey, and I really couldn’t have done it without them. Because of them, I never felt the need to seek out a support group, although I do see a psychologist individually. I think psychological support, whether from friends and family, a psychologist or a support group, is a really essential, and often overlooked, part of treatment.
Tell Us About Your Treatment Process.
After my diagnosis, the first person I saw was a surgeon. Being December, it was a difficult time as many doctors are away on leave, but I was really lucky to have a team who rallied to get me on treatment as quickly as possible. The first step was to see a fertility specialist, so that I could harvest and freeze eggs before the chemo which can potentially damage fertility. I also had blood tests, a whole body CT scan, a bone scan, x-rays, and an ultrasound. Then I started chemotherapy in January. Depending on the type and stage of cancer, some people start with surgery, but because my tumour was very aggressive and didn’t appear to have spread yet, they wanted to contain it and prevent any further spread by starting with chemotherapy first. I had a small surgery to insert an IV port so that I didn’t need a drip for the chemo each time. I received 2 rounds of chemo, each one with 2 drugs, for about 3 months each, so I finished in June. The chemotherapy wasn’t as bad for me as I had expected, but I still did have lots of nausea, diarrhoea, headaches and was very tired. I then got 2 weeks off before my surgery, which was done at the end of June. I had a bilateral non-nipple sparing mastectomy as well as removal of some of the glands in my underarm. And I was fortunate to be able to have my reconstruction during the same procedure. I had a DIEP flap reconstruction, where they took fat from my belly (like a tummy tuck procedure) and used that to create new breasts, so I don’t have implants. I recovered quite quickly from my surgery and after 6 weeks I started with radiotherapy, which I received daily for 5 weeks. Unfortunately, although I responded very well to my initial chemotherapy, there was a small area of tumour left in my breast (which they removed during my mastectomy) so my oncologist recommended that I get another 6 months of a different chemotherapy, and I’m currently 3 weeks into that. It’s a lot better tolerated that the other chemo, it’s a tablet which I take twice a day every day for 2 weeks, then a week off, for 8 cycles, and it won’t cause my hair to fall out which is a huge plus!
Were There Any Programs Or Services Offered To You That Would Help With The Treatment Process?
I received a goodie bag from the Helen Harder foundation after my diagnosis. This was a small gesture but so appreciated! I have since partnered with another organisation, Project Flamingo, who provide similar packs to women at Tygerberg and Groote Schuur hospitals in Cape Town. The oncology practice where I receive my treatment has regular group meetings and pamper days, too.
Did You Face Any Obstacles During Your Treatment Process? What Were They? And How Did You Overcome These Obstacles?
I have been very fortunate that my treatment course has been really smooth. The biggest obstacle was learning, after my surgery, that I needed another six months of chemotherapy. It was at this point that I sought the help of a psychologist, but things quickly got back on track and I’m back to my old optimistic self.
Are There Any Popular Misconceptions About Breast Cancer That You Think Women Need To Be Made Aware Of?
I think the biggest misconception is that cancer only affects people above a certain age or those with a family history. Breast cancer may be more common in older women, but that doesn’t mean that younger women are immune. I was lucky to be diagnosed early and have a great prognosis, but complacency and denial would’ve led to a delay in diagnosis and ultimately, especially with an aggressive tumour like mine, a likely far worse outcome.
What Message Would You Like To Provide Women In Reading This Re. Breast Cancer?
The most important message I can share is: ‘check your breasts!’. It takes 5 minutes and spending that time on yourself every few weeks is one of the best investments you can make. In 2017, ignorance is no longer an excuse!
Reproduced with the permission by Cosmopolitan Online SA: https://www.cosmopolitan.co.za/health-fitness/body-health/i-was-diagnosed-with-breast-cancer-at-28-heres-my-story/