“To say the words ‘I have cancer’ out loud — even now, I get a lump in my throat,” says Angie Metts, a wife and mother of two young children who was just 38 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in every 28 women in their 60s is diagnosed with breast cancer, but only 1 in 209 is in their 30s.
“The median age for breast cancer is 62, so early onset breast cancer for someone Angie’s age is uncommon, but it does happen,” says Dr. Reema Batra, a board-certified oncologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “When we do see breast cancer in younger women, it’s often harder to detect, more aggressive and has a higher mortality rate,” she says.
As with all patients with cancer, Angie found dealing with her diagnosis and the physical and emotional challenges of cancer treatment to be difficult. Now a cancer survivor, she is glad that the months of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and a double mastectomy are behind her. Through it all, she managed not to let the dark cloud of cancer keep her from leading her life, and she recognizes the many silver linings that helped her through it.
“You won’t hear that cancer was the best thing that happened to me, but I do feel happier now,” Angie says. “I’m more present living my life, rather than running around in the rat race that life sometimes can feel like. I’m hyper-aware of my mortality and appreciate the people that matter to me much more.”
Timing is everything
In October 2019, Angie had just started a new workout regimen.
“I loved it. I was doing yoga and exercising, taking good care of myself. But about a month into it, I felt some discomfort in the area under my arm. I thought I probably pulled a muscle or hurt myself,” she says. “But after taking time off from working out, it didn’t get any better.”
Upon checking the area, she felt a lump on her left breast. She made an appointment with her OBGYN, who identified two masses, both on her left breast. Eventually, imaging and a biopsy revealed four cancerous masses of varying sizes.
While no time is a good time for a cancer diagnosis, Angie received the news just days before Christmas. She saw it as a positive because the holidays gave her the time to process the unexpected diagnosis.
“I imagine if this wasn’t happening during the holidays, I would have felt more fear, terror, been more overwhelmed. Having extra time over the holidays gave me time to start processing what this meant,” she says.
“Outside of our immediate family and a few close friends, my husband and I decided to keep my diagnosis private because we wanted to enjoy the holidays. We had no idea whether the cancer had spread. Our minds were running rampant. There were a million things running through my mind and I was almost numb to all of it.”
But Angie kept her focus on what mattered most in her life. “I knew I needed to be here to see my kids grow up, and I had hopes and dreams that I hadn’t accomplished yet,” she says.
Finding light in the darkness
Angie began her treatment with Dr. Batra in January 2020.
“Breast cancer in younger women can have a substantial impact, not only physically but also on mental well-being. Because it’s less common in women under 45, being diagnosed at this age can be very isolating,” says Dr. Batra.
But Angie found a silver lining in a most unlikely place. When the pandemic started in March, it closed schools, requiring her children to learn at home. And it allowed others, including her very supportive husband, to work from home.
“During the pandemic, the kids were here with me. It was a game changer having them here, still needing me as a mom,” Angie says. “I attribute a lot of my healing to my kids and husband. Being surrounded by them 24/7 was hugely healing for me and uplifting. Before that, there were some rough, dark days.”
Another silver lining in her journey was meeting a cancer survivor in her own age group. Connecting with support groups, or people who have gone through or are going through similar experiences, is an important part of cancer care and survivorship.
Because breast cancer patients tend to skew older, she says, “I was missing a sense of community with someone my age who had similar care. Finding someone to talk to who had gone through what I was going through made all the difference in the world. It’s a friendship unlike other friendships, and we confide in each other.”
Attitude of gratitude
Angie is now a cancer survivor and her prognosis is NED, which stands for “no evidence of disease.” She’s extremely grateful, and despite the stark realities of a cancer diagnosis, her and her husband’s ability to focus on the positive helped get them through her toughest days of treatment.
“Life is short, and when you’re facing your own mortality, you really have to focus on what’s truly important,” she says. “There were so many silver linings we held onto. Sometimes we had to work hard to find them, but we did. We have a wonderful life and realize the outcome could have been very different.”
She’s particularly grateful knowing she’ll see her children grow up. “I can’t wait to be called grandma. I want to be here for all of that,” she says.
Cancer has also made Angie more vigilant about breast self-exams for herself and others. On the first of every month, she posts on her social media accounts to remind her friends about the importance of self-exams and taking charge of their health.
“I can’t speak for other cancer survivors, but even at the point when I don’t have to take a pill or have another infusion, cancer will always be at the back of mind,” she says. “With the help of Dr. Batra and my care team, I know I’m in good hands. Dr. Batra, the chemo nurses and other medical staff who continue my care have been amazing. I call them angels on Earth.”
When asked about advice she’d give someone recently diagnosed with cancer, she says, “You may be in a place of fear or shock or despair, and you can’t even think straight. Take it one day at a time. You’re not alone, you’re loved, give yourself grace.”