By Angela Hronek
In the summer of 2016, I was living a pretty normal 27-year-old life. My husband of two years and I were thinking about starting a family. One day while sitting at my desk at work, I absentmindedly rested my hand on my chest and felt a large mass. A couple of weeks later, I got the call: it was cancer. It was completely shocking. I was so young, I had almost no family history of the disease and I felt physically fine. I would later learn that 12,000 women under age 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the U.S.
During the diagnosis process, it started to feel like every test result was worse than the last. We found out that due to the large size of my tumor I would need a mastectomy and could not have reconstruction right away. Then we discovered that cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I was devastated when I learned that due to the side effects of chemo as well as long-term medication for my hormone-driven cancer, my husband and I would have to put our plans for a family on hold.
One Saturday in the midst of all of this, I went to the Farmer’s Market in downtown Madison. Looking around at the multigenerational families, I realized that through cancer I was facing my greatest fears: that I would never have kids, and that I would never grow old. I knew that I needed to talk to people who had experienced that same feeling. When I found out that Gilda’s Club was located across the street from my office, it felt like a sign. I started going to Wellness and Young Survivors groups that same week.
For me, Gilda’s became a haven where cancer is just another part of life. I found that at work or with friends and family, while people were incredibly supportive, bringing up my cancer could suck the air out of a room. At Gilda’s, everyone understood, and we could even laugh about things like the perils of not having nose hair. My first Young Survivors group was a lightbulb moment for me. Everyone there was going through the same life experiences as me: new careers, young marriages, homebuying, fertility concerns, and – yes – cancer. It was so inspiring, especially in the midst of treatment.
One of my favorite Gilda’s experiences actually started after my cancer treatment was complete, when I started attending weekly yoga classes. Yoga was one of those “normal life” things that I hadn’t returned to since my diagnosis. I feared not being able to keep up and dreaded the thought of classes where we would hang out in downward dog the whole time, which could aggravate my surgical scars. On the first night of my Gentle Yoga class at Gilda’s the teacher, Leanne, asked if I had any special needs or physical restrictions. I responded that I was a breast cancer survivor and had a mastectomy and lymph nodes removed on my right side. “Me too,” she replied with a smile. “On my right side and everything.” I immediately felt welcome, relaxed, and “seen.” I rushed home after class to tell my husband about the yoga teacher who had also had a mastectomy on her right side.
Over the next few weeks and months, yoga became a weekly haven and Leanne a role model as I recovered mentally and emotionally from breast cancer – a process that lasted long after I was physically healed. To me, that connection and understanding is what Gilda’s is all about. Experiences like these have made me deeply grateful to have the Gilda’s community throughout my healing process.