Breast Cancer Will Never Define Me

By Lindsey O'Connell

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And while the month is widely observed by many countries across the world that are working to increase attention and support for early detection and treatment, there is still so much that we don’t understand about this disease.

Currently, there are nearly 4 million women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States alone. In fact, one-in-eight women will be diagnosed in their lifetime.  Paige Stables is one of those women. 

Before being diagnosed, she was living in New York City as an up-and-coming star in the magazine industry. As a beauty editor, Stables (who is currently the beauty editor for Allure) was covering the latest trends (trying every new bronzer, dry shampoo and serum that came to market), traveling the world, and attending exclusive parties in the city. She was doing everything you might imagine someone in their mid-20s in Manhattan would be doing. She was living her own Carrie Bradshaw life. As she puts it, “Humbly speaking, life was really good.”

Stables was a healthy, 26-year-old vegetarian who worked out regularly and took care of her body. She never felt sick or showed any symptoms of breast cancer; but, after giving herself a self-breast exam, she discovered a lump (one that was missed by her routine exam just four days earlier). 

“When I saw my doctor, her first words were… ‘You’re very young,’ as if I had nothing to be concerned about,” Stables told Nutritious Life. “But, everything escalated quickly.”

Stables gives us a glimpse into her experience, and shares why breast cancer will never define her. 

Paige, you shared that you were healthy, feeling great, and mentioned that doctors didn’t diagnose you right away. Can you share a little about that? At the beginning of every year, I schedule my annual physical exam. Everything checked out, including the routine breast exam. But, four days later, the first of the month when I do my self-breast exams (something I was taught to do monthly), it was then that I felt a lump in my right breast. When I contacted my doctor (the same one I had been to four days prior), they were dismissive, emphasizing that I had just been in several days ago. A week passed by, and I knew things didn’t feel right. I didn’t know exactly what, but in my heart, I knew it was something. The next morning, I called the doctor and said, “I’m coming in today. Let me know when you can see me.” I received the response, “Can you be here in 15 minutes?” (You can’t get to most places in 15 minutes in New York during rush hour—or ever.)  I managed to get there in time and when I saw my doctor, her first words were, “You’re very young,” as if I had nothing to be concerned about…but everything escalated quickly. 

What was your diagnosis and treatment plan? Four weeks and three days after that appointment with my OBGYN, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy and was diagnosed with stage two Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). Initially, I expected to have chemotherapy; however, around the same time I was going to begin treatment, the findings of the TAIKORx Breast Cancer Trial were released which showed I wouldn’t gain substantial benefit from chemotherapy. Timing is everything. Since then, I’ve been doing endocrine therapy. 

Wow, that is a lot happening in a very short time. It must have been scary. How was your support network? I was blessed with the absolute best support network—and, I don’t take this for granted. No one should ever have to go through breast cancer, especially alone. In an instant, your entire world changes, and you are faced with every unknown. Being surrounded by the love and strength of family is invaluable. My fiancé, my parents, my younger brother, and my brother’s girlfriend made countless sacrifices for me, and because of them, I was able to make my health my priority. And, I was also incredibly lucky to have loving friends and caring colleagues who cheered me on every step of my journey and continued to be more supportive than I could have ever asked for.   

Throughout all the ups and downs, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to tell me, “You don’t look sick” or “I would have never known.” While I’m grateful it wasn’t apparent, my appearance certainly didn’t determine the magnitude of my diagnosis and experience. For me, it’s a significant reminder to treat everyone the same; never assume anything about anyone; don’t judge others. You never know what’s going on in someone’s life. 

Thinking about our self-confidence and the idea of identity—were you nervous this experience would change you? My body changed. My life changed. Everything changed. But, I’m still me. Breast cancer will never define me. I would say, I grew rather than changed.

Post diagnosis, what was your experience like? I felt like time stopped with the heartache of my diagnosis; but at the same time, life sped up from the moment I heard the news until my mastectomy. When you are told, “You have breast cancer,” there is no guide that comes along with it. So, I found myself navigating all of these changes, trying to determine the best plan of action, and all the while making major life-changing decisions. I met with three different oncology surgeons—at three different hospitals—and every single one had a different approach. I’m so grateful I had a window of time to find the team I trusted wholeheartedly, and I am forever grateful for my doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

What was it like to go back to work? I was excited to go back to work and return to my routine. Not only am I passionate about what I do and love the creativity of it, being away from the office made me miss my colleagues and the happiness of our team dynamic. To me, there is no better community than the beauty industry. I have received nothing but support, love, and encouragement from my colleagues through every part of my journey. 

Could you share some ways people who may be recently diagnosed or undergoing treatment could communicate their needs to those around them? It’s okay not to be okay. You don’t have to say “Everything is fine.” Each diagnosis is unique to every individual—and how it affects them. So, don’t compare yourself to others. Everything you are feeling is valid. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Nothing about breast cancer is normal…or easy; but, people want to help, and sometimes the only way they can is to share their needs. 

You were really proactive. What would your advice be for people who need to advocate for themselves but may be too nervous to do so? You are your greatest advocate for your body; and, you only have one body, so show it the love it deserves. Remember…knowledge is power. It’s extremely important to advocate for yourself—especially when it comes to your health.  It can be scary, but in doing so, you are putting the power in your own hands. 

You are an amazing beauty editor. Are there any tips you could share for people undergoing treatment that may make them feel a little more like themselves? Start by looking inward. Strength is beauty. Courage is beauty. Perseverance is beauty. Let all those qualities shine through. 

Give yourself time to feel like yourself, again. All things get better with time. (I wrote a letter to my scars which speaks to this.)

That said, the impact of beauty should not be underestimated. Being able to feel like yourself is one of the most powerful treatments of all. Do what you love. And, if you are looking for advice to help navigate the impact of your diagnosis through beauty and self-care, I recommend reading Allure’s Survivors Guide to Breast Cancer

There are many organizations that advocate for Breast Cancer research. Which do you recommend? How can more people get involved? I am a supporter of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation , and The Pink Agenda. These organizations don’t just raise awareness, they take action. I have felt their impact directly. One monumental example—the groundbreaking TAILORx trial was a BCRF-supported study. Because of its findings, I was able to forgo chemotherapy with confidence. 

Getting involved can be as simple as familiarizing yourself with these incredible organizations, and not just during the month of October. You can volunteer, spread their message, and take advantage of their resources. It doesn’t require a financial commitment. 

Do you ever worry about whether it will come back? Absolutely! I can’t imagine I will ever not be concerned about the possibility it could come back. But, I don’t live every day in fear. There is a reason I had a bilateral mastectomy. There is a reason I am taking Tamoxifen for the next ten years. And, having the best team, I believe, in the world— at MSKCC, I am confident I am doing everything I can to prevent a recurrence. 

What do you wish someone would have said to you? Breast cancer is defined by uncertainty. There are no definitive answers; so, trust yourself and reach out to as many resources as you can to help make the best decisions for you, and you alone. Your journey is unique.






About Lindsey O'Connell
Former Editorial Director, Nutritious Life

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