Jessica Baladad’s Breast Cancer Story

My breast cancer story technically started when I was 18. 

The summer before I started college, I was working two jobs to save up for school. One afternoon before my weekend job, I took a quick shower and noticed something in my breast while I was bathing. 

I felt a lump that moved around. It scared me. 

I immediately thought of the breast cancer history in my family — my aunts, my grandmother, my great aunts, and my great grandmother. Surely at 18 years old, I would be too young to get cancer, right? 

I made my first appointment with a gynecologist. She performed a physical exam and suggested it was a cyst. I was told it would disappear with my menstrual cycle. 

In the months that proceeded, I started college and kept an eye on the lump. I noticed it would get smaller right after my menstrual cycle, but overall, it was becoming more noticeable. 

One morning I was walking to class, and a pain shot through my breast. I thought about the lump and knew I had to get more answers about it, so I made an appointment with the health services on campus. 

The physician on campus performed a physical exam and referred me for an ultrasound. After a few days, I received a phone call from the campus physician, and she informed me that the lump in my breast was not a cyst, but a solid mass. 

I cried and immediately drove an hour home to see my family. 

Over the next few weeks, I had several medical appointments and had to be scheduled for surgery. They thought that the lump in my breast was pressing on a nerve and causing me pain, so they wanted to perform a lumpectomy. 

Surgery was scheduled. It lasted an hour and a half, and I spent a week recovering. My professors were understanding and flexible with my circumstance, and my grades didn’t suffer. 

The biopsy of the lump came back as a benign fibroadenoma, an occurrence that’s common in young women of child-bearing age. But although I didn’t have a malignancy to contend with, the experience with this lump helped me develop the habit of doing intentional self-breast exams. 

Fast forward 15 years later. 

I’ve spent most of my career working in journalism and marketing — telling people’s stories and developing brand awareness campaigns for businesses and personalities across different niches. I had been married to my husband for three years, and we were enjoying a fulfilling life. 

I was often on the road traveling for different clients, but I made time to schedule my annual well-woman’s exam. 

When it came time for my appointment in 2018, it was pretty routine. I specifically remember the practitioner performing a physical exam of my breasts, and she didn’t inform me of anything concerning. I assumed everything was ok, and I left. 

The week after my appointment, I received news that my grandpa in North Dakota had passed away. I made plans to fly there and be with my family. 

While in North Dakota, I was taking a shower one morning and realized it was time for me to do my monthly self-breast exam. And even though the practitioner I saw a week before performed a physical examination of my breasts, I wanted to maintain my routine. 

While going over my left breast, I discovered a lump deep into the tissue at 3 o’clock. Once again, it scared me, and I immediately reached for my right side to see if there was a lump in the same place. It wasn’t uncommon for me to stumble upon a duct or a part of my rib, but this lump felt different. It did not match anything on my right side. 

I panicked, of course, but I remembered that I had just been to my well-woman’s visit. I assumed that the practitioner would have told me if she found the lump, so I decided to ignore it and continued living the life I thought I was entitled to. 

At 33 years old, I was too young to get cancer, right? 

Almost four months went by. I was a physically active person; I worked out 5 days a week. I ate pretty well. I took care of myself. Every month I would examine the lump during a self-breast exam in the shower, and I kept trying to convince myself it was nothing to be concerned about. 

“I’m too young to have cancer.” 

“I’m in great health.”

“Cancer only runs on my dad’s side of the family.” 

None of that mattered. 

At the end of July in 2018, I went back to the doctor about my lump and saw a different practitioner. She felt the lump and decided to refer me for a mammogram and an ultrasound. 

At this point, no one really knew about the lump. I told my husband about it the night before my appointment. I didn’t want anyone to worry, so I played it off like everything was going to be ok. But deep down, I was anxious. 

I showed up alone for my screening appointment, and I was shaking. I remember it took me a while to stand still so the technician could position me. But when I finally settled down enough for images to be taken, I had my first mammogram and was then escorted to the ultrasound room where another tech took more images. 

When she was finished, she retrieved the radiologist, who then wanted to look at my ultrasound in real-time. As the tech was scanning under my arm, the radiologist stopped her. 

“Get that lymph node, that big one,” he said. 

 I abruptly sat up. 

“Lymph node?!” I exclaimed. I knew it wasn’t good. 

“Look,” he said. His voice softened. “I’ve seen this before, and I’m pretty sure it’s cancer. I can get you in for a biopsy tomorrow morning at 8.” 

The details after that are pretty blurry, but the technician helped me call my family and tell them the news. My stepmom came and picked me up, and I had everyone meet me at my dad’s house so I could tell them everything. 

At the same time as my diagnosis, I also had an aunt who was in the end stages of life with breast cancer. Here I was being newly diagnosed, and I had to miss her funeral so I could begin my battle. It was heartbreaking for so many reasons. 

When I met my oncologist, I learned he wasn’t seeing any patients that day, but I would be a special case. Not only was I one of his youngest patients, but he had also previously treated one of my aunts and my grandmother for breast cancer. 

He greeted me with a warm smile and a position of hope. He ordered several panels of blood work and requested prompt records of my previous screenings from other providers. He went right to work for me to ensure he knew everything about my cancer so we could work on an aggressive plan to attack it. 

I had gone from being a healthy, carefree, career-driven woman with a full life in front of me to being rendered still by a disease I had no idea was trying to kill me. Within two weeks of my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy and began to lose my hair. My body was beginning to transform into an unfamiliar shell of itself. 

I lost weight. 

I lost my hair. 

I lost my nails. 

I lost my sense of taste. 

I lost my physical strength.

I lost my breasts. 

But at the same time … 

I gained resiliency. I gained a voice. I gained a renewed sense of self that I had never experienced before. 

I endured 16 rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy, a post-mastectomy blood clot in my leg, 24 rounds of radiation, a hysterectomy, and a 10-hour DIEP Flap reconstruction surgery. 

My continued care includes routine blood work and appointments with my medical teams. I’m also on a 5-10 year chemo pill that reduces my risk for reoccurrence. 

Since being in remission from breast cancer, I’ve been spending time using my story to help others equip themselves to be their best medical advocates through my social media project, Feel For Your Life

I’ve been featured in the NFL’s Crucial Catch campaigns, The Dave Ramsey Show, BC Healthline, and most importantly, I spend time volunteering for different projects as a community ambassador for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. 

But I’m alive today because it all started with a self-breast exam.