Over 1,000 miles away from each other two women whom have never met, never interacted, and have no idea about each other’s existence share a story of such similarity it’s haunting. Both of these women are in their mid thirties, they are both lively, beautiful and have children. Both of these women were diagnosed with breast cancer after being dismissed by their own doctors for being too young and not having a family history of it. Both of these women believed their own bodies even when doctors didn’t.
Meet Marisellie Serrano
Marisellie lives in Connecticut and has a personality just as bold as her signature red lip. On the phone with her I felt like she was right in front of me. Her laugh was infectious and her quick wit and no “B.S.” attitude was both charming and absolutely engaging. It’s hard to believe someone with such spark had only recently been through such a tough road.
In 2011, she went to the doctor with concerns of a lump she had felt in her breast from doing a self-breast exam. She had this sinking feeling that something was wrong with her body but she wasn’t sure what it was. Marisellie had turned turned 30 that year and it is uncommon for women to have breast cancer at such a young age. A phrase her doctor had told her when she went in for her lump. Being so young with no breast cancer gene in her family lineage her doctor dismissed her concerns.
Mariselle was unconvinced and demanded to have a mammogram done, to give her a peace of mind. To her doctor’s surprise they found a tumour and scheduled a biopsy to see if it was cancerous. The following week as she sat with her younger sister in the waiting room she overheard the doctor outside of the door tell the nurse, “I don’t know how to tell her…” that sinking feeling came back.
“It was like a bad nightmare.” Marisellie said as she was told the news that would change her life forever.
Meet Kari Kollmansberger
When talking with Kari on the phone the first thing I took note was her accent. She lives in Wisconsin and has this charming accent to prove it. Her voice is soft and sweet and surprisingly light even when I am asking her what seems, to me, like an unpleasant subject matter. She was diagnosed at the age of 33, an age considered to be “too young” for breast cancer.
So young, in fact, that when Kari first went to the doctor about breast pain the doctor dismissed her. Claiming that because of her age and lack of familial history with breast cancer there was no way that could be her diagnoses. The doctor even treated her for Mastitis, an infection of breast tissue caused by breast feeding, even though Kari hadn’t breastfed in over a year. That’s how certain the doctor was that she was too young to have cancer.
“The reason more aren't diagnosed [with breast cancer] is because they don't even screen for it until women hit their 40’s. It doesn't matter how old you are. Do self breast exams regularly. They could save your life.”
Kari was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer the month after she turned 33.
Kari herself was a nurse; she worked in the Emergency Room and had now seen herself transition from caretaker to patient. A transition that was not so easy to handle. Kari’s piece of advice she would give to other survivors is
“Let people help you.” “Save your energy for the things that are important, and let those that love you come over and help with the laundry if they offer!”
Marisellie was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through chemo just like Kari. Both of them said that the reason they went through with it was for their children. Marisellie has one boy, now 14 years old, Kari has two boys a few years younger. The strength to go through chemo not once, but twice for both women came from their immense love for their childeren.
“The thought of leaving my boys behind is what made me have to go through it again. I thought it would be easier the second time around but mentally it was worse - I knew what I had in store” said Marisellie.
Going through cancer is hard enough as it is, but then when you are informed it has come back, that is a feeling completely unimaginable.
At nearly 37, Kari was diagnosed stage IV - metastatic breast cancer in her bones. The cancer had spread and it was going to be a tough battle to fight. What Kari had though a lot about what that meant. When telling me this news she has no fear in her voice, it doesn’t tremble or shake. This is a woman who sees life differently.
“Everyday I get my boys ready for school, we play games and do activities as a family that don’t require much physical labor, and I just spend as much time with them as I can.”
Another quality these women share is their love for makeup and the way it has helped them through their diagnosis. One may not think of makeup as a tool for healing, but for both Kari and Marisellie that’s what it became. Kari’s pain in her bones makes her old favorite activities harder to do. She found a new found love and passion for makeup and watching makeup tutorials.
“Before cancer I didn’t really think about makeup. It wasn’t until I lost my hair that i realized I had to learn to draw on my eyebrows.” Kari laughed. As I asked Marisellie if she had a special relationship with makeup she laughed and said “I wore my red lipstick into chemo!”
Cancer is not on the forefront of most 30 year olds minds. Less than 7% of the patients with breast cancer are under 40. The margins are slim, but these women feel that that is no excuse to not take control of your own healthcare.
“Do self exams, and trust your gut. There is something powerful about women’s intuition” Marisellie advises, “That’s what saved my life.”
Marisellie is now in remission, she is cancer free but a huge breast cancer advocate and feels that the most misconception that we as a society have about breast cancer is that you have to be older to get it. “Cancer doesn’t care about age. Children get it and it’s not your fault.” Kari says.
Congress had fought to push back the age of mandatory screenings from 40 to 50 in 2016. “The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for example, recommends that regular screenings begin at age 40, while the American Cancer Society calls for women to start yearly screening at age 45 and then move to screening every two years starting at age 55.” the Washington post writes. This means that “That called for annual mammograms to begin at 40. As a result of the congressional action, women in their 40s will continue to be able to get annual mammograms at no cost.” Many studies showed the small margins of people below 50 getting breast cancer, thus making this not “cost effective.”
This news is worrisome for a lot of women, but this just means it is never too early to be your own advocate and voice your concern if something in your body doesn’t feel right. Do self exams and check ups regularly, and make sure you are fighting for yourself and your healthcare.