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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Fighting breast cancer at 28 years old

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Stephanie Gilman

Stephanie Gilman was awfully young to find a lump on her breast.

Although she was concerned, she didn’t think it would be anything serious – after all, she was only 28 years old when she discovered it last year.

“My brain naturally worries, but I thought it was just me blowing it out of proportion,” she says.

But after a stressful week and a half of waiting for the results of a biopsy, mammogram and ultrasound, she found out it was something to worry about.

She was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

She began telling her friends and family, but it was tiring, she said. So to keep everyone updated without having to share details over and over, she started a blog.

“Pass Me Another Cupcake” is the name she came up with when she decided she didn’t want “cancer” to be in the title.

“It’s instead of ‘pass me another beer,’” she says. “‘Pass me another cupcake, I don’t want to deal with this.’”

Her blog is both honest and emotional, painful but sometimes funny. She spent the past nine months sharing her thoughts as she went through her treatment, which involved 25 rounds of radiation.

“[Cancer] takes your plans. It takes your dreams. It takes your peace of mind. It takes your health. And it takes your hair. Your beautiful, flowing, thick hair,” she wrote, shortly before she was forced to shave her head last December. “Cancer sure is a greedy bitch.”

Her story has reached many people, either directly through her blog, through people sharing and reposting her entries, or from the posts she wrote for Huffington Post Canada.

She says she didn’t expect to reach so many people, especially strangers from around the world, including many who would write to her about their own experiences.

Of course, everybody’s situation is unique, so she warns that her experiences may not represent what someone else might feel, but nevertheless, it can help to talk about it, and the blog gives her a place to tell her own story.

Although it hasn’t been difficult for her to write – being behind a computer, she says, she can forget about the readers and simply write her posts as if they were diary entries – sometimes the blog became a bit tiring, particularly when she was going through chemotherapy.

“I began to feel like a downer, like I was bringing everyone down,” she says, “[but] they never felt like that, from their response. They were more open to hearing the sad downside of it, because people don’t always reflect that.”

Writing also helped her feel connected when she was at home feeling drained from her treatments.

“I’d get floods of messages after [posting] saying ‘This really inspired me,’” she says, adding that it helped motivate her to write even on days when it felt too daunting of a task.

Apart from her blog, the Internet was a great resource, allowing her to engage in online support groups and read discussions from people in situations similar to her own. They might discuss everyday feelings of issues that wouldn’t come up at the doctor’s office.

It’s like an in-person support group, but on the Internet, she was much more likely to connect with people her own age.

“I think having cancer pre-Internet would be very different and much more isolating,” Gilman says. “But there has also been the downside of having too much information – constantly seeing statistics and new studies that might be taken out of context.”

She says she would always have to remember to take online advice with a grain of salt, and to always remember that each situation is unique. Someone with a similar diagnosis may have a totally different experience from her own.

One person whose experience she could relate to is that of her father, Todd Herzog, who has survived three forms of cancer, including breast cancer. It wasn’t exactly the same kind she was diagnosed with, but it was also an aggressive form that required the same chemotherapy treatment.

“In a really weird way, that was helpful,” she says. “He was the only one who could really say, ‘I know exactly what you are feeling.’”

Luckily, after chemotherapy and 25 radiation treatments, all evidence of the tumour is finally gone from her body, and her life is beginning to return to normal.

She finally got to take a trip to Jamaica with her husband that she had originally planned for last November.

“It was great. We were the happiest people in the world,” she says. “We tried to unwind and not talk about cancer.”

Now she’s home and back to work at Bell Media, learning to transition to life after cancer. She is still on medication, and will be for years to come, but it’s getting better for her.

“There are moments where I feel good and have been living a relatively normal life,” she says.

She’s not sure if her blogging will remain as frequent – she definitely doesn’t want to focus on her cancer – but she says she hopes to continue to write and connect with her audience.

“I feel like there are always thoughts going through my head,” she says. “It might become a little less cancer-focused, but there are things I have to work out that I hope writing can help.”

Gilman’s blog can be found at passmeanothercupcake.com.

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