Blindsided by breast cancer: Greenville woman recalls diagnosis at age 23

By Stacie Smith • Last Updated 11:14 am on Friday, October 12, 2012

After being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 23, Greenville’s Melissa Ashman is a nine-year cancer survivor. — Courtesy photo

GREENVILLE — A breast cancer diagnosis can prove to be overwhelming and lead to confusion, anger and disbelief. Greenville resident, Melissa Ashman, was caught off guard completely with her diagnosis of colloid carcinoma, estrogen receptive breast cancer at age 23.

Colloid carcinoma, according to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure website, only accounts for 1 to 3 percent of all invasive breast cancers and within that total it is typically found in women starting at age 60. How does a 23-year-old woman in good health get through such a diagnosis and treatment? She relied on a support network of friends and family.

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis at 23, particularly a form which is especially rare in someone so young, forced Ashman to learn very quickly that she had to be her own health advocate. Her insurance company refused to pay for any of her procedures or medications as her diagnosis was deemed a pre-existing condition. Ashman is a strong advocate for women health care facilities as they often offer services and support that might not otherwise be provided.

“My personal guidelines are; stay active, eat as close to the way God intended and listen to your body,” Ashman said. “No one on earth knows your body the way you do.”

 Diagnosis and Treatment

Ashman had no family history of breast cancer so was not diligent to self checks, but she discovered a lump and not only could she feel it, but it was visible too. She was persistent about getting her lump checked and because of her young age, she had particularly dense breast tissue, making a mammogram reading more difficult. She underwent an ultrasound where a tumor was discovered and then had surgery and a biopsy to get the diagnosis. She awoke from the biopsy to have her bed surrounded my family and medical staff and knew by their facial expressions that her tumor was malignant.

“My first thought was I would never be able to hold a baby of my own,” Ashman said. “Diagnosed at that age was in my uneducated mind, a death sentence.”

Out of the bad news of the diagnosis was the good news that Ashman did not have the genetic markers (bcra 1 and bcra 2) indicating any future children she may have would not be shouldered with the same fate. Her particular diagnosis also tends to not affect surrounding lymph nodes and tissue, which meant avoiding chemotherapy and also a promising prognosis. Ashman did, however, need to undergo six weeks of radiation and two years of chemical therapy. Though not as debilitating as traditional chemotherapy, she did suffer burns from the radiation treatments.

Ashman’s chemical therapy consisted of Tamoxifen, which suppresses the production of estrogen and consequently causes early menopause. Because Ashman still hoped to have children of her own, she and her physician agreed to end her treatment earlier than the typical five years. The one year she underwent treatment, Ashman was in chemical induced menopause and the side effects are not something she looks forward to when entering menopause naturally.

 Support from Family and Friends

Through Ashman’s diagnosis and treatment, she received unfailing support from her family and friends. Living in another state at the time, her mother drove eight hours to spend a week with her. Her sister-in-law, Leeann, would drive her to appointments and because she was in the medical profession, would provide insight to help her remain calm. Her best friend would visit with a box of pizza to be the much needed shoulder when Ashman needed to cry.

On the first anniversary of the end of treatment and being cancer free, Ashman and several members of her family celebrated the landmark by getting pink ribbon tattoos. It was an outward show of inward victory.

Being a nine-year survivor has given Ashman an insight and wisdom well beyond her years. Going through the ups and downs of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment showed her the true meaning of unconditional love and friendship. She has learned to appreciate even the smallest of things, such as a smile. She also has learned the gift of acceptance. Accepting that loved ones will also be afraid and accepting that it really is OK to go through a full range of emotions.

“Joy, peace, and contentment are yours for the making, it is possible to find heart wrenching happiness in the sincere smile of a loved one,” Ashman said. “To bring a smile to the ones I love is my daily goal.”

Unfortunately not all of Ashman’s relationships were supportive during her diagnosis and treatment. Her first marriage did not survive the difficulty and strain of her serious illness. It was a painful experience for her to endure, but she has since changed her perspective of that failed marriage as a learning tool and a means to move forward and develop a deeper appreciation for those who did remain at her side. Ashman has since remarried and has three healthy children.

“The people that I truly love are my world, that is the center of happiness on this earth,” she remarked full of emotion. “I believe that God as provided these relationships as a taste of heaven here on earth.”

For More Information

Additional information about the several forms of breast cancer, including colloid carcinoma, can be found here.

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