Monique Robinson Survived Breast Cancer Twice Before The Age Of 35
Aside from her father being diagnosed with prostate cancer when he was in his 50s, a history of cancer in Monique Robinson’s family wasn’t really there. With that in mind, she didn’t freak out when she found the first lump in her left breast in her 20s. She monitored it here and there for a few years and eventually had it tested. The results found that the lump was abnormal, but benign. Just as she assumed, all was fine.
So when she found another lump in that breast a few years later at the age of 32, she kept in mind that the first time around, things turned out okay.
“I figured, okay, been there done that. I’m not really concerned when they wanted to test it again,” the now 36-year-old LA-based lawyer said. However, the tests they conducted were a lot different the second time around, and she started to “get a bad feeling about it.”
Monique’s feeling was warranted, because the test proved that her lump was cancerous. She was stage I.
“It was one of the few times when I have received information from someone and I immediately started crying,” she said. “It was a very scary word. I didn’t know what it meant. I was scared. I was emotional.”
But at the end of her appointment, Monique stopped crying and started doing her research. Along with her husband, they started reading books about breast cancer to get a better understanding of things. She met with a surgeon to learn about what could be in her future, from chemotherapy, radiation and hormone therapy to a lumpectomy, mastectomy and double mastectomy. She also met with a plastic surgeon to find out what would cosmetically be best. From there, Monique was able to make an informed decision.
“The left breast had a history because I had a lump when I was in my 20s,” she said. “It would mean I didn’t necessarily have to have radiation if I had the mastectomy, and from a reconstruction standpoint, it might be the better option from a lumpectomy, so I decided to do the single mastectomy.”
Monique had surgery in August of 2015 and finished chemotherapy in November of that year. She was put on hormone blockers in early 2016 to keep the cancer from coming back, and things were starting to get back to normal — for a little while.
“A year after starting that drug, which is called Tamoxifen, I found a lump under my implant,” she said, noting that her husband also felt it. “I was 14 months out of chemo, one year into Tamoxifen when I found that new lump.”
Still, she didn’t want to immediately jump to the worst conclusion again. She wanted to wait to see if the lump would go after her monthly cycle ended. She also assumed it could have been scar tissue from her surgery. She left it alone for about three weeks, and when she checked again, it was still there. After seeing a new oncologist because her previous one left, she had an ultrasound that confirmed the lump’s presence. A biopsy followed.
“Three days later, the results came back that yes this is breast cancer again,” she said. “I think I probably started crying two minutes after I got the information.”
She was confused because her initial treatment, even for stage one, felt aggressive. To be diagnosed a second time, and so soon after feeling like she was in the clear, Monique was ready to fight for her life in a whole new way.
“I felt like the first time I was a good sport. The first time I was like, okay, bad luck but I’m stage one. It’s not life threatening, maybe life changing, but you go through the motions, go through your treatment, and then you take your life back. So when it came back, that was like the first time I actually felt like this was a genuine nemesis that could actually take my life in a way that it didn’t feel like the first time,” she said.
“The first time I felt like I was just playing along. Like, alright, gotcha. I’ll do what I’m supposed to do. You’ll go away. The second time, I was like, oh no, it’s on. It’s on for real and we’re going to do this for real because this is not a game.”
She got a second opinion because she wasn’t fond of the replacement oncologist. Also, because of the seriousness of going through cancer again, she wanted to advocate for herself and her concerns as much as possible.
“When you have a recurrence, it’s not formulaic,” she said. So Monique’s treatment would be different. The second opinion she received was vastly different from her replacement oncologist’s, but she felt more comfortable with it, and the new doctor. The treatment they opted for was even more aggressive. She wanted a double mastectomy this time around, despite there being a possibility of complications and no guarantee that the cancer wouldn’t return in other parts of her body.
“Even though I said removing the other breast isn’t an indication as to whether or not it would reduce my ability to survive breast cancer in the future, I was like, ‘Let’s just take it. I don’t want to have to deal with this potentially.’ And the breast that already had the mastectomy, I said, ‘If there’s anything left for you to take, take it.'”
In addition, Monique had radiation. She ditched Tamoxifen for a monthly shot that would shut down her ovaries and was followed by a new hormone blocker meant for women in menopause. She also took oral chemotherapy in the manner of a pill for six months. As she put it, she was taking the “scorched earth” approach to treatment. Thankfully, that method worked out. By 2017, there was no evidence of the disease in her system.
Looking back on her experience, Monique is glad she was able to keep a sense of humor and positivity.
“You’ve got to learn to laugh in really bad situations and you also have to realize, it’s hard to believe it, but it really could be worse,” she said.
“I really did find the silver lining multiple times. I’ve always found a way to be like, you know what? There’s still some positive here,” she added. “One overarching positive that has come about has been the ability to meet with other women my age and even older about my breast cancer story and be able to encourage them and give them helpful tips.”
With that in mind, Monique was glad to team up with Susan G. Komen and the Ad Council for their initiative, Know Your Girls, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s catered to Black women, who are more than 40 percent likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts.
And based on her own experience of first noticing things were off in her 20s, Monique said she also wanted to get involved with Know Your Girls to let younger women know that they need to be monitoring their breasts sooner than later. She said she has friends in her age group who don’t even know how to do a breast exam.
“Know your girls is the motto!” she said. “If you can get to the point where you know what your breasts feel like, you’ll know when something feels different and that’s the key to the testing. I would encourage women in their 20s and 30s, get to know your breasts, and that in and of itself could save your life.”
Check out KnowYourGirls.org/GetInformation to get more information about Know Your Girls, and share the hashtag, #KnowYourGirls, with your girls and the public.