This post just might blow your mind, so brace yourself.
Growing up as a gymnast and a dancer, music has always played a central part in movement, for me. And movement has been a part of my entire adult life.
I’ve consistently worked out three to six days a week for as long as I can remember, a habit that helped to keep me mentally and physically fit. Exercise has been an important way to destress from the long hours I’ve spent working a corporate desk job in the fashion industry, and over the years, I’ve not only participated in a variety of classes and group workouts, but I also do weight training and cardio solo.
While the various listening devices have evolved, from the Walkman, to Discman, to the mp3 player to the smartphone, the thing that has remained constant is the pick-me-up I get from a great song or playlist. Music is a motivator for me.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think my music and work out habits would lead to cancer.
Hear me out.
It was such a joy when mp3 players came out, to be able to curate all these awesome playlists for the gym or my commute. To make my listening ‘hands free,’ I wore a convenient, lightweight arm band that came with the device whenever I worked out.
When I upgraded to a smartphone, I stopped using my mp3 for workouts, but the arm bands were more cumbersome. I tried an aftermarket neoprene armband for a while, but I’m petite, so it always slipped down my arm while training. When I upgraded to a newer, smaller smartphone, I found the perfect solution: I just started stashing it in my bra.
Maybe that sounds strange, but I’m small-chested and it was a convenient solution when I weight trained and needed to keep the headset cords out of the way. And for some stupid reason, I thought it made me look tough. So two or three times a week for about 45 minutes a day – and over the course of about eight years – my smartphone was in my bra.
Until I got diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was 43 years old at the time. I was in good shape, and I didn’t have a family history of the disease. I felt fine – no symptoms. So you can imagine my surprise when my first mammogram revealed I had “extensive calcifications” in the upper outer right quadrant of my right breast (8cm wide to be exact). Exactly where I’d stashed the cell phone all these years. It wasn’t until a biopsy confirmed I had Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS), or Stage 0 pre-cancer, in my right breast that the thought ever crossed my mind that my cell phone storage habit was dangerous.
I returned to the gym two weeks after my biopsy and subconsciously went to stash the phone in the bra again. It was at that moment that I caught myself. The area was tender and swollen from PMS and the biopsy, and I thought…
O.M.G. Did I do this to myself!?
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That very realization was gut-wrenching. I immediately asked my doctors about it. All but one confirmed it was “possible,” but the reality is that we just don’t know enough about this yet. There’s no research (I mean, who’s signing up for that study?), and they encouraged me to look forward and not backward.
OK, but this is pretty hard to let go.
What started as a recommendation for mastectomy on the affected side (I only ever stashed the cell phone in the right side of my bra, where the cancer developed), evolved into a double mastectomy, removal of 19 lymph nodes, four rounds of chemo, and 28 radiation sessions. Unfortunately for me, the cancer had spread after the biopsy and traveled to two lymph nodes in my armpit, which meant, I now had Stage II breast cancer.
My team recommended an aggressive treatment path, as I was at high risk for recurrence given my hormone-driven cancer and my young age.
Fortunately, I got through it and am on the other side of this. But as we all know, cancer never goes away entirely. I’m stuck with the fear of recurrence, lymphedema in my right arm (a.k.a. permanent swelling caused by the lymph node removal), and the not-so-fun side effects of endocrine therapy (including an early “chemical” menopause).
Still, it could be much worse.
While I will never know whether the cell phone actually played a role in my cancer developing, I feel in my heart of hearts that it was the match that lit the flame. I will admit, however, that I did have other risk factors from lifestyle habits that I didn’t know would be a problem until after my diagnosis such as:
- Years of work-related stress
- Lack of sleep
- Failure to breastfeed before 40 (yep, that’s a thing)1
- Being on the pill for more than 10 years (while it reduces your risk of ovarian cancer, it raises your risk for breast cancer)2
- Consuming more than three alcoholic beverages per week
- Pesticides in my food supply
- Drinking out of plastic containers
- Using beauty products with endocrine-disrupting chemicals and carcinogens
The list goes on.
While I’m incredibly grateful for my outcome, it’s hard not to self-criticize. I try not to let myself go there, but instead focus my energies on sharing knowledge and my story with other women, in hopes of sparing others from walking this path.
So if you see anyone stashing their cell phone in their bra, please promise me that you’ll tell them my story.
Virginia Carnesale is the Founder and CEO of Stage, a shopping and wellness destination for breast cancer patients and their supporters. We curate the products and knowledge she needs to take on breast cancer with dignity, style and grace. Visit shopstage.co for more information.
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