A Journey of Strength and Support: A Young Woman's Experience With Metastatic Breast Cancer - After Breast Cancer Diagnosis

A Journey of Strength and Support: A Young Woman’s Experience With Metastatic Breast Cancer

— Abby Padilla, ABCD Marketing & Communications Specialist

September 20, 2023

At the age of 26, Chiara Riga made a discovery that would reshape the trajectory of her life. One day as she was lying in bed, Chiara dropped her TV remote and it landed gently on her chest. When she reached down to retrieve it, her fingers brushed against an unusual hardness – a palpable lump that hadn’t been there before.

Fear and urgency gripped Chiara as she hurried to her primary care physician. Initially met with skepticism that breast cancer could afflict someone so young, Chiara persisted in seeking answers. She was referred to the radiology department for further examination. A battery of tests and imaging followed, but because of Chiara’s young age and the absence of other worrisome symptoms, medical professionals assured her that the lump was only a cyst, unworthy of concern.

For the next year, Chiara carried on with her life. But before long the discomfort became unbearable, and the lump had grown significantly. She returned to her physician, but this time, something had changed. Her doctor was astonished by the lump’s size and wasted no time in requesting an immediate radiological examination.

Soon Chiara underwent ultrasounds and mammograms, followed by a biopsy. Waiting for results was agonizing. Then the diagnosis finally arrived—it was breast cancer.

At first, Chiara felt hopeful. “Don’t worry, you’ll beat this! We caught it early,” her healthcare providers said. However, the appearance of a malignant lymph node cast a shadow of doubt. A CT scan revealed the harsh reality: Cancer had spread extensively to her bones. In September 2020, Chiara was diagnosed with Metastatic breast cancer.

Her treatment included hormone therapy and targeted interventions tailored to her specific cancer type. For over two years, Chiara’s disease seemed to be controlled. But in March 2023, scans showed that cancer had spread to her pelvis. Chiara underwent an intensive regimen of targeted radiation, compressed into only five days. At the same time, she had surgery to remove her ovaries, and continued her hormone therapy and targeted treatments.

Then summer brought more bad news: New lesions were found, necessitating a shift to a new form of treatment. This time, the side effects were more severe, forcing Chiara to reassess her priorities.

Amidst these challenges, Chiara found an unexpected source of solace and strength: ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis. After being introduced to the organization through Stanford Hospital’s supportive care program, she was connected with her Mentor, Lauren—a woman whose breast cancer journey mirrored her own.

What was meant to be a brief introduction turned into a two-hour conversation. Beyond the shared cancer experience, the women discovered they had a similar approach to life with cancer. Lauren transcended the role of a Mentor and became a cherished friend with a constant presence in Chiara’s life.

Their daily conversations have offered Chiara a lifeline during the grueling phases of treatment. Describing the support she receives from Lauren, Chiara says, “She has taught me how to stay optimistic while still honoring the feelings and emotions I have about how much this sucks.” Their bond is so strong that it crossed geographical barriers: In 2021, Lauren traveled [from her home in Missouri] to attend Chiara’s first cancerversary party, spending several days in California. And in August 2023, Lauren returned to San Francisco, reuniting with Chiara for a day filled with adventures, board games, escape rooms, and shared laughter.

The significance of having someone who truly understood what Chiara was going through cannot be overstated. Loved ones did their best to help, but their understanding often fell short. “I don’t know what my life would be like without Lauren, and I couldn’t be more thankful to have her in my life,” Chiara says. Lauren’s support and friendship enabled Chiara’s unspoken fears to find a voice and be acknowledged.

As Chiara’s diagnosis became public knowledge, there was an initial outpouring of support. As she puts it, “as time passes and the diagnosis is no longer the ‘hot topic,’ people tend to quietly depart from your life.” This was a phenomenon she had anticipated. Those who remained, the steadfast supporters, learned to navigate a new normal in their relationship with Chiara. They became friends who provided much-needed distractions from a relentless disease.

The emotional toll of a terminal illness in one’s twenties is profound. Despite the weight of the diagnosis and the cloud of uncertainty that hung over her, Chiara found strength, resilience, and hope in connecting with her Mentor. Chiara and Lauren demonstrate that in the midst of life’s most formidable challenges, a lifeline of empathy and understanding can be the most precious gift of all.

Learn more:

Jan 2024 – Listen to Chiara on the Tits Up with Megan & Sam podcast where she walks us through her experience over the last 3.5 years living with Stage 4 breast cancer, self advocacy within the medical realm, navigating other’s emotions surrounding a diagnosis, and her experience with ABCD.

Aug 2023 – Read more about Chiara’s story in this story published by Vox.

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