How 17 Under-50 Women Learned They Had Breast Cancer—and What Helped Them Through It

Updated: Mar. 17, 2022

A cancer diagnosis is anything but easy—and, while it can change a person's life in a million ways, just one of those might be for the better. Read these inspiring stories of strong survivors whose breast cancer fueled them to become "thrivers."

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Nicole J Phillips
Courtesy Nicole Philips and Susan G. Komen

“I knew I had to make my diagnosis worthwhile.”

“When I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, I chose not to hide behind my cancer. Educating others about the disease made my diagnosis feel purposeful. I became a habitual over-sharer on my blog, chronicling the process of the diagnosis, mastectomy, and reconstruction. Looking back, I realize my best days were the ones when I felt the worst. When I was angry, anxious or sad, I would go out and do an act of kindness for someone else. It was my own personal treatment plan—getting my mind off myself and focusing instead on the needs of others. I wear the title ‘survivor’ proudly because I walked through something difficult and came out stronger, filled with confidence and bravery. ” —Nicole J Phillips

Here are 10 tips on coping with a breast cancer diagnosis—from a survivor.

Caitlin Kiernan
Courtesy Mark Weiss Photography

“I’m glad I decided to show up for my life—because it’s really good now.”

“Like many women, I discovered my lump by accident. I was dozing off to sleep one night and, as I rolled onto my side to get in a comfortable position, my arm grazed up against my right breast. That’s when I first felt the pea-sized lump. Because I had small, dense breasts, the lump didn’t show up on two mammograms. I then had a sonogram and biopsy that revealed the worst news a woman can hear: I had stage 1, non-invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer (the best case scenario of a worst-case situation). That began the rollercoaster ride that would become my life for the next two and a half years. In total, I had five surgeries, which eventually included a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Halfway through my chemotherapy, I had this nagging question that kept lingering in the back of my mind: ‘Now that you have a second chance at life, what are you doing to do with it?’ A week later, I quit my unfulfilling job, dumped my commitment-phobic boyfriend of nine years and started to go after my dreams. Still, even though my cancer was caught early, surgery and treatment are emotionally and physically depleting. It was only because I had soldiers in the trenches with me—my amazing medical team and my girl gang—that I was able to emerge a warrior.” —Caitlin Kiernan

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Laurie Pezzano
Courtesy Laurie Pezzano

“The fear in my family’s eyes drove me to survive.”

“I was 37 years old when I found a lump in my breast. It was a week filled with immense fear and challenges. When the doctor confirmed that I did, in fact, have breast cancer, I instantly went into survival mode. I was a mother, a wife, and a business owner. I couldn’t let cancer take any of those things away from me. When I told my family, the fear in their eyes showed me that I had to fight to survive. I had eight surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation and was deemed cancer-free. It was not easy—and I worked throughout the entire process—but I never gave up and I always tried to stay positive through it all. I live in pain every day from all the surgeries and lymphedema, but I’m happy I’m alive. Dealing with the pain is a small price to pay to have my family. Today I’m three years cancer-free and extremely blessed.” —Laurie Pezzano

Stephanie Johnson
Courtesy Stephanie Johnson

“My cancer fueled me to pursue my passions and give back to others.”

“I learned I had breast cancer after a summer of feeling a lump grow in my left breast. It grew from the size of a pea to a large tumor over one summer. After a mammogram and biopsy, I received the news I had cancer. It was like a punch to the gut—the words hit my stomach and took all of the breath from my lungs. I was 38 years old with two sons in high school and no idea what would come next. I was found to be BRCA1 positive, stage 3, grade 3, triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma. I did four months of chemotherapy followed by three surgeries: a double mastectomy, oophorectomy and hysterectomy, and reconstruction. Truth be told, while going through all of that, especially the chemotherapy part, there were many times where I didn’t think I was to make it. There are moments when you think, ‘Yep, this is what is going to kill me’ and moments when you do accept your mortality and even begin to plan your exit and necessary farewells. Thankfully, there’s hope, too. My hope came from many areas because, let’s face it, there are times when you’re fresh out of hope in your own mind supply. I’m fortunate to have an amazing husband (we were dating at the time—talk about a trooper!), a lot of amazing friends and a beautiful community. Surround yourself with people who can supply some hope when you’re fresh out. It’s important to remember that we’re not superhuman and it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be angry. It’s absolutely okay to wallow a bit. Cancer sucks and so does getting through it. I made a goal for myself. I’d always wanted to be a licensed beauty pro and wanted to give back to others. My cancer journey fueled me to do something about it. I knew that if I survived this, I was going to sign up for beauty school. My first day of class was just six weeks after my reconstruction.”—Stephanie Johnson

Paulette Sherman
Courtesy Ray Foley

“Getting breast cancer was a spiritual wake-up call for me to become crystal clear about what I was doing here.”

“I was diagnosed at 41 with breast cancer. I was a mother to two young children and a wife who had much more living to do. When I prayed, I got the message that it would be a hard year, but that I would live because, although I’d accomplished five life goals—being a therapist, marrying my soulmate, having a boy and girl, owning a house by the beach, and publishing a book—I still had a legacy of at least 22 books to write and this would prompt me to do it. I’ve since published 21 books and am working on number 22. Three of these books were about breast cancer and helping other women get through their illness based upon what I’d learn about surviving mine.” —Paulette Sherman

Read about the 16 things cancer patients wish you knew.

Susan Reif
Courtesy Susan Reif Author of 39 things to make a cancer patient smile

“I kicked cancer to the curb and wrote a book to help others.”

“A full day of mammograms, a biopsy and a trip to the emergency room for uncontrolled bleeding was the start of my cancer journey. Then came September 12, 2006— a follow-up visit to the doctor. ‘It’s cancer,’ is all I heard before I saw stars. The next two weeks was a marathon of trips in and out of New York City for tests—consultations, scans, chemo, and blood work. After surgery and 42 radiation treatments, I danced around the maypole on May 1st, 2007. All tests showed all was well! The experience motivated me to write a book for friends and caregivers, For Family and Friends: 39 Things to Make a Cancer Patient Smile.”—Susan Reif

Monica Ruffo
Courtesy Monica Ruffo Well Told

“I went about life as usual, refusing to let cancer take over.”

“As soon as I learned I had breast cancer, I knew I would be fine. I was determined to go through life with complete normalcy, not only for myself but for my kids. My cancer was very aggressive so treatment lasted 14 months. I never stopped working and told almost no one what I was going through. People can react strangely when they hear you have cancer and I just didn’t want that. Two surgeries, 14 monoclonal antibody treatments, 25 rounds of chemo and 12 rounds of chemo later, I was able to keep my hair thanks to scalp cooling and mitigate the side effects of treatment with a strict vegan diet and weekly high dose vitamin C infusions.”—Monica Ruffo

Read about more amazing, hopeful cancer treatment breakthroughs here.

Rachael Ocello
Courtesy Rachael Ocello

“I decided I wouldn’t let this ‘nuisance’ dictate my life.”

“At age 21 and a senior in college, the last thing I expected was to be diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. Being so young, I was never told by anyone to get breast exams or mammograms. One day, I was at the gym with my best friend and just felt something that hurt. Soon after, I made an appointment with a doctor. After he felt the lump, I was sent to get an ultrasound. They convinced me that, because of my age, the lump wasn’t malignant. Sure enough, I got a call from the doctor when I was in class saying I had breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy, fertility treatments, three rounds of chemo and am now on an anti-estrogen pill. My hope for survival was fueled by my incredible support system and the idea that I have so much more life to live and so much to give to the world! I knew I would survive the second I was diagnosed and am here today as a survivor!”—Rachael Ocello

Amelia Frahm
Courtesy Amelia Frahm

“I’m here, a survivor, to watch my children grow up.”

“Twenty-three years ago, I was a 34-year-old mom sitting on a sofa watching my two- and four-year-old children race each other across the living room competing to be the first to reach my lap. When they reached where I was sitting, my two-year-old shoved her brother out of the way and jumped onto my lap. Instinctively, I put a hand up to protect myself and that’s when I felt a lump in my breast. It was about the size of an acorn and I knew immediately I had to get it checked out. I was fortunate to find a doctor who took me seriously in an era when breast cancer was still viewed as an older woman’s disease. My primary doctor sent me to a surgeon who told me he didn’t see any reason to believe it was cancer, and young women with flatter chests were prone to lumps. However, when he couldn’t get anything out using a needle, he scheduled a surgical biopsy. After surgery, he assured me that he hadn’t seen anything suspicious. I’d just got off the phone from letting all the relatives know I was OK when he called to tell me he had been wrong. I don’t think I really knew how serious breast cancer was until then, when he kept saying how sorry he was. Opting for a mastectomy instead of lumpectomy was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. In my mind, I was choosing between a breast, aka vanity, and watching my children grow up. I’ve never regretted my decision. To this day, watching my children grow up continues to be my reason for living and what motivates me to advocate for breast cancer.”—Amelia Frahm

Jeanine Patten Coble
Courtesy Little Pink House of Hope

“Here I was preparing to tell my 12-year-old I have cancer and I’d already made plans to change the world.”

“I was 39 when I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 3 breast cancer, HER2positive. Routinely, while doing my monthly self-breast exam, as I’d done on the first day of every month for over 20 years, I felt something huge—the size of a ping-pong ball. My treatment included six months of chemotherapy, two surgeries, 42 radiation treatments, and then an additional six months of chemotherapy. The day after receiving my diagnosis I went on my family’s pre-planned annual vacation to the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. My husband and I were planning to tell my son the news of the diagnosis and I wanted to clear my head, so I went on a run. As I was running, I came upon a compound of 43 houses that were completely abandoned. As I started my run back to our beach house, I kept thinking that these houses were meant to be used for something. I could paint them pink and create a cancer retreat center where families could come to get away from the daily life of cancer. I had a feeling I was supposed to do something amazing with this idea, but I also thought, ‘You just found out you have cancer. What are you thinking?’ Here I was preparing to tell my 12-year-old I have cancer and I’d already made plans to change the world. This experience is what led me to develop the plan for Little Pink Houses of Hope, where we provide cancer sufferers a free, week-long vacation full of relaxation and fun experiences. Since 2010, Little Pink has served more than 550 families at one of 13 annual retreats they hold across eight states including North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Maryland, Arizona, U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and California.” —Jeanine Patten Coble

Haralee Weintraub
Courtesy Mariane

“My oncologist snapped me back into survival mode.”

“I went for a routine yearly mammogram and the film was picture, textbook, perfect breast cancer—no doubt, no need for a second opinion. It was touch and go with my chemo treatments if I was to survive, or willing to continue with treatments. After four chemo infusions I was so ill I wanted to stop, but my oncologist talked me down and after I completed the sixth and final chemo appointment, I knew I was a survivor. The following seven weeks of radiation were a cakewalk in comparison! I advocate for yearly mammograms for a positive outcome like mine!” —Haralee Weintraub

These are the 15 things cancer doctors do to avoid cancer.

Fabianna Marie
Courtesy Fabulously Fighting

“Advice from a stranger shaped my 12-year cancer journey.”

At the age of 27, just a year after having my daughter and being diagnosed with Lupus, a breast reduction consultation turned into a breast cancer diagnosis in 24 hours. My world came crashing down around me. I received an amazing piece of advice from a stranger that has shaped my over 12-year journey of fighting cancer: ‘Ninety-nine percent of this is your mindset.’ This statement has been at the center of my journey towards survival, a constant inspiration to fight despite having multiple doctors sign my death certificate and tell me there was no hope.” —Fabianna Marie

Check out these heart-warming stories about the incredible kindness of strangers.

Cati Stone
Courtesy Vikki Locke LRK Media

“Fighting for survival was my only option.”

“I was shocked when I got the diagnosis back in 2010: stage 3 breast cancer. I was only 35 with no family history of the disease. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me. I have a husband, and a baby and a new job as a lawyer in a Fortune 500 company.’ I mean, my life was just taking off. But I knew there was only one course of action, and that was to fight. I worked full time during my treatment that included 16 rounds of chemo over five months and nearly seven weeks of daily radiation and a mastectomy. I decided to volunteer with the Cancer Legal Line. I knew it was risky to leave a full-time job and work for a non-profit but the risk paid off. In 2013 the Greater Atlanta Affiliate of Susan G. Komen offered me the job of executive director and I have never looked back.” —Cati Stone

Here are nine creative ways to volunteer and make a real difference.

Dana Dinerman
Courtesy Dana Dinerman and Susan G. Komen

“I decided cancer wouldn’t take over my life.”

“My story is not as simple as I had hoped it would be six years ago. Although I am grateful for having the past six years to watch my son, there is still an ominous presence that constantly hovers next to me—a never-ending diagnosis of metastatic cancer. At 34, I was diagnosed with stage 3 intraductal carcinoma. After receiving treatment, my cancer returned— twice—meaning metastatic or stage 4. No matter the treatment, there was no end in sight. I’m a ‘thriver,’ not a survivor. However, I decided cancer wouldn’t take over my life. I wouldn’t wait for the ‘right time’ to take vacations. I started a company, Hulabelle, that help survivors find swimwear for their new body. I enjoy being a mom again. Cancer will always be a part of my life, but not my whole life. I am alive. I am here. Enjoy it, love it, and LIVE it.” —Dana Dinerman

Christine Egan
Courtesy Christine Egan author of The Healthy Girls Guide to Breast Cancer

“My dog helped me realize I had breast cancer”

“I learned I had breast cancer from my dog, Zoe. I’d just had a breast exam from my OB/GYN and nothing was detected. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when my little 15-pound dog climbed on top of me and starting pawing at the upper left-hand section of my breast, that I realized something was up. I listened to my intuition and started palpating where the dog was touching me and that’s when I found the lump. I made an appointment with the radiologist and they confirmed via a sonogram that the lump was, in fact, breast cancer. I knew in my soul that I would survive my diagnosis. One night after a visit with my breast surgeon, I was sitting in my car and I had this overwhelming feeling of calmness and healing. It was a deep knowing that I would be okay. I clung onto to those feelings even, when I was scared and they pulled me through.”—Christine Egan

Dogs really can detect cancer—you’d be amazed at what your dog knows about you.

Stephanie McLeod-Estevez
Courtesy Stephanie McLeod Estevez LCPC Creative Transformations

“After hearing ‘You have cancer,’ I had to come to a place of acceptance.”

“The summer I turned 40, I had a dream that I had breast cancer. It was the first time I had ever had a dream like that, even though my mom died of breast cancer when I was 26. My tumor was stage 3a and very aggressive. My husband, children, family, and friends rallied around us, and their continuous support allowed us to find ways of living as normally as we could. As a psychotherapist, I often recommend that my clients seek to live in the moment. Being treated for breast cancer was like one tremendous exercise of staying attuned to how I was truly doing, which kept me curious about what was possible, rather than fearful of what could be.” —Stephanie McLeod-Estevez

Your dreams can reveal some amazing things about you.

Katherine O'Brien
Courtesy Memorial Hermann Health System

“I was the doctor that becomes the patient.”

“As a neuropsychologist at TIRR Memorial Hermann, I spend my days helping patients navigate the rollercoaster of emotions that characterize catastrophic brain injuries. On Super Bowl Sunday, I discovered a lump in my breast and knew intuitively it was more than a scare. I tackled breast cancer in the same aggressive, methodical fashion I tackle the complex brain injuries in my patients. On July 12, my oncologist described me as ‘in remission’ with ‘no evidence of disease’ and I rang the bell at Memorial Hermann Cancer Center-Texas Medical Center signifying the end of my active cancer treatment.” —Katherine O’Brien

Here’s another story of what a doctor learned from becoming a cancer patient.