In 2017, at 37 years old, Abby Pastyrnak was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. Her immediate thought was “oh gosh, what is going to happen to me.” Quickly, her team at Dana Farber created a treatment plan and after getting through the initial shock, she set her mind to carrying it out. By early 2018, Abby completed her treatment and forged forward in life with a new perspective: “life changed more dramatically when everything was actually done. It changed how I viewed life- I didn’t sweat the small stuff, I prioritized relationships important to me and I no longer let things like work stress get to me.”
For those post-treatment months, she felt like life was falling into place. She began dating someone and felt secure in her career, but she was having some scar tissue complications from radiation that eventually required an MRI. This routine MRI would show spots on her liver. A subsequent biopsy revealed cancer. In a split second, Abby went from a stage 1 survivor to being diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
For Abby, calling her mom and telling her news was the most heartbreaking: “it broke me, telling my family.” It also meant she had to tell her boyfriend, only officially so for a little over a month, with the knowledge he could choose to walk away. He remained by her side and joined her at the doctor’s office to discuss what life with a stage 4 diagnosis looked like. Her doctor looked right at her and said, “you can be the kind of the person who pulls the covers over their head and feels sorry for themselves, or be the kind of person who goes out and lives their life. You get to choose.” That same night she bought a dress, got her makeup done and attended a breast cancer event, where that same doctor happened to be. He donated that night in her honor.
Abby is coming up on four years living with metastatic breast cancer, but she is quick to focus on all of the positive things that have happened in that time. She got engaged AND married in 2021, in front of family and friends. Joys like that help her to stay positive: “I can feel sorry for myself in moments, but I try to stay as positive as I can and focus on the great things I do have in my life.”
The stage 4 realities can hit in moments when she meets other women, stage 2 or 3, in the thick of treatment, who are suffering effects from medications. Though terminal, her medications are aimed at keeping her as well as possible for as long as possible, whereas a stage 2 or 3 diagnosis comes with a lot more aggressive treatment. It’s an irony that sometimes causes a level of guilt for Abby. Similarly, Abby notes how unhelpful it is when people comment, “you don’t look sick.” Though she understands it may just be naivety to what stage 4 actually looks like, she hopes people learn to “let people figure out their healing journey on their own, without giving advice or different treatment ideas.”
Abby’s biggest advice to those newly diagnosed is to “take it one step at a time because you cannot predict your future with cancer. Live in today and don’t stress yourself out about tomorrow. Be kind to yourself- it can be so hard when you lose your hair, gain/lose weight and more- to not come down on yourself, but you’re just a person doing the best you can do.”