At 39 years old, Melissa Kahn White went in for her annual OBGYN appointment. Given her proximity to 40, her doctor encouraged her to get her first mammogram: “I wasn’t nervous or scared. It was just something on my to-do list.” After finding something suspicious, doctors ordered more testing and Melissa all of a sudden “fell into a black hole” of fear and doubt. Nonetheless, she had no family history and didn’t even know anyone with breast cancer, so she enlisted a friend (who happened to be a GYN pathologist) to come with her to her follow up appointments. The waiting period felt torturous and on her 40th birthday, Melissa received a call that she had breast cancer: “I assumed I was going to spend months being bald and vomiting and then I would die.” She thought of her children, 7 and 9 years old at the time, and what their future would be like.
Her treatments proved extremely taxing on her body. She received a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation at Dana Farber. She had just about every bad side effect of chemo including, peeling skin, black fingertips and and burning feet. She also lost all of her hair: “at one point I dove into the pool and when I went to dry off, my eyebrows came completely off. That was really hard.” She was grateful for an amazing wig that made her feel like herself again.
It was the kindness of others that kept her going. When she returned to work, she discovered so many woman who had breast cancer and she simply hadn’t known. It began to build her community of women who could understand what she had been through. The community support feels extra important, as cancer remains on her mind 24/7. She notes that it is easy to feel defeated by her medical world. At her nine year check up, breast cancer was once again discovered. Additionally, Melissa has type 1 diabetes and her daughter battles a rare tumor disease called Neurofibromatosis in tandem with Multiple Sclerosis. It would be easy for her to feel like the cards are stacked against her: “if the odds are 99% good, I know I am the 1%. I do feel like I am walking through life under a black cloud.” Yet in the same breath, Melissa says, “I feel like I am a sign that you can get through hardship. I am not sick right now, I can still find moments of joy, while still living in fear. I think about cancer all of the time- any lump or bump makes me nervous, but I feel a sense of responsibility to be optimistic to show other women going through this disease that it is do-able.” She credits her friend who attended those appointments with her all those years ago for her mantra: “details matter. It might be brutal to get there, but you can be ok.”