At 23 years old, engineer Sydney Rozycki was on the cusp of young adult life when she received an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis. But she never saw it as being the end of her story—only a continuation.
All photos by Rachelle Welling Photo
What could a 23-year-old possibly tell you about life experience? A lot. That is exactly why I need to share my story. I could skip right to the end, but the end hasn’t arrived for me.
Cancer inevitably affects each one of us in some way. It doesn’t have to be yourself; it could be a neighbor, a friend or even a parent. For most of my young life, I saw the effects of cancer from afar. It was there, but not something I ever could have imagined happening to me. I was healthy, having never gone to the doctor for anything other than a checkup. I exercised, I did yoga, I took my vitamins—all the things I thought would prevent a cancer diagnosis.
But here is the deal: I found a lump from doing a breast self-examination. At the time, a breast exam was not on my radar or a part of my routine and I was not intentionally looking for anything out of the ordinary. While applying lotion after a shower, I skimmed my chest and noticed something felt different. At first, I assumed the lump was just swollen breast tissue. I honestly thought very little of it. By the following week, it was solid and radiated an indescribable and sharp pain. I went on a summer vacation with my boyfriend and continued living with this mass hoping no one would bump me or want a hug so that I could avoid the sharp pain I felt. I assumed I would be more comfortable in a few days.
Weeks went by and I didn’t know what was true: either I was crazy or it was growing. I called my doctor who believed it was a fibroadenoma, a common noncancerous breast lump. She ordered routine testing and my ultrasound results came back “normal.” With clear margins, it was most likely a benign tumor that needed surgical removal. However, for protocol purposes, I still needed a biopsy of the mass.
I was just beginning my fast-paced, young adult life. Working in a career I loved, I had just moved to the city with my boyfriend and was ready to be independent. But having cancer makes you anything but independent.
The day I received those biopsy results feels like yesterday. I sat at a big table enjoying lunch with my co-workers. The sun was high in the sky, the Detroit River had a rapid current and the flags on the pole were flapping aggressively. I saw the breast center’s phone number on my Caller ID. I knew. I let the call go to voicemail as I enjoyed my last “normal” day with some of my colleagues.
I had breast cancer. I do not remember much else.
Specifically, I was diagnosed with stage III, triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma at 23 years old. It is rare in this young of an adult and it is aggressive. Unsurprisingly, it was a complete shock. The median age for breast cancer is 62 years old in the United States. I was just beginning my fast-paced, young adult life. Working in a career I loved, I had just moved to the city with my boyfriend and was ready to be independent. But having cancer makes you anything but independent.
As it turns out, the diagnosis was not over. Shortly after the initial news, I was thrown through another loop. Protocol sent me to a genetic counselor where I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation. One minute, I was living the typical young professional city life; the next minute, I was fighting cancer and a hereditary gene mutation. Where did I go from there?
While undergoing treatment, I didn’t even recognize myself anymore. People would say, “Oh, you look so good today!” While thanking them politely, I’d think about how I looked nothing like myself or how hard I worked to get my eyebrows even. After all, they say your eyebrows are supposed to look like sisters, not twins, right? I thrived on this philosophy. Day after day, I got better at securing my wig onto my head, too—anything to protect the innocent bystander who might see it fly off my head in the heavy city winds.
This other soul surfaced from within and taught me about gratitude, life, well-being and so much more. It has opened my heart to a greater love, a love for another day where I get to jump out of bed in the morning. I am not sure how to explain it, but colors are brighter and waves crash harder. Maybe it is because my soul has awoken.
Ultimately, after months of chemotherapy ended, I had a bilateral mastectomy. Permanent scars stare me in the face every time I stand in the mirror and remind me that I am a survivor. They say, ‘You can’t love someone else until you learn to love yourself.’ I never realized how true that was until I lost my initial understanding of myself.
As I began to regain my strength as well as grow my hair, eyebrows and lashes back, I began to appreciate how much effort I put into maintaining my appearance. It helped me feel like myself on those days where I saw a stranger staring back at me in the mirror.
I have learned to love this new internal Sydney that I never knew existed. This other soul surfaced from within and taught me about gratitude, life, well-being and so much more. It has opened my heart to a greater love, a love for another day where I get to jump out of bed in the morning. I am not sure how to explain it, but colors are brighter and waves crash harder. Maybe it is because my soul has awoken.
What no one will ever tell you is that this thing—cancer—never ends, even when they tell you that you’re a survivor. Don’t get me wrong: hearing the words “you are cancer-free” just a few months ago was one of the happiest days of my life. When I received my cancer diagnosis, I told myself that I was going to be a fighter. Not a day went by where I wasn’t fighting, but I am tired. It’s my time to rest and finally get the chance to be independent, live in the city and continue life with my sweet boyfriend.
I was given a second chance to tell others my story and bring awareness to breast cancer and BRCA. Cancer does not discriminate and we young ones are not as invincible as we think, nor as independent. If I can offer you a few words of advice, it would be to always advocate for yourself. You know your body better than anyone. If something is not right, do not give up until someone listens to you. If I hadn’t listened to my body, my life would be different right now. I might not even be here to share my story. Live every day to its fullest potential. You have a mind, body, and soul connection unlike anything else. Listen to it. A cancer diagnosis is not the end, it is only the end … continued.