At only 21, Danielle Kozek discovered she had a tumour in her breast and opted for a double mastectomy
"I was leaning on one side and found a big bulge in my right breast," she said. "It was about the size of a golf ball."
Doctors told the 21-year-old it was nothing to worry about, but she thought she'd better get a second opinion.
Good thing she did. A biopsy was done and a couple of weeks later Danielle learned that she had a large phyllodes tumour in her breast. They are extremely rare - occurring in less than one per cent of cancers - and don't respond to chemotherapy or radiation.
"It all happened at a weird spot in my life when I was breaking up with my boyfriend," she explained tearfully. "My emotions about the disease were put on hold and focused more on my relationship, so I went very numb."
Danielle spent as much time as possible with friends, trying to distract herself from her illness.
"It took me to a really dark spot," she explains. "I didn't deal with it. There were long waiting periods between doctors appointments which were really hard, but I didn't cry once until the surgery day."
Scared, but thinking as logically as she could, the option to have just a lumpectomy to remove the large tumor didn't seem enough.
"There was a risk of deformity and scarring there," she explained, "so I asked if I could have a mastectomy on the one side with implants put in to match the left side. Then I thought maybe it wouldn't look right, so for cosmetic and preventative reasons I decided on a double mastectomy."
In January 2012, Danielle underwent that procedure, and the long process of rebuilding her breasts began. First came the tissue expanders where her breasts used to be, then doctors had to slowly increase her tissue expanders with fluid. It was a long and painful process. After the implants, Danielle needed two more surgeries as her breasts were not yet healing properly.
Attending a few sessions with a support group helped Danielle.
"I first went with my mom and we had to go around the room and introduce ourselves," Danielle said, smiling. "Everyone was ready to hear my mom's story of breast cancer; then were shocked when they realized we were there because of me."
There seemed to be so many questions that needed answering, and Danielle found some of those answers at the group.
"I didn't know if I would lose my nipples or not, and I was afraid of the scarring, so women were lifting their shirts and showing me their nipple tattoos, or their fake nipples - kind of like show-and-tell," she laughed.
Danielle has ongoing issues with her breast reconstruction as her chest cavity simply wants to absorb the implants. However, despite the pain and the possibility of more surgeries, her decision to have the double mastectomy is something she doesn't regret.
"The likelihood of reoccurrence was pretty high," she said. "And as I was in my early20s I just wanted to lower the risk of that happening."
Focused on moving forward with her health, Danielle works hard to maintain a positive attitude about her experience.
"I don't look at it as a negative thing; it happened, and it didn't ruin my life," she says. "It just made me a little less sympathetic to people who sweat over small things because I don't have time to waste for that. Life is a good thing - so I want to get on with the good things."
She adds with a smile, "Ironically, it was October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, when I found my lump," she said. "So every October, I post on Facebook to my friends: Hey girls, remember to check yourselves. Touch your boobies'"
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure supports breast cancer survivors like Danielle. Fundraising is critical to support more research, education and awareness programs and to one day create a future without breast cancer.
Kelowna's CIBC Run for the Cure is Sunday Oct. 6; last year in Kelowna over 1,400 participants raised $306,226.
To register for or donate to the CIBC Run for the Cure, visit www.runforthecure.com.