By Cradale Waller
Why am I a 24-year-old getting a masters in cytopathology? I always knew I wanted to be a doctor and studied biology as an undergrad at Virginia Union University.
One evening after class, I went to my local ER in Richmond, VA. My right nipple hurt to the touch, was changing color and there was a discharge. I was embarrassed, so went to the ER by myself. It was my nipple after all. The doctors and nurses examined me and took some samples of the fluid. They told me I needed to be seen by specialists the next day at VCU Massey Cancer Center. I immediately knew something major was about to change my life, but I didn’t know for sure what it was going to be.
Nervous and scared, I went to Massey in the morning, alone again. It was clear to me the doctors were treating me as if I was in a very urgent situation. A biopsy was immediately performed and the three subsequent days were the longest of my life. I was going through final exams and waiting for my test results.
On May 4, 2013, I learned I was a 22-year-old biology student with stage 1 breast cancer. I didn’t know how to respond to the news. I felt like I was in a dream. Maybe it was a terrible mistake, a misdiagnosis? There has been a lot of cancer in my family, and my great aunt had breast cancer. So many things were going through my mind. Will I die? How do I tell my family? How will my cancer diagnosis impact my matriculation? Will I need to drop out of school? What if I lose my hair? Have you seen my picture?!? I went into a depression because of all the “what ifs.”
My first call was to one of my best friends. She had an aunt with breast cancer and I knew I’d be able to confide in her. It was about two weeks before I’d tell my mom, because I needed to be in a better place before speaking with her. When I finally called her from school, we did our usual catching up. I wanted to see how her day was going before I’d tell her my news. She was very calm with me, but I later learned she was quite upset. No parent wants to hear her son has breast cancer. We were two hours apart, she wanted to come down to school to nurture me like a mom would, but I assured her I had a great support system.
At school, I had just been crowned Mr. University and joined a fraternity. When I told my line brothers, the guys were shocked. They’re a very masculine, tough group and played an essential role in my recovery. With the support of my friends, family, faith and prayer, I was going to be OK.
The doctor told me I’d need to make some lifestyle changes. He wanted me to change my diet to keep my immune system strong and even encouraged me to be wary of chicken treated with hormones. Remember, I’m a college kid living mostly on cheeseburgers and pizza. It was time to add fruits and veggies to my diet to stay healthy. The doctor also wanted me to get more sleep, so I adjusted my course schedule.
Since I didn’t want to drop out of school, I opted for radiation treatment instead of chemo. I was given Tamoxifen for five months after the cancerous breast tissue was removed. You can barely even tell I had surgery and the doctors didn’t need to remove my nipple. What was more obvious to me were the side effects from the Tamoxifen. I was jittery, anxious, nervous and losing weight. It was hard enough dealing with all the emotions that go along with breast cancer, the medication just made everything worse.
As Mr. Virginia Union, one of the top student leadership roles on campus, I was the face of the university. I kept my news under wraps for a while and felt like crap most days. Finally at a coronation, it was during my acceptance speech that I disclosed my male breast cancer news to the crowd.
From that moment on I became a person others found strength from. People have told me I’m a pillar of hope for them. I’ve made it OK for others to accept the challenges they face. Not just those with cancer, but any disease.
The following year I did a local TV interview and people would come up to me in stores and start conversations. They’d remark about how positive and encouraging I am, and how I’m always smiling. They’d wonder how someone so young and vibrant could be so positive about something with such a bad reputation. I’m beating cancer, cancer isn’t beating me.
This can happen to you, just like me. Pay attention to the changes in your body, they could be life threatening. Get checked. I did and it saved my life.
After my male breast cancer diagnosis, I became more interested in cancer research. I want to learn more about cancer, not just what it is. I’m focusing on a branch of pathology that studies the cellular part of a disease.
Now I see my doctor every 6 months for an exam and imaging. Just recently I had genetic testing too. I am negative for the BRCA mutations.
There’s life after the fight if you can make it through. It’s a privilege to fight, a blessing. There’s so much life to live after cancer, you’ll be glad you fought it and beat it.
After my diagnosis, I got a tattoo on my left wrist. It speaks to my life after treatment and says, “To be continued.”