College, Cancer and a Double Mastectomy: A 22-Year-Old's Story

Colleen Cappon was 21 years old and had just started her senior year at State University of New York Cortland in Cortland, N.Y., when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. One year after originally told her story, Cappon, now 22, is in remission and working at the FOX News Channel. Here, she tells her story.

This time last year I was in the middle of four months of chemotherapy treatments. I was bald as an egg and was planning a double mastectomy.

My how things have changed.

Now I have a college diploma, a clean report from my doctors, and my very own desk at FOX News Channel in New York. My breast cancer ordeal couldn’t be further behind me.

Enjoying Senior Year

There is no worse feeling than not being in control of your health, to be helpless in the decision of where your life is going. Although I may never feel totally in control again, I at least know that I did everything I possibly could to get rid of this, and since my mastectomy I have a good night’s sleep every night.

The rest of my senior year at SUNY Cortland was a blast. I made it a point to never miss a class all fall semester during my treatments, mostly as a challenge to myself.

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I continued living in a house with eight of my best friends, who along with my boyfriend made me forget every day that there was even anything wrong with me.

By the end of the school year, I had eleven wigs in every color and style, seven pairs of fake eyelashes, and countless new makeup products to try and cover my colorless face. But what makes me most proud is that my friends and I had the most fun of anyone on the college campus.

We were out every weekend dancing and having a great time, and took a road trip to Florida for Spring Break. I was pretty much telling my cancer, "Nice try, but no cigar."

Although … it held me back from one thing ... the wet t-shirt contests!

Graduation meant more to me than most. My friends and family had a little more to celebrate. That I was able to graduate on time, and that I was able to graduate at all. Others in my position may not have been so lucky.

I had my double mastectomy two days after Christmas last year, and have never been so pumped about anything in my life. The surgery definitely surpassed Christmas morning on the excitement scale. Since I had been diagnosed in July, I felt like I had this rotting, diseased flesh on me that I wanted gone the second I found out about it.

My boobs and I used to have a good relationship, but they pissed me off and caused me all kinds of problems, so they had to go. After the mastectomy, I woke up with a feeling of relief, tissue expanders to start the reconstruction process, and one sore upper body. When people ask me how the pain was, I just tell them it hurt so good.

From there, I traveled a half hour every week from my house at SUNY Cortland to the doctor’s to get saline injected into the expanders until they were the size of my "old ones."

Editor’s Note: Tissue expanders are used in cosmetic and restorative surgery to help the body grow additional skin and other tissue.

The expanders felt and looked ridiculous, and I was always pretty sore the days they were expanded. It was only a little each week, but the muscle was tight. Good thing I had a cute ... I mean talented plastic surgeon.

The Future and Fertility

My biggest concern was what was going to happen with my reproductive system, or as I like to call it, my "baby maker."

At 21, you don't care about having kids until someone tells you that you can't. Egg harvesting was not an option because I needed to start chemotherapy immediately. I just had to wait to see what happened and how the drugs would damage my body. It was absolutely devastating and I tried to tuck it in the back of my mind until my treatments were over, but it was by far the toughest thing.

I am ecstatic to say that after a few tests where my gynecologist can get a good close look at everything down below, I have been reassured that my uterus and ovaries miraculously look just like any other 22-year-old’s, and that baby-making is well within my reach in the future. Talk about a relief.

I have made a few lifestyle changes in the past few months. I take Tamoxifen daily, a drug that helps stop estrogen production in my body, since my tumor was estrogen receptor positive.

I will continue to take it for five years. I try to stick to a soy-free, low-fat diet, since fat percentage and soy are directly linked to increased estrogen production, and therefore breast cancer. I steer clear of cigarettes, which goes without saying, and I keep my alcohol consumption to under three drinks per week.

I go to the gym six days a week, slather on the sunscreen, take vitamin D, and buy hormone-free milk. I was leading a pretty healthy life before, and most of these things are common sense, but needless to say, I now pay special attention.

A lot of good things have come out of my breast cancer. I was always someone who was easy to please, but now almost nothing bothers me. Almost nothing is so bad that you need to make a fuss over it.

I try to have the most fun I can everyday and just take the time to appreciate that I am healthy.

I was able to meet many new people who I am now close with, who I may not have met otherwise. By being on FOX, and speaking at a few engagements, I reached literally hundreds of young people and gained a sense of accomplishment from that like you wouldn’t believe. I received so many e-mails and messages online from people who really learned something from me, and I can only hope it has prevented someone from having to do what I did.

My older sister, age 29 at the time, went to get checked out just for good measure soon after I was diagnosed. She has a husband and a 3-year-old son. Turns out she had pre-cancerous cells that had the potential to turn into something nasty if she didn't catch it in time.

Luckily, she didn't need any treatment but she did get the same double mastectomy and reconstruction by the same surgeons as I did. Our doctors and us agree that it was the best decision we could have made. And now she is pregnant with another nephew or niece for me!

I am not big on the idea that things happen for a reason, but if there ever was a time when that was true, this is it. If I hadn't gotten breast cancer, who knows if my sister would have caught things in time? For that one reason, I can honestly say I am glad I got it.

To make a long story short, I feel good as new. The word "remission" is such a gray area. I have to wait a few years until I can officially say that I am cancer-free, because technically it is too soon to tell.

However, as far as I am concerned, its good as gone. With the most extreme treatment I could get, and the most extreme surgery, plus a positive attitude, I have no doubt that cancer is no longer a problem for me.

But reoccurrence is always a possibility, and if it does come back, I will be prepared. I hope that all who read this will be more aware of the dangers of breast cancer in young women, and try to spread the word.

If you have a family history, please, please, please get checked out and don't ignore anything you think is out of the ordinary. At the same time, don't cause a panic. The chances of a 21-year-old woman you know getting breast cancer are very slim, but the possibility is out there.

Being bombarded by pink ribbon products during Breast Cancer Awareness Month is not the only time to keep your cancer risk in mind. It's time to start taking it personal throughout the whole year. Especially if you want to enter any wet t-shirt contests.


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