“You have breast cancer.” Those words, dreaded by any woman, were especially shocking to Carissa Libhart of Lititz as she heard her family doctor pronounce them over the phone in the autumn of 2010. As she cradled her beautiful newborn daughter in her arms, Carissa wondered how it was possible that she, a 27-year-old seemingly healthy new mother, could have possibly heard her doctor correctly.
After all, it had been less than a year since she discovered a lump in her breast during a self-exam after learning about a coworker’s cancer diagnosis. Following an ultrasound to check the lump, Carissa remembers, “I was told I had a benign fibroadenoma, which is basically just fatty tissue, and that they would follow up a few months later.” When she found out she was pregnant, she mentioned the fibroid to her OBGYN and asked if it would impact breastfeeding. She was told that it was “normal” and that the hormones from pregnancy might even make the mass grow, but she shouldn’t be concerned.
“So throughout my pregnancy,” Carissa says, “I felt fine and nothing was painful. The lump was growing, like they told me, but at first I really wasn’t concerned.” However, the mass continued to grow. It grew so large that Carissa started to wonder if something was wrong, but her doctors still assured her she was fine: “Nobody showed concern. Nobody looked at it.”
Nine weeks later, after giving birth to a healthy girl, Carissa went for her follow-up ultrasound. Doctors immediately scheduled a biopsy and discovered the mass was not in fact a benign fibroadenoma, but stage three breast cancer.
“I didn’t even know what to say,” she recalls. She called her husband Ian immediately and asked him to come home from work. “In the meantime, I put my daughter in her little bouncer, and I remember just walking in circles in my house, kind of screaming but not even recognizing my own voice, looking at her and going, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do? What am I going to do?’”
From that point, Carissa experienced what she describes as a whirlwind of tests and appointments. Through a family connection, she met with the chief breast surgeon at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York City and made the decision to temporarily relocate her family from their home in Lititz to her parents’ house in New Jersey, where she embarked on an aggressive treatment plan that involved four months of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts), and radiation.
Battling the typical side effects of cancer treatment on top of having a newborn left Carissa exhausted at the time, however she is quick to note that her daughter was her number one motivation for staying strong through the realities of hair loss, nausea, and extreme fatigue. “She was the best medicine for me,” she says, “because I felt like I couldn’t lie around and feel sorry for myself. I had a little one that I needed to take care of, and I didn’t that want that to be taken away from me.”
Now cancer-free for six years, Carissa says her battle has taught her many lessons. Armed with the knowledge that she is a carrier of the hereditary BRCA1 cancer gene, she proactively undergoes multiple cancer screenings each year. However, on a psychological level, Carissa says, “I think it’s taught me that when it comes to hair or your body—they’re not what make you who you are.” She grins as she elaborates, “Hair is just an accessory, and at the end of the day so are your boobs, you know?” She thinks for a minute and adds, “I also think you learn that you are a lot stronger than you ever knew you were when you’ve faced something like that. I think it’s made me, in a sense, a better friend and a better person.”
“If you have your health and you have the love and support of your family and friends, you don’t need much else.”