To commemorate breast cancer awareness month, we’re excerpting below a section from Katherine Malmo’s bookWho in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition. Some of you might remember Katherine from her days as Red Tricycle’s sales team member in Seattle. While we’re bummed she’s no longer with the Red Tricycle team, we couldn’t be more thrilled about her new career as a published writer!

Who in This Rooma is about a young woman named Kate (a character based on Katherine herself) who is diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31. While Kate had not yet had children, many women in her young survivor support group were trying to juggle parenting small children (or pregnancy) and cancer treatment. The diagnosis of young mothers with any kind of cancer presents a unique set of challenges and through Katherine’s eloquent storytelling, readers experience firsthand her road to recovery and survival. 

On your thirty-second birthday, over a cup of onion confit at your favorite restaurant, you say to your husband, “I think the right breast has to go.” Then, “How’d you end up with a bald, breastless wife at the age of thirty-two?”

      He says, “Don’t worry, Babe, I’ve always been more of an ass man myself.”

      You try to smile but instead you cry. Tears drip into your soup.

      He raises his glass of wine. “How about we buy a new, sportier car for your birthday?”

      You buy the cancer/birthday car the next day.

      Your husband lists the old car for sale. One rainy night you meet the buyers, a young couple with a baby, in a parking lot. While they install the car seat, you look one last time through the glove box and under the armrest until you’re sure it’s empty. The buyers hand over the cash, and you and your husband drive away without looking back.

      You put a bumper sticker on your new car that says What if the hokey pokey IS what it’s all about?

You are driving the cancer/birthday car to your next support group meeting when your oncologist calls to say the scan showed the tumor had shrunk. You smile and think perhaps this doctor does know something about cancer and chemotherapy and that you will stay with her for now. But you still see danger everywhere and you know that some tumors don’t show up on MRIs.

      This time the group meets in the room with the unlit fireplace and a tea candle burning on a table in the center. Ginger says she wanted to get a hooker for her husband for Christmas. “’Cuz, for god’s sake, the man needed to get laid, and after six months of chemotherapy, I certainly wasn’t in the mood.”

      You’re thinking about starting your own surly survivor club, and decide she should be the second member—or maybe a co-founder. You recognize Ginger as a special friend, one you know you will keep forever.

      Next Allison introduces herself, “Hi, my name is Allison, and, yes, my left nipple still points at the floor.” After chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation, and a hysterectomy, Allison had reconstruction—some tram-flap something-or-other where they sewed her abdominal muscles to her chest. “I go back to correct the floor-pointing nipple next month,” she says. “I hope the recovery is quick because I still can’t hold Noah on my lap. He’s only three but he’s a big boy.”

      Kathy says her mother and aunt both had breast cancer. Already a survivor of thyroid cancer, she was thinking of having a prophylactic mastectomy before she was diagnosed at the age of thirty-six.

      “My breasts were small and lumpy,” she says. “I’d had three biopsies that year. The tumor was hard to find. If my cancer came back, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to catch it in the early stages.” She had her bilateral mastectomy a year ago and her small prosthetic breasts hang low on her chest. “I miss my breasts,” she says. “It would have been nice to keep one.”

      Before they go home all the women jam into the bathroom to look at Allison’s new breasts. She pulls up her shirt.

      “Can I touch them?” someone asks.

      “They look so real.”

      Everyone giggles.

      All you can see is the scar that runs through Allison’s belly button from one hip bone to the other, and you wonder if she needed those abdominal muscles for something else.

Red Tricycle Reader Responses:

Cindy W. writes:
I am a fellow young survivor and know Kathrine from the Young Survival Coalition. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, I urge you to check them out at www.youngsurvival.org/seattle. They have local support meetings twice a month where you can meet with many other young survivors, who all know/get what you are going through. Believe me, there are a lot of us out there – Young women can and do get breast cancer. I was diagnosed almost 5 years ago at the age of 37 (with stage 4 breast cancer) and with a two year old child. I went through 6 months of chemo, 5 surgeries, and 3 months of radiation. The support from my friends/family helped more than they will ever know (meals, playdates for my child while I was going through treatment, etc.) and the support from fellow survivors is immeasurable!

Holly M. writes:
I was just diagnosed in March, and have gone through surgery, reconstruction, and chemo – with two small boys and a husband working full time. I had just finished breast feeding my 4 year old and we are vegetarian, non smokers, etc etc. So I was shocked when I found what I found. Thank goodness I found it early, and it hadn’t spread anywhere else. I have since found out that I have the BRCA gene, and am now facing more surgeries (other breast and ovaries). I am so grateful though, that this diagnosis came after having my children. They are all I ever wanted, and I had two heathly boys, for that I am so grateful. And even though I had chemo through till August 13, me and my boys had a fantastic summer. Nothing can stop us!

MJ writes:
I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in April 2007. I had just lost my best friend and long time boyfriend of 6 years in a tragic car accident. To get me away from the drama of dealing with the tragedy, I took a job in the Middle East. I felt a lump in my breast prior to leaving. In fact, months before his tragic death, I felt a lump. It felt like a frozen pea and was near my nipple. I called a nurse while still living in the states. I was living in Oregon at the time. She told me not to worry and just keep an eye on it. So I did, but when my friend passed the last thing on my mind was to check myself for breast cancer. It was when I was overseas that I was looking in the mirror and noticed the lump was now indenting inward. I knew then it was cancer. I was living in Salalah, Oman and teaching English. I told my mother, who was also teaching over there that I needed to see a doctor. I went in and the woman looked at me with saddened eyes and told me I should go home to the states. It was definitely cancer. I wasn’t scared, I didn’t cry, my mother and grandmother were both survivors. Although I learned later on that my cousin died at the age of 32 of breast cancer. But, I knew I’d be o.k. I am more scared of divorcing my husband then I was of being diagnosed with breast cancer. There’s so much more to the story. I’ll continue it later.

Tami J. writes:
This book is so moving, so gripping. I recommend it to anyone and especially to friends who have been diagnosed. Way too many of them have.

Excerpted from Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition by Katherine Malmo. To buy Katherine’s book, click here. 

Editor’s Note: While we know Katherine’s excerpt deviates from our typical content, all of us at Red Tricycle were struck by Katherine’s compelling story. In honor of breast cancer awareness month and of everyone who has been affected by breast cancer, we want to hear from you — 

Do you know anyone who has been diagnosed? Do you know any young parents who have been diagnosed? And, one of the most important questions of all, how do you best support a young parent who is in cancer treatment? Share your experiences with us in the comment section below or if you’d like to remain anonymous you can send an email to our editor (erin@redtri.com) and we’ll add your stories to this post.