Breast Cancer at 24: Brittany’s Story

By Brittany Whitman

 “If you are scared, it’s because you are about to do something really brave… something that can change everything,” I tell the room full of riders in the spin class I’m leading. The stage is mine, the lights are low, and the music is blasting. We have one sprint left, and they’re tired. They’re looking to me for motivation, for that extra push… and I know I’m right where I’m meant to be. 

Brittany Whitman and her fiancé, Tyler Mihaila

Diagnosis

Even though it was only a few years ago, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember my life before cancer. At 24, I had recently graduated from college and was starting my career in finance. I spent my free time catching a spin class, enjoying wine with friends and dating my new boyfriend Tyler. I was perfectly content.

Then I found a lump right under my armpit.

“It can’t be,” Tyler and I said in unison as we examined it. I was calm, yet felt a profound sense of urgency to pick up the phone and call a doctor.  One week later, I was at Cleveland Clinic dressed in a hospital gown and with tears flowing down my cheeks as I listened to my new team of doctors discuss treatment options for Stage 1 breast cancer. I was terrified.

Treatment

The following year was a blur of intense highs and lows. My genetic tests were negative, and there was no family history of breast cancer. It was just bad luck, but I was fortunate to find and treat it early.

The results of my lumpectomy were unclear, and I decided to have a double mastectomy. My doctors recommended chemotherapy before the mastectomy and fertility treatments in case my reproductive system was affected.

Chemotherapy began in the fall. I had four treatments, three weeks apart. I celebrated my last treatment on Dec. 9 by going to a Cavs game with Tyler’s dad – it’s now an annual tradition. My double mastectomy was in late January, with a recovery time of six weeks.

At this point, I’d lost my hair, my breasts and, on occasion, my sanity. But my caregivers all were so compassionate and understanding – I never felt like a statistic or just a patient. I was Brittany, and they took the time to get to know me. They became my friends, and Cleveland Clinic became my second home.

Brittany’s breast cancer surgeon Alicia Fanning, MD (left of Brittany) and plastic surgeon Andrea Moreira, MD (right of Brittany) are now regular riders at her spin class!

Aftermath

I kept going to spin class until my mastectomy. I’d get on the bike and often all I could do was pedal – I couldn’t do the other challenging parts of the class. But I broke a sweat, and that felt good. There’s something about a spin class that makes me feel so badass and empowered. I was able to shut down the outside world completely. I didn’t think about cancer.

In May, my plastic surgeon held my hand and cried with me as she helped me pick out my breast implants for the final reconstructive surgery. By summer, I was cleared to begin exercising and eagerly went to spin classes.

The end of my treatment actually was bittersweet. I was finished with everything and it was awesome. The doctors were telling me I was cancer-free, but at the same time, I felt like, ‘What now?’ I’d been moving so fast to keep ahead of everything, and once I stopped, it hit me like a ton of bricks. If this was what I’d been working toward for the past year, why did I feel stressed out?

I finally realized that I’d just done this really incredible thing: I beat cancer. Before my diagnosis, I didn’t know how strong and resilient I really was – not just my body, but as a person. You never think that something like this is going to happen to you, but when it does, you learn a lot about yourself.

Moving On

Perhaps it’s hard to remember what my life was like before cancer because it’s now blessed with so much clarity and purpose. Soon after my recovery was complete, I became a 4th Angel mentor at Cleveland Clinic to support other patients facing a cancer diagnosis, and I joined the Key to the Cure planning committee to support women’s cancer research. I work with other community nonprofits focused on prevention and early detection of women’s cancers, leading educational workshops and sharing my story at fundraising events.

My hair has grown back, my scars have healed, and Tyler and I are planning our wedding. With continued love and support from my doctors, I am on a path toward a long and happy life.

Exactly one year after my double mastectomy, I became a certified indoor cycle instructor. Now, each week, I inspire a crowd of people to be brave, challenge themselves and turn off the outside world, if only for a moment.

And when I occasionally get stage fright, I remind myself that if I can beat cancer, I can do pretty much anything.