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Not a victim

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Eliza Snyder-Hewitt, 22, of Star Tannery, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer on Jan. 4 and has been learning about the disease from books her friends gave her. She created a blog to connect with other cancer sufferers online. — Rich Cooley/Daily

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Snyder-Hewitt has been using a juicer to make sure she gets all the nutrients her body needs as she fights breast cancer. — Rich Cooley/Daily

Young woman with breast cancer blogs about experience

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

STAR TANNERY-- Seated beside a mountain of books about breast cancer, Eliza Snyder-Hewitt sounds like a human dictionary rattling off statistics, medications and procedures as if she herself were a doctor.

"I have a memory from being in college," she said. "Sometimes the professors only say something once."

But her mother disagrees.

"She has it," Suzanne Hewitt said. "She has that memory."

Studying up on her recent diagnosis might seem like too much to handle, following three whirlwind weeks of doctors' appointments, a double-mastectomy and preparation for up to four months of chemotherapy and eventual radiation. For Snyder-Hewitt, though, the books are essential.

The books help her fight back and her blog -- NotYetaSurvivorButNotaVictim.tumblr.com -- helps her reach others who are in a similar situation.

She's 22, and three weeks ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Only three classes from a master's degree in history education at Emory & Henry College, Snyder-Hewitt had a double mastectomy at Winchester Medical Center on Jan. 11.

Her age, while striking, is actually a benefit to her. It means that despite the aggressive form of cancer she has -- HER2-positive, which caused the lump in her right breast to grow to 2.9 centimeters from July to December -- her chances of survival are greater than they would be if she were much older.

Still, knowing she's only 22, that she has no family history of breast cancer, and that, until three weeks ago, her biggest concerns for the near future were walking with her graduating class in May and walking down the aisle with her fiance, Thomas Russell, on Aug. 10, a diagnosis of stage 2A breast cancer became all the more consuming.

To top it all, Snyder-Hewitt points out that she could have begun treatment six months ago, when a cosmetic surgeon found the lump in July.

Like many other women her age, Snyder-Hewitt thought that cancer, particularly breast cancer, could not touch her. She was diligent about attending yearly checkups since she was 15, and last year was no exception.

"I had my annual in May," she said. "Nothing came up. My gynecologist was very thorough." In July, while visiting a cosmetic surgeon to consult on a breast augmentation, she learned of the lump.

He told her, "You need to get this checked," she said. But she didn't.

"I mean, a lot of women get breast tumors. And I was going to school full time as a graduate student. I was working full time at a hotel." She thought she had time.

"I just put it off, put it off, put it off until December," she said. After having an unrelated cyst removed, she noticed the area around the lump was sore and swollen -- and there was blood.

"There might have been some kind of catalyst, but medically there was no connection," she said, remembering a doctor later telling her, "There's no way of medically saying your surgery caused these symptoms of breast cancer to come up."

That's when she told her mother.

"I called. I was panicked," Hewitt said. It was the holidays, so her daughter's regular OB/GYN was on vacation, but within a couple of days, they got an appointment with Dr. John Wood at the Women's Diagnostic Center at Winchester Medical Center. "I called on Tuesday, and on Thursday we were at the Trex Center," she said. "They took it and ran with it."

"By that following Wednesday, we knew I had breast cancer," Snyder-Hewitt said.
"It's scary, the picture of the tumor," she said. "It just looked like someone had dropped a rock onto the picture, you know; it's just this big black mass. ... It's just like a river pebble that someone just left there." 

"We really weren't prepared for the 'C' word," she said.

Breast cancer surgeon Anita Minghini met with them to talk about their options.

"They moved very quickly, because of my age, the size of the tumor and the fact that I'm HER2-positive," Snyder-Hewitt said.

HER2 breast cancers tend to grow more quickly and are more likely to spread and come back compared with HER2-negative breast cancers, according to breastcancer.org.

"I kind of had one of those, they call them the 'come to Jesus' moments," Snyder-Hewitt said. "Mine was when she was doing measurements, and from what I had read about HER2, it was not [a matter of] if cancer got into the other breast, it was when, and that terrified me."

She remembers telling Minghini, "I'd feel a lot better if you took the left one too, and the doctor agreed. "She realized that it was a very big decision for me to make," Snyder-Hewitt said. "She realized that I had done my research."

After her surgery, she learned that cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. From a culture of 13 lymph nodes, doctors found cancer in three. As a result, Snyder-Hewitt said, she'll need radiation on her chest wall after her months of chemo.

She started a blog to reach out to others.

"If you feel a lump, don't wait five months like I did. ... If I hadn't waited, if there are other people who don't wait," she said, letting the sentence trail off. "Waiting five months certainly didn't help." But almost immediately she changed gears again, adding, "I can beat myself up all I want, but if I keep doing that, I won't get better."

Her blog includes information she's found online that can help inspire others with cancer or provide data for those looking for answers.

"Now that I've been diagnosed," she wrote on Jan. 20, "all I want to do is tell young women how important it is to get checked and that cancer is not as scary once you find the positives and educate yourself."

Since launching the blog on Jan. 6, she has received messages from other young people with breast cancer.

"Someone wrote back immediately and said, 'You're a strong individual,' and giving me all these positives," she said. "That was the day I got diagnosed, and for her to write back..." The writer is 19 years old and also is HER2-positive.

"I think that's when it finally hit home," Snyder-Hewitt said. "That's when I was like, 'I have breast cancer'. ... It stopped being a sentence and started being a reality."

Her experience also has inspired family and friends to set up checkups with their own doctors.

"That more than anything is what I hope that happens," Snyder-Hewitt said. "That they'll be scared enough to go out and get checked." Several of her friends did get checked, and two of them found lumps.

"Maybe we can reduce the number of women who get double-mastectomies because it's the only option," Snyder-Hewitt said.

"Now because she's had it," her mother said, "it puts me at a higher risk, and it puts my daughter Megan at a higher risk. ... Every year since I turned 40 I've had a mammogram."

Since the diagnosis, friends and family have descended on Snyder-Hewitt. Russell has been knitting his fiancee a hat to wear during her weeks of chemo. Before the double-mastectomy Snyder-Hewitt had her curly hair chopped off in favor of a pixie cut, which would less noticeably fall out during chemo. A college friend opted for the same haircut that day, and she plans to shave her head as well, when Snyder-Hewitt shaves hers next Saturday.

"I'm not going through chemo holding on to my hair hoping that the chemo drugs don't take my hair," Snyder-Hewitt said. "I'm not in control of a lot of it. ... As much as I can be in control of, I am being in control of."

Friends also inundated her with books about breast cancer and diet options, and one gave her a juicer she plans on using during chemo.

"If you find food that works, you make it a lot," she said. "Because if it's the only thing that works, your options get a little limited. ... The juicer just gives us another tool."

Now on hiatus from school while battling cancer, Snyder-Hewitt still plans to walk in May and finish her three classes later; she also plans to have a civil union with Russell in August with a more formal wedding later. In the meantime, she spends her days studying -- for her own knowledge and for the blog.

"I want to make cancer less scary and I feel like the way to do that ... is to put in plain terms, this is what it feels like, this is what it looks like," she said.

Knowing that others survived what she'll go through gives her hope.

"They have to get into the horizon to tell you what the horizon looks like."

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