About 1 in every 8 American women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, but you never think it's going to happen to you.
Melissa Zahn, an elementary school principal from Jordan, Minnesota, has been battling the disease for six years.
When Zahn found a lump in her breast in 2011, she knew in the pit of her stomach something was wrong. But she'd just been checked by her doctor at a regular physical, and was about to leave on a 10-day trip to Hawaii. To calm her fears, she made a last-minute appointment with a different physician. He also felt the lump, but told her it was probably nothing.
Later that year, Zahn was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. She was 27.
The diagnosis was shocking and devastating for Zahn and her husband, Brian, especially because they'd been hoping to start a family soon. But Zahn was determined to fight – and her doctor wanted her to start chemotherapy ASAP.
Knowing the drugs could ruin her chances of having children, Zahn and her husband opted for embryo storage "just in case."
"We stored at that time 10 embryos. And with [the cancer] being stage 1, I was like 'Well, I don't know if we'll need them, but they're there,'" she told GoMN.
As she adjusted to a new reality, Zahn felt newfound appreciation – for her teaching job, her family and friends, and for her life.
And after four rounds of chemo, repeated doses of Tamoxifen (an anti-estrogen pill), and a double mastectomy, all appeared good.
Ups and downs
In 2014 Zahn went in for a follow-up scan, anxious to hear good news – that the cancer was still gone, and she had the green light to get pregnant.
Instead, she learned the cancer had spread to her liver and progressed to stage 4.
"That was really, really disappointing news. Because it not only was back, but it was worse," Zahn said. "There again go what I thought our chances were of having of a family, and at that point I was just like, 'Well we're just not going to have kids, I'm going to be lucky to be here.'"
But a few months later – and out of the blue – a co-worker and friend of Zahn's offered to be the couple's gestational carrier.
"She came into my office one day and said, 'Melissa, this sounds really weird, but I would love to be able to carry for you,'" Zahn said. "I couldn't even believe it. And I said, 'Well let me talk to Brian,' because we hadn't really been pursuing anything, we'd been so overwhelmed."
It was a long and meticulous process, but ultimately a success – the surrogate became pregnant in the spring of 2015. Around the same time, Zahn made a big move in her career, becoming the principal of Sweeney Elementary in Shakopee.
Suddenly, Zahn was preparing to become a mom and running a school of 700 students – all while battling stage 4 breast cancer, and at only 31 years old.
Her seemingly endless energy and positivity inspired her community, and in 2015, she was recognized as one of WCCO's Excellent Educators.
“It’s amazing. She is a gift to all of us here and to our community, and she inspires other people to go above and beyond what they might typically do,” assistant principal John Mahal said at the time.
In January 2016, Hank Gerald Zahn – aka Henry – was born, giving Zahn even more reason to beat the odds.
"I cannot even imagine not having him. I think he has been so huge in helping me to stay focused on what's important, and moving forward, and not giving up. Because he's here, and he needs me."
Motherhood on top of cancer hasn't been easy, but Zahn has proven she can handle a challenge. She and her husband are in the process of doing it all over again – another woman has offered to carry the couple's second baby.
In January, the Zahns' last two embryos will be transferred.
Commit to Conquer
Earlier this year, Zahn was inspired to share her journey with others.
She started a blog called Commit to Conquer, where she writes about the intimate details of what it's like to battle cancer at a young age, and have children through a gestational carrier. As the blog grows, she hopes to connect with other people who may be struggling.
"I want to give someone else hope. Someone else can see that there are other 30-year-olds out there with cancer, who are still living their lives," she said.
Her current reality is still tough.
Working in tandem with an oncologist and a naturopath, Zahn's treatments recently increased to multiple times per week, and she made the difficult decision to take a medical leave from her job in order to focus on healing.
But her optimism hasn't faded.
"It's not easy, and I'm not positive every day – especially around the times when scans come and go. It's really hard, but I try to stay positive and focus on my family and being there for them too."
Friends and family created a GoFundMe page to help cover Zahn's medical expenses. You can donate here.