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I'm 28 and have 10 years to live. How do I navigate life?

The time I've been given poses a challenge: It's too soon to break out the bucket list, but not quite enough time to get married and have a family.
/ Source: TODAY

Like any other 20-something, I had the usual goals to check off that proverbial "to do in life" list: find a partner, get married, excel in my career, buy a house and have a kid or two. I lived my life assuming those plans wouldn't change — maybe they'd evolve slightly and I would prioritize some over others, sure, but I had a vision for my life and it was wonderful in its simplicity.

Then, during a routine physical a little over one year ago, those plans evaporated. A kind oncologist with sympathetic eyes sat across from me and told me that I will die in 10 years — 15 if I'm lucky.

I'm 28 years old.

"I am dedicated to remaining realistic about my diagnosis," Chiara Riga said. Courtesy Chiara Riga

I had noticed some pain and a lump in my right breast a year earlier. I was due for my yearly exam with my primary care physician, so I casually mentioned the small bump during the end of my visit. I was assured, given my age, that it was just a cyst, but my doctor sent me for an ultrasound just in case.

I remember the radiologist practically laughing me out of the room — "I can't believe you even feel it," he said, telling me it was nothing. Still, he told me that if it continued to hurt, I could come back and have the assumed cyst drained.

A year later, I found myself complaining to the same doctor about the same lump, only then it was larger and more painful. This time, there were no blind reassurances, but a palpable hint of urgency and fear in my doctor's voice. "Oh, that's pretty big," she said while examining the lump. "We definitely want to get you down to radiology."

A couple days later, the radiologist told me that I did not, as he had assumed, have a cyst. "I'm genuinely concerned that you have breast cancer," he said.

What followed was a whirlwind of mammograms, biopsies and additional tests. Technicians and radiologists skipped their lunches so I could get the results as soon as possible. "We don't want to make you wait any longer," they said. During testing, doctors found calcifications, then another tumor on my left breast, then tumors in just about every bone in my body.

I was positive for hormone-driven breast cancer. The cancer was stage 4. There would be no chance of recovery.

"I realized that I could be miserable in whatever time I had left, or I could find things that make me happy within the confines of my disease," Riga said. Breast Cancer Portrait Project / Courtesy Chiara Riga

Suddenly, all my carefully crafted "next steps" and presumed life milestones were folding into themselves until they were no longer recognizable — my "plans" now relics of a life I could no longer live.

When we began all the tests, there was hope for swift, aggressive, early-stage cancer treatment. I braced myself for what I assumed would be a relentless regimen of chemotherapy, maybe radiation, then unquestionable remission. It would be difficult, sure, but I was young. I'd take a year, maybe two, to focus on cancer treatment, then I'd return to my "to do in life" list as scheduled.

It's not as though there was any point in promoting the terminal cancer patient. Why should I even try?

Then, once we learned it was stage 4, came a new plan — instead of fighting cancer, I would learn to live with it for as long as my cancer allowed. I wouldn't undergo IV chemotherapy or invasive surgeries right away, but would instead take daily oral medications and have monthly shots administered that would simply slow my cancer down.

With that new plan came a steady descent into the dark place — a headspace where I could pivot from grief to anger to denial and back again. I'd disassociate when I was around friends preparing to close on a home or give birth to their first child. I'd contemplate the purpose of going to work — it's not as though there was any point in promoting the terminal cancer patient. Why should I even try?

"I have new plans now — ones made possible by a team of doctors, nurses, counselors, support groups, supportive family members and cherished friends," Riga said. Courtesy Chiara Riga

Eventually it became apparent — to friends, family members, doctors and myself — that staying in the dark place was not sustainable. So another plan came into purview — one of boundless optimism and hope. I told myself that if I just stayed positive and didn't fully acknowledge what was happening, I would be able to live my life as if everything was "normal." Things wouldn't be OK, but they would appear to be OK. I bottled up all my fear, anger and disappointment — another cancer sitting inside my body, multiplying until I could no longer contain the malignant anguish.

It wasn't until I was watching an episode of "Schitt's Creek" that I realized this new plan of toxic positivity wasn't sustainable, either. In the episode, Stevie Budd (played by Emily Hampshire) says she doesn't want to watch life happen from behind a desk, referring to her position as a motel clerk. "That's exactly what I am experiencing right now," I told myself in between sobs. "I'm going through all this, watching my friends live their lives, from behind my own desk."

Then another breakthrough came — this one while watching an episode of "America's Got Talent." A contestant, Jane Marczewski, appears on stage and shares her story: She, at a similarly young age, has stage 4 cancer, too. "You can't wait for life not to be hard anymore for you to start to be happy," she says.

That's when it all started to turn around. I realized that I could be miserable in whatever time I had left, or I could find things that make me happy within the confines of my disease.

Riga said that while her life plans have changed, she still has lots left to do. Breast Cancer Portrait Project / Courtesy Chiara Riga

I have new plans now — ones made possible by a team of doctors, nurses, counselors, support groups, supportive family members and cherished friends. Instead of moving in with my parents to save money for my first home, I'm living with my parents to save money to travel. My mother helps me remember to take my medications, encourages me to work out even when I don't want to, and will make dinner when I don't feel up to it.

I have plans to travel to Maui with a best friend from junior and high school. I will be visiting all the national parks in the U.S., starting with Joshua Tree in February. I'm hoping to fly to Greece by the end of next year.

I can’t just ignore the mundane responsibilities of adult life. I have a decade of life left to live.

Unlike a terminal patient who is given only a few months to live, I can’t just ignore the mundane responsibilities of adult life. I can’t just focus all my effort and energy on finishing a bucket list filled with experiential moments that will make me feel more alive. I have a decade of life left to live.

I still plan on working — I love my job, and my coworkers have been another source of support and strength. In the wake of my diagnosis, a group of work friends I have grown particularly close to made sure a different person wrote me a letter every single week, so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by all their thoughts, prayers and sympathies coming at me at once. For a full year, I received one letter a week from a different person in the group.

Finding "my person" isn't a priority, Riga said, although she does still plan to go on the occasional date. Courtesy Chiara Riga

While I no longer wonder what my wedding will look like or consider the middle names of my future children, I do plan to continue dating. Sex is off the table, since I have zero libido thanks to my medications and the fact that treatment has thrust me into early onset menopause. But even though I know how incredibly difficult it is to find someone who is interested in sexless partnership, I'll still swipe through the dating apps and occasionally agree to a random lunch or early dinner. Finding "my person" isn't a priority — a free meal is nice every now and then, but I'd rather spend my time with the people who are in my life instead of using that time to look for someone who isn't.

I'll also continue to work with b-present, an organization that helps adolescent and young adult cancer patients feel supported through their cancer journey.

Riga with friends. She told TODAY that she plans to nurture her existing relationships during the years she has left. Courtesy Chiara Riga

I won't die of old age. Instead, in 10 or so years, my cancer will kill me. I don't think, "If I fight hard enough, I'll make it to 20 years. Or 30 years." I am dedicated to remaining realistic about my diagnosis. As my cancer outsmarts my current treatment plan, my treatments will progress in both severity and intensity until there are no more treatments available.

I won't buy a house. I probably won't get married. I doubt I will have children.

But I will have adventures.

I will go on crappy dates.

I will be present.

I will have treasured memories with loved ones.

I will spend entire weekends watching television on the couch.

I will camp in the woods.

I will make new friends.

And I will hold onto the one life plan that hasn't changed: I won't watch my life pass me by — I will live it.

As told to Danielle Campoamor