Most people remember Nov. 8, 2016 as the day America held its breath.

Lianne Zhang, 32, remembers Election Day differently.

She remembers it was a really nice morning in New York City. She woke up feeling like it was the beginning of a new chapter.

After casting her ballot, she remembers getting an ultrasound at a place near the LinkedIn building, where she works as a customer success manager. Right after, they asked her to get a mammogram, which was unusual for her age.

It didn’t occur to her something could be wrong.

Even though Zhang had discovered a small lump in her right breast, her obstetrician-gynecologist shrugged it off. It probably wasn’t a big deal. Zhang didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. Most likely, it was a water pocket or cyst, and getting an ultrasound was just a safety measure.

“It wasn’t really easily felt,” says Zhang.

So she went back to work. Then she went to the gym.

In the middle of her usual Tuesday routine, her doctor called. This time, her doctor didn’t sound so calm. She said they needed to look into cancer centers right away. She had already reached out to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Zhang needed to get a biopsy tomorrow.

“What are you saying?” Zhang remembers asking. Her entire body turned ice-cold.

“Didn’t the radiologist tell you?” her doctor replied. “He thinks it’s cancer.”

Zhang felt a small lump in her right breast after coming back from a wedding one evening. Later, doctors determined she had stage 2a breast cancer. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Zhang felt a small lump in her right breast after coming back from a wedding one evening. Later, doctors determined she had stage 2a breast cancer. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Lianne Zhang (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Lianne Zhang (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)

To save or not save her eggs

On Nov. 9, Zhang woke up to what she says was the worst nightmare she could have imagined. She had cancer and Donald Trump was president.

She had stage 2a, triple positive, grade 3 breast cancer. Her cancer cells were growing in random, irregular patterns. In other words, the cancer was aggressive and grew by greater exposure to the hormone estrogen.

Medication that Zhang has to take. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Medication that Zhang has to take. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Zhang wore and styled several different wigs during chemotherapy. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Zhang wore and styled several different wigs during chemotherapy. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)

On top of that, her oncologist asked if she wanted to have kids. If she did, she needed to save her eggs and get surgery first. If not, they’d start with chemotherapy. Then surgery. Then radiation. More treatment. Then 10 years of drugs after that.

Zhang opted out. “You have to decide the next day, within the day, if you want to save your eggs. And it was just really stressful.”

“I didn’t opt for [the procedure],” she says. “It’s something that I do struggle with from time-to-time, but I think it was the right choice at the time.”

She decided to get chemotherapy done in the Washington, D.C. area, so she could be near her family.

Connecting with other patients through Instagram

When Zhang was diagnosed, she struggled to find reliable resources for young women like her.

“I think it’s something very, very niche and unique to have a young woman with breast cancer and have that social community,” she says.

Zhang is easing back into her job at LinkedIn as a customer success manager. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
Zhang is easing back into her job at LinkedIn as a customer success manager. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
She frequents a place called Joe &The Juice in New York City. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
She frequents a place called Joe &The Juice in New York City. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)

With the entrepreneurial spirit of someone who works in tech, Zhang decided to create the community she’d been searching for. She registered an Instagram account, @thepinkribboneffect, and launched a blog with the same name.

Her Instagram followers witnessed her shaved head, surgery scars and vulnerable moments of being in pain.

They could relate, so they began sharing their stories, too. Her community grew.

It’s now been 10 months, and Zhang’s met some of the other survivors. She has several photos where she’s posing with headscarves piled high, celebrating with inflatable donuts and even one where she’s wearing a T-shirt that’d make Beyoncé proud. She’s turned her hospital gown into more than one runway-chic #ootd.

“Unfortunately, more and more young people are having to deal with this, and I want them to have a place where they feel like they have somebody on their side,” says Zhang. “I would post little wins, like, ‘Hey, I walked a mile today.’ People started to reach out … They were helping me as much as I was helping them.”

Reclaiming her life

Zhang is now done with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. She’s back in New York, where she’s getting HER2 treatments every three weeks.

“I’m in a weird limbo now as I finish out the year. I’m trying to balance doing the treatment, dealing with the side effects and going back to work full-time,” she says.

“I don’t feel like having cancer defines me. I think it does contribute to who I am as a person, but I don’t think that it should define a person,” says Zhang. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)
“I don’t feel like having cancer defines me. I think it does contribute to who I am as a person, but I don’t think that it should define a person,” says Zhang. (Abby Verbosky for The Lily)

Last month, Zhang took a short hiatus from social media to focus on healing.

“It’s one of the craziest things: Now, I’m one of the veterans,” she says. But she doesn’t want other cancer patients on Instagram to compare or think her life is perfect these days.

There’s still pain — both mentally and physically.

Yet Zhang isn’t one to dwell in — what she calls — “the black hole of Insta scrolling.”

In her most recent blog post, she ends on this note:

“Since that awful day, I’ve learned to appreciate the most basic, beautiful things out of life … I’ve learned to live boldly, stress less, value health the most and to love with every fiber of my being.

How to approach mental health at work, plus other self-care tips

9 women share what’s in their mental health toolbox

Survey of LGBTQ teens finds worry and anxiety: ‘I don’t trust anyone’

Just 26 percent of those surveyed said they felt safe in their classroom