As a survivor, what I want everyone to know during Breast Cancer Awareness Month
- Posted on October 15, 2020
- Estimated reading time 4 minutes
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I wanted to share my story, to help as many women as possible minimize the need for harsh breast cancer treatments.
If we can catch breast cancer at Stage 0, surgery is often the only treatment needed. Given all the side effects of the other treatments, this is the best-case scenario because….
ANYONE can get breast cancer!
You may think that because you don’t have a family history of breast cancer or don’t have any family members with the BRCA gene, that you won’t get breast cancer. I used to think the same – boy was I wrong. I was 45 years old, had two wonderful sons (ages 5 and 7) and an amazing husband. We lived an active lifestyle, ate healthy, never smoked, and had the occasional alcoholic drink. We were striving to balance work and personal life just like any other family.
I would get yearly mammograms since age 35, and that year, I decided to ask my friend Jodi, who had gone through breast cancer the previous year, if she thought I should continue getting mammograms. She said, “You have dense breast tissue, right? You should ask for an ultrasound instead; they are more accurate in finding cancer in dense tissue where mammograms are only 53% accurate, and if you have dense tissue you are actually at higher risk of getting breast cancer.”
I remember getting my mammogram report the previous year, stating that I did have dense tissue, but no one from the breast center or my doctor recommended anything additional.
Given this new information, I spoke to my doctor and we agreed I’d get both the mammogram and an ultrasound. I had the mammogram first then walked across the hall to get my ultrasound. The radiologist came in and said, “Your mammogram looks normal, no sign of cancer (so they would not have called me back for more testing), but let’s take a look since you are here.”
Lo and behold – she found a Stage I Invasive (already coming out of the duct) that the mammogram missed. And, when I got my MRI (which if you can get one instead of an ultrasound is close to 95% effective in finding cancer) they found another smaller Stage I tumor on the same side. I was shocked.
Because I had two tumors in one very small breast – they suggested a mastectomy, and I agreed. Take that breast tissue away – I don’t really need it anymore. I also opted for skin and nipple sparing reconstruction, and anyone would have a hard time telling I had a mastectomy.
Although the mastectomy was horrible, I knew I’d be better quick, but I did not expect to hear the news a few weeks later that the profile of the tumor they removed signaled that four rounds of chemo might be a good idea. I FREAKED OUT! I did not want to lose my hair and did not want chemo.
Luckily, being the type-A person I am, I did my research and found that I could save my hair using something called a “cold cap.” There are no inherent risks of using the caps, it’s just a bit of extra work during chemo days, and as it turns out, it’s actually a welcome distraction. So I gathered up my husband and my amazing girlfriends and we saved my hair! No one knew I was going through chemo unless I told them. This was super important to me because I had two small kids and I was starting a new job at Avanade once chemo was done. I found out I had breast cancer after I finished interviewing for my position, and I got the job offer two weeks after my first surgery. Then to my amazement, Avanade was willing to wait for me until after chemo – what an amazing company!
Being able to keep my hair made me feel normal even though nothing was, and I was able to look past the short-term pain knowing I would be OK. Today, I am healthy, cancer free and feel “normal” except the hot flashes from the chemo pushing me into menopause.
It is my hope that all women reading this will learn from my story and takes these steps to find breast cancer as early as possible:
- Find out if you have dense breasts – If you do, ask your doctor to order an ultrasound or MRI.
- Ask your female friends and family members if they have dense breasts – If they don’t know, ask them to get a mammogram to find out.
These simple steps could save your life or that of someone you know. And if you ever have questions for someone that’s been there, I’m proud to be an advocate.