This year for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m going to do something a bit out of my comfort zone and share a very personal story. I hope it will inspire other women to be diligent about monitoring their own breast health.
Toward the end of summer, 2016, I had just stopped nursing my second child. I was lying in bed one night when I noticed some discomfort in my armpit. I started poking around and felt something. It was difficult to tell if it was part of my natural anatomy or not. I had my husband feel it; he went back and forth from my right armpit to my left, not convinced that they felt much different. I was fairly sure I felt something out of the ordinary, so within the next couple days, I made an appointment with my gynecologist’s office.
I met with the nurse practitioner, who wasn’t overly concerned. The area was movable and a little painful. She felt these were signs that it probably wasn’t cancer, but more likely swollen lymph nodes, based on location. But the question remained, what was causing them to be so swollen? She wrote me a script for an ultrasound and I left feeling not too terribly worried. After all, neither of us could feel anything of concern in either of my my breasts.
I started having mammograms early because of my very strong family history of breast cancer and the BRCA1 genetic mutation. But to be honest, after having two babies in two years, (and breast feeding for a good portion of that time), mammograms got pushed off. The recommendation is to wait 6 months post breast feeding, so I wasn’t feeling too terribly neglectful. But after the ultrasound, when the tech asked about my last mammogram, I was embarrassed to say I wasn’t quite sure when my last one had been. And since the ultrasound confirmed I had swollen lymph nodes, the radiologist ordered a mammogram to further investigate why.
Not much could be seen in my VERY dense breast tissue, but the mammogram did reveal lots of little white dots. Apparently it’s normal to have a few of these calcifications scattered throughout the breast, but what was concerning was the quantity and the fact that they were grouped together. This was highly suspicious and I was rushed over to meet with a breast surgeon.
After three biopsies, I received the news on October 5th that I had breast cancer cells in all three tissue samples - two areas of my breast and my lymph nodes. Two weeks later, after undergoing surgery, I was diagnosed with Stage 3, ER/PR+, HER2- breast cancer at 36 years old with 2 babies at home. I’ll get into the many details surrounding my treatments and surgeries, but for the purpose of this post, I hope this will be your takeaway…
1) My mom was also diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-thirties, but her mammogram at the time DID NOT show any abnormalities. I grew up knowing this, so I never thought it would be a mammogram that would provide the clues to my own cancer.
2) Had I pushed that mammogram off for the recommended six months post breast feeding, the cancer would most certainly have spread by that point.
3) My breasts were still so dense that even with stage 3 cancer (and knowing the location of the cancer from the calcifications on the mammogram), my very experienced breast surgeon still COULD NOT feel a tumor in my breast.
4) What ultimately led to my diagnosis was the lump I felt in my armpit. When performing self exams, do not skip your armpits, Ladies!
You must take a multifaceted approach to monitoring your breasts.
Perform self-exams regularly, and again, don’t forget under your arms! Get a yearly mammogram if you’re over 40, or earlier if you have a family history like me. And if you see or feel anything unusual, have it checked out immediately. This includes a lump in the breast or armpit, but also breast or nipple pain, skin dimpling, nipple turning inward, skin discoloration or irritation or nipple discharge. ANY unusual changes to your breasts should be discussed with your doctor. And if you feel something of concern, never allow a doctor to brush you off. A biopsy is the only sure way to confirm what it is that you’re feeling.
Now go check your breasts and please feel free to share my story with the women in your life. If you know someone going through breast cancer or someone facing the uncertainty of genetic risk, I’m happy to answer questions or share any of the details of my ordeal.