October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In a normal year, we would likely see women gathering across the nation for fundraising walks, painting big cities and small towns alike with seas of pink T-shirts and ribbons. This year those 5K events have either been canceled or moved to virtual platforms, and breast cancer runs the risk of being overshadowed by the more immediate threats of the coronavirus pandemic.
Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 2018, I held on to the security that my healthy lifestyle and relatively young age would protect me from this disease. As an active mom of two young children, I even took pride in the fact that I exercised regularly, ate a nutritious diet, and had no underlying health conditions. In many ways, I felt like I was taking better care of my body now than I did when I was in my youthful twenties.
I share my health hubris with you now, not to instill unnecessary fear or anxiety, but to emphasize the reality that a breast cancer patient has no specific profile. I had no family history of the disease or other risk factors that gave me a heightened awareness. Furthermore, I always got my annual well-woman exam and was pretty good about keeping up with my breast self-exams and never detected any lumps. And yet–I ended up with a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis just a few months before my 39th birthday.
However, I want to share a couple of things from my specific situation that may be helpful to other women in my age bracket. When I was 35, I ended up getting an early mammogram because I had a random and unexplained enlarged lymph node in my armpit. An ultrasound of the node did not show anything concerning, and it ended up healing on its own after a few weeks. It was likely a strange reaction to an overextended muscle stretch or something. However, I feel very fortunate that this random occurrence called me to get what many doctors call a “baseline mammogram.” This initial mammogram at age 35 revealed that, like most thirty-something women, I had extremely dense breast tissue. This by itself is no cause for concern, but it can make it very difficult to detect lumps when they form.
This dense tissue is the reason why I could never feel the mass that had developed in my breast. Even after being diagnosed and images and biopsies revealed the location of the tumor, I still struggled to feel it by touching my breast. My warning sign was actually a random occurrence of a spot of blood in my bra cup. When I noticed it the first time, I was hopeful that it was caused by friction (maybe from that cardio workout I did) or dry, chapped skin in my nipple area. However, when I noticed another spot a full month later, my OB-GYN recommended imaging. The crazy thing is that even the radiologists struggled to detect a tumor when they examined my mammogram pictures. They saw what they called “slight tissue distortion,” but it was not representative of a classic tumor. This is where having that baseline mammogram saved the day.
Thankfully, the doctors were able to go back and look at that initial mammogram from several years before and see that there had been a change in my breast tissue. This was enough of a concern to biopsy the area where that change had occurred and finally locate the stage 2 tumor lurking in the shadows of my dense “youthful” tissue. So my advice to women in their mid-to-late thirties is to ask your doctor about getting a baseline mammogram on file. It could be incredibly helpful (and life-saving) for diagnosing tricky cases like mine.
The other takeaway I learned from this unwanted experience is just how pervasive breast cancer is. The current research tells us that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. On a personal level, I can tell you that since my 2018 diagnosis, I have had three women from my sons’ school community of similar age and health status as me reach out to share news of their own diagnoses. While it’s tempting to think there must be something toxic in our neighborhood water supply, the unfortunate reality is that this disease is just that common.
I’m happy to report that two surgeries and a year of chemotherapy later, I began the tumultuous 2020 by turning 40 and feeling truly great. If you recently hit that 40 mark too, don’t delay getting that mammogram on the books! Despite the challenges of this year, I’m savoring my good health and committed to sharing my story to increase breast cancer awareness in October and beyond.