Revised and updated from two years ago …
What you should know about breast cancer NOW (because I didn’t know and it almost killed me)
This October will once again be full of the color pink—ribbons, shirts, walks, camo gear, socks and even pepper spray.
Many of you know that in February of 2012 this all became very personal for me. I was diagnosed with Stage 3a breast cancer after a chance mammogram at age 35. I had not done self-exams in years. Between breastfeeding and motherhood, who has the time?
I had passed my annual and physical doctors’ exams with nothing unusual. But my husband got promoted to an executive position in Dubai, and in advance of our move, my GYN recommended a mammogram “just as a baseline” before we headed overseas. That mammogram saved my life.
My cancer is now gone—three years cancer free – and a sum total of 2 years of treatment: six months of fatiguing, balding chemo, a double mastectomy, six weeks of daily radiation, and over a year of reconstructive surgeries.
This year, make your October different. Educate yourself. Know about yourself and this disease. Awareness is only part of the battle. And, based on how much pink is out there, I think we are all aware that breast cancer sucks.
As one of my #lifer friends put it, “We are all AWARE. We are more than pink ribbons and kitschy phrases like “Save the Tatas”. Most of our “Tatas” are in the hazardous waste bin of an operating room, but I still think we are worth saving….”
Bear with me, but a few items you need to know this October:
This isn’t just our mothers’ disease
About 1 in 8 U.S. women (just under 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Breast cancer can strike at any age, and breast cancer is the most common cause of death in women aged 35 to 54. The number of young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer is on the rise, with scientists unsure of the cause. Pay attention!
You (probably) know more than your doctor
Diagnosing breast cancer in younger women (classified as those of us under 40) is more difficult because our breast tissue is generally denser than the breast tissue in older women. Whoop whoop! Love that, right? The thing that makes you not sag makes it hard to see through – even with a mammogram. By the time you feel a lump, the cancer often is advanced. In addition, breast cancer in younger women may be aggressive. Mine sure was. And I didn’t even feel a lump.
Many young women who have breast cancer ignore the warning signs—lumps or nipple changes—because they believe they are too young to get breast cancer. Or because they have had changes from pregnancy or nursing. I had things pointing all sorts of directions with irregularity, lack of symmetry, odd changes … and just thought it was my body getting older – and used up! But it is your body and you need to get to know your breasts intimately, regularly, and bring any changes to the attention of your doctor.
Get to know your breasts
In general, regular mammograms are not recommended for women under 40 for the reasons I cited above. But self-exams are a super important tool in discovering breast cancer. Usually, the first noticeable symptom is a lump that feels different from the rest of your breast tissue. More than 80% of breast cancer cases are discovered by touch, by you or your doctor. You need to get to know your breasts in circular motions, horizontal and vertical. And don’t be afraid to palpate deep—many breast cancers are close to the chest wall. Min felt like a Jordan almond up against my ribs. But I didn’t feel it until I saw where the silly bugger was on an MRI.
You also need to feel under your arms—lumps found in lymph nodes located in the armpits can also indicate breast cancer. Other symptoms include asymmetry from left to right in denseness, one breast becoming larger or lower, a nipple changing position or shape or becoming inverted, skin puckering or dimpling, discharge, constant pain in part of the breast or armpit, and swelling beneath the armpit or around the collarbone. If you have any of this—regardless of your age—get to a doctor and discuss it. Don’t think it’s just getting older!
Know your risks and manage what you can
Some of the risk associated with breast cancer is hereditary. A woman’s risk of breast cancer approximately doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, and daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. About 15% of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it.
About 5-10% of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations (abnormal changes) inherited from a mother or father. Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most common. Women with these mutations have up to an 80% risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime, and they are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age (before menopause). Talk to a doctor if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer to determine if gene testing is right for you.
Clearly, inherited risks you can’t control, but you can acknowledge and respond. And, there are many risks that you can control:
Stay at a healthy weight (having more fat tissue means having higher estrogen levels which JOY increases cancer risk)
Take the stairs. Evidence is growing that exercising regularly deceases your chance of getting many cancers – including breast cancer.
Don’t drink too much! Studies have shown that breast cancer risk increases with the amount of alcohol a woman drinks. Alcohol can limit your liver’s ability to control blood levels of the hormone estrogen, which in turn can increase risk.
Don’t smoke. Smoking is associated with an increase in breast cancer risk. As if you needed another reason.
Learn about Metastatic Breast Cancer
Metastatic breast cancer is the ONLY breast cancer that kills. It means that the cancer has spread beyond your breasts to other areas of your body, and once you have it, you are fighting for life (hence the #lifer term). Over 41,000 die each year from MBC. Of the billions of dollars raised for breast cancer, only 2% goes toward metastatic breast cancer.
Think about where you are giving your funds this October. Here is a list of my favorites based on who spends money on what and how much of the dollars actually go towards helping women, researching a cure, and providing love and support for those in the throes of this battle.
– Theresa’s Research Foundation
– Noreen Frasier Foundation
– Breast Cancer Resource Center
– Wonders and Worries
– Heal in Comfort
– Little Pink Houses of Hope
– Without Regrets
In all, I feel incredibly blessed in a weird way to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was diagnosed early enough to stop it, and have been given the opportunity to demystify the disease to my generation. I never was a pink girl really, but now I’m proud to wear pink ribbons, bracelets, T-shirts, and hats. I have become part of the community that unfortunately grows every year. We are sisters in diagnosis, and hopefully, in survivorship.
Knowing your risks, your breasts, your doctor and your history will help in early detection, the key to survival in breast cancer. Don’t just think pink, do pink.