When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, 2008, I asked HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED? I had faithfully gotten my mammograms every year since turning 40. I had my annual gynecological exams. I went to see a surgeon when I felt a lump. I was told everything was fine. Nothing was seen on the mammogram, I was told. I believed them.
My message to women is 3 fold. These are the three most important things I have learned during my experience since being diagnosed with breast cancer in October, 2008.
- GET YOUR RADIOLOGICAL TRANSCRIBED MAMMOGRAM REPORT. I can’t say this strongly enough. Had I done this myself in 2007, I would have seen the radiologists’ own words in the first sentence…”A mass is seen behind the aereola”. But my referring doctor never read this line and my cancer grew. Two years later it was too late to save my breast. I tell women now, do not settle for that letter they send you in the mail telling you to come back next year. Get the actual report, not something normally offered to you but something you are entitled to nonetheless. Beyond that, KNOW the words to look for such as “mass” or “Lesion”, or “atypical” or “hyperplasia”. If you read anything like that, call your doctor right away.
- KNOW YOUR FAMILY HISTORY I learned too late that my father had two aunts die in their 40s from breast cancer and both had undergone mastectomy. One of those aunts had two daughters, each of whom developed breast cancer in their 60s. Know if you are at greater risk or not. Ask your relatives how their sisters, brothers, aunts grandmothers died. Cancers of any kind raise your own chances of getting some type of cancer. Screening will be more rigorous if you have a family history. Had I known this fact, my doctors may have listened to me more closely and looked more carefully than they did.
- KNOW YOUR RISKS Take a look at my educational web site Reduce Your Risk. There are many risk factor besides family history that play a role in a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. A few are listed below.
…manipulation of your hormones in any way (fertility treatments, hormone replacement, birth control pills…) are all known to have the potential for causing breast cancer. I took the “pill” for 13 years. I now blame that on my developing breast cancer. It said it right there in black and white in my pill packet, but I never read that little piece of paper. Most women don’t. It isn’t worth the risk to take the pill, if you ask me. I wish I’d never taken them. I can’t tell you how many women I have since met, who developed breast cancer after hormone manipulation. It is so prevalent it’s scary! Many women feel shame due to a sense of ignorance or that somehow they themselves “caused” their cancer by taking hormones, and so you will rarely hear women tell you this link. I have a daughter in high school, 2 nieces in college and a young 2 year old niece. This word needs to get out for their sakes. I am willing to share it if it means no other woman has to endure breast cancer. There are alternatives to many hormone treatments out there. My doctors told me for 13 years that it was fine that I still be taking these pills but the day I was diagnosed they told me to “STOP – they can cause breast cancer.”
Obesity and alcohol consumption seem to play a big role in the statistics of women who develop breast cancer. A sedentary lifestyle is also a contributor.
- BE YOUR OWN BREAST HEALTH ADVOCATE Many young women have very dense breast tissue making it difficult to detect early cancer lesions. If a mammogram technician or doctor ever tells you that you have dense breasts, don’t be dense! Demand an MRI! Especially if you have any changes or notice anything unusual about your breast. On another note, that lump that I could feel? That turned out to be infiltrating lobular cancer, found only with an MRI. Had I known that I could have asked for am MRI , maybe it could have given my doctors a clear picture of what was happening to my body. Today doctors seem to be more aware that this method of diagnosing breast cancers in dense tissue and it is the gold standard, but all too often we have to fight for it. Get a second opinion if your doctor ignores your concerns.