That statement sounds like the opening line spoken at a self-help group. I guess in some ways it is. My family has a history of breast cancer and multiple deaths have been attributed to it. I have been, and always will be, vigilant in watching for the signs of this cruel disease. I am the first breast cancer survivor in my family, and I intend to keep it that way.
In 1992, I was 32 and living in rural southeastern Iowa. It was just weeks after having a mammogram that I found the lump through self-examination. I scheduled a follow-up visit to have it checked out. The radiologist who read the results of the test I had that day told me that I was too young to have breast cancer. Given that my aunt was just 30 when she died from metastatic breast cancer, I knew that what he was saying was just plain not true. I cannot even express what I think of his “educated opinion.” It is an opinion he should have kept to himself rather than dispensing what is in fact false hope. My next visit was to a surgeon who examined me and biopsied the lump. My worst fears had come true. It was cancer.
I went through all the emotions one would expect from anyone who has just been told they have cancer. My reaction was probably worse due to my family history. My own mother succumbed to the disease at 52. She fought it twice and lost the second time. It was a long and painful death. I had to put on my brave girl face and get educated really quickly. Decisions had to be made and they had to be made soon.
My surgeon presented all the options and I discussed them with my family. The first thing we decided was that we wanted all possible trace of this disease removed. That meant I would have a modified radical mastectomy. The second decision we made was to forego reconstruction until we knew the cancer was not going to return. Reconstruction required multiple surgeries over a lengthy period of time. The last thing I wanted to do was go through all of that only to have the cancer return, after all that is what happened to my own mother.
My surgeon performed a modified radical mastectomy, which turned out to be the right course of treatment for me. Mine was an aggressive cancer and it had already begun to attach itself to the muscle below. Thankfully no lymph nodes were involved.
My oncologist told me that because of the treatment I chose I did not need chemotherapy or radiation. The surgery was all that was required. He also told me that my cancer was so small that they did not have studies to reference. He commended me for finding it at a time when the success rate for recovery would be the greatest.
Although I did not have to endure radiation or chemotherapy treatments my recovery was not easy. It took months of physical therapy to gain back all of the function in my left arm. I had to push past the pain each day or risk losing function, like range of motion.
I went through and completed reconstruction seven years after the mastectomy.
Today, I am a 53-year-old wife, mother and grandmother living in Kansas who would not be alive today to tell this story if I had not been doing self-examinations. I cannot stress their importance enough. If I had waited until my next mammogram to find the lump, I would be dead. Mammograms save lives, but they are not the only answer. Women need to take responsibility for their own health in between check-ups. We need to do our self-examinations!