Standing Up to Breast Cancer
Laura celebrates two years cancer-free post treatment
Catching breast cancer early saves lives. Women can discover they have a potentially cancerous lump in many ways—even before other breast cancer symptoms appear—through screening mammograms, by their physician performing a clinical breast exam, or through a breast self-exam. In Laura’s case, a tumor was discovered during a nuclear medicine cardiac stress test. Thankfully, her heart was just fine, but the dye introduced into her bloodstream for the test found its way to a tumor in her breast, which showed up in the images.
“I was shocked. Never would I have believed I’d be walking out of a cardiac stress test with the knowledge that I may have breast cancer,” says Laura, a busy municipal court magistrate. “I have no family history of breast cancer, I do regular breast self-exams, I have not been on hormone replacement therapy, and my doctor had recently performed a clinical breast exam without finding anything unusual.”
Facing Reality, Ready to Fight
Laura followed up with diagnostic testing. Her biopsy confirmed she had estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. Today, doctors can test cancer cells for characteristics that include what receptors, if any, are present on the cell surface. This testing is important because available treatment options can be highly dependent on the results.
“My doctor called me with the news on a Friday night. I hung up the phone in disbelief, then my thoughts immediately went to my spouse and our granddaughter, whom we are raising together. I knew I wanted to help raise this child. I didn’t want to die,” Laura shares. “I resolved to face breast cancer head on and to overcome it.”
Laura and her family were in a daze for a while about the diagnosis. During the second meeting with the oncologist, she was told her cancer was “curable.” Her spouse asked, “Yes, but is this treatment going to kill her?” They knew it would be a rough ride ahead, yet Laura stood courageous and her family was committed to helping her through it.
Including Her Granddaughter
An important part of Laura’s journey with breast cancer treatment and recovery involved her young granddaughter. How a child reacts to a family member’s cancer diagnosis often depends on how the adults handle the crisis. Of course, every situation and every child is different. Laura’s decision to include her granddaughter was a natural one.
“She went to counseling with us and to many of my medical appointments as well. Including her instead of enveloping everything in a shroud of mystery helped all of us get through the ordeal in a healthier manner, emotionally and psychologically,” Laura adds.
The New Normal
After undergoing a mastectomy, Laura started chemotherapy and radiation therapy. All the while, she continued to work.
“My life didn’t revolve solely around the cancer. I had treatment on Thursdays, took Fridays off, then went back to work each Monday morning,” Laura explains. “This gave me something else to focus on, in addition to helping raise our granddaughter. A friend of mine who quit working after her breast cancer diagnosis later told me she believes I chose the better option. Everyone is unique, but I know that continuing to work was the right decision for me.”
Now, two years post-chemotherapy, Laura is cancer-free. She takes medication that helps prevent estrogen from activating new cancer cell growth. This type of treatment is common for women diagnosed with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.
“The medication has some unwelcome side effects—it’s like I’m going through menopause again—and my spouse has been very supportive and understanding. I accept my life today as the new normal, and stick to what my doctor tells me to do,” Laura says.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Don’t rely solely on your annual screening mammogram to detect breast cancer. Be aware of changes in your breasts by performing a monthly breast self-exam (you can find easy to follow instructions online) and know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society lists the following signs, and urges you to report anything out of the ordinary to your health care provider as soon as possible.
- A new lump or mass. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can also be tender, soft, or rounded. They can even be painful.
- Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt).
- Skin irritation or dimpling.
- Breast or nipple pain.
- Nipple retraction (turning inward).
- Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin.
- Nipple discharge (other than breast milk).
- Sometimes breast cancer can spread to lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone and cause a lump or swelling there, even before the original tumor in the breast tissue is large enough to be felt.
- Swollen lymph nodes should also be checked by a health care provider.
Digital Mammography: 2D vs. 3D
Digital mammography is a safe, low dose X-ray examination of the breasts that produces high quality images. With digital imaging, the radiologist viewing your images can manipulate and magnify the images on a high-resolution computer screen. Moreover, a digital software system can serve as a “second look” for your mammogram, directing the radiologist to areas that may need further analysis.
While 2D digital mammography remains the standard for early detection of breast cancer, 3D mammography (breast tomosynthesis)—the latest weapon added to the arsenal in the fight against breast cancer— adds a new dimension. The imaging process provides a view of breast tissue layer by layer. Fine details can be seen more clearly, which can:
- make suspicious areas of tissue easier to detect and characterize.
- reduce the need for callbacks for additional views.
- improve the likelihood that breast cancer will be diagnosed at its earliest, most treatable stage.
- be especially beneficial to women with dense breasts.
Discuss which test to have with your referring physician. The decision will take into account your overall level of lifetime breast cancer risk, prior history, and whether you have dense breasts.
While a breast cancer diagnosis is scary and heartbreaking, modern medicine offers more treatment options than ever before to help you win the fight. And remember, the earlier breast cancer is detected, the better your chances for a good outcome. If you are due or past due for a screening mammogram, or are tempted to skip it this year, please schedule one today. It just may save your life!
By Annette Brooks