Yes, I have breast cancer. But I’m one of the lucky ones

Getting my mammogram caught a tumor far too small to detect during self-exam

For someone with breast cancer, I’m lucky. I know this because doctors, numerous nurses, friends and family have told me so again and again.

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month is personal for me now that I am one of the approximately 264,000 U.S. women diagnosed with the disease each year.

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But why am I lucky? Because I listened to my doctor and went for my biennial mammogram, which I hadn’t done since a couple of years before the pandemic. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women ages 50-74 get a mammogram every two years.

Mammograms are not fun. No one really wants to expose their breasts so a stranger can smash them between two plates to get an image of the tissue. But they can save your life.

So I made the appointment.

The nurse who called with my results didn’t seem very concerned. “There is a dark image we’d like to get a better look at,” she told me. An appointment for an MRI was made. After that, it was an ultrasound.

There was definitely something there. Whether it was cancer could be determined only with a biopsy. If you think mammograms aren’t fun, go get a core biopsy. I watched a small screen as the doctor inserted an automatic, spring-loaded needle through the tiny incision she’d made on my left breast. Twice it grabbed a bit of the tumor so the lab could further analyze it.

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My biopsy results were positive. My cancer is called invasive ductal carcinoma. That means abnormal cells growing in the lining of the milk ducts change and invade breast tissue beyond the walls of the duct. It’s the most common form of breast cancer, accounting for 80% of all breast cancer diagnoses.

According to the American Cancer Society, about two-thirds of women diagnosed with IDC are age 55 or older. I’m 56. Is that why I got it? Maybe. I tick off a few boxes on the CDC’s risk factors list. In addition to my age:

  • Reproductive history. Starting menstrual periods before age 12 (I was 11) and starting menopause after age 55 (well, at 55) expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer. Also, never having a full-term pregnancy can raise your risk (I’ve never been pregnant).
  • Not being physically active. Women who are not physically active have a higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Being overweight or having obesity after menopause. Older women who are overweight or have obesity have a higher risk of getting breast cancer than those at a healthy weight.

But I’m lucky, because we caught it early. My tumor was only about 9mm, far too small to be noticed during a self-exam. As more than one nurse told me, “If you wait until you can feel it, it makes everything more difficult.”

After another, much longer MRI that was anything but comfortable, it was time to schedule surgery.

At 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, my sister and I checked in to Northside’s Women’s Center. There was another ultrasound, another mammogram, another MRI and blood pressure checks before showtime.

When we were done, I had exchanged my 9mm tumor for a couple of 3 inch incisions, one on my left breast and the other under my left arm so the doctor could remove and test the lymph node for cancer.

Why the lymph node? Because lymph fluid from the breast drains into the axillary (underarm) lymph nodes, which are part of your immune system. According to Johns Hopkins, the sentinel lymph node is where IDC would spread first. If there is no cancer in the sentinel lymph node, there won’t be any in the other nodes.

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There was no cancer in my lymph node. Again ... very lucky.

Without prompt treatment, my IDC could have spread to my blood vessels and other parts of my body. If that had happened, my five-year survival rate would have dropped from nearly 100% to just 28%.

Yes, I have to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Again ... not fun, but it could have been so much worse.

I’m lucky to have an amazing support system of friends and family, and co-workers who care more about my recovery than my productivity right now, and a company that provides excellent insurance so I won’t be bankrupt when this is done. Too many people don’t have all — or any — of these things.

I’ve been through a lot the past few months because of a growth about the size of a large grain of rice, but I continue to remind myself how very lucky I am. Don’t press your luck and put off your mammogram until it’s too late.

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