Do you really need to do a breast self-exam?
My first symptom of breast cancer was finding a little lump in my breast during my own self-exam.
My very first symptom was the presence of a tiny and hard little bump the size of a small pea. I felt it when I did my breast self-exam. What made the lump really noticeable was that it was located right over my rib at the bottom of my left breast. I am not large busted, but this lump was so small it would have been difficult to feel if it was buried in the soft fleshy part of my breast. It was not tender.
In retrospect, my bra may have hurt a little in that area for a while before I found the bump, but I’m not sure. Breast lumps and false alarms are not new for me. I have had many lumps, bumps and cysts biopsied over the years. This little pea was definitely something different. I normally do monthly breast exams when I take my evening bath. I think I had not done one for a few months because my husband and I had just traveled to Europe on a cruise to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. In all the preparations and excitement, I think I forgot, but I’m not sure.
Breast self-exams are important for finding breast cancers early.
My Step-mom probably saved my life by reminding me to do a breast exam in an indirect way. When my husband and I returned from our trip, we visited my Dad and Step-mom. She was still grieving over the loss of her two children and her foster “kid” who had died one each year over the past three years. They were all in their sixties, and she was in her nineties. But still, it is a huge tragedy of untimely deaths. “Cindy, take good care of yourself, you are all I have left,” she said. I went home and took my evening bath thinking about what she had said. Her words reminded me to do my breast exam… and there was the hard little lump!
I scheduled my annual mammogram the next day, had it a week later and got a biopsy and the breast cancer diagnosis within seven days. Turns out, I had another small cancer in the other breast that did not show up on the mammogram. It also turned out that both cancers were the aggressive, high-grade triple negative breast cancer and that I was a BRCA 1 mutation carrier like Angelina Jolie.
Doing a breast self-exam probably saved my life.
I needed aggressive chemo followed by a double mastectomy. I have grown children who also had a 50% chance of having the mutation. It was shock after shock. In figuring out how I came to be a BRCA carrier, I found that the gene mutation comes from a side of the family I don’t know. That hard little lump, found because my Step-mom told me to take good care of myself, changed my life. That is another story.
This Breast Cancer Awareness month, I am four years a survivor. My doctors tell me that my chances of living are very high. Had I not done the exam that evening, everything would be quite different. The breast cancer diagnosis came within a month of my 55th birthday. I just turned 59.
When did I start doing breast self-exams?
I have done monthly, breast self-exams since I was in my early twenties, inspired by a book called, “Our Bodies Our Selves” that was popular back in the 1970s. I also attended Mills College in the late seventies. Mills is a women’s college dedicated to empowering women and I was fortunate to have strong mentors for women’s health and self-care at Mills. Because my grandmother’s Italian mother died from breast cancer when my grandma was 14, the large Italian immigrant family worried greatly about breast lumps and women dying from them. I inherited the fear, though not the BRCA gene from that side of the family.
In medical school, I learned even more about the rising incidence of breast cancer in my generation and about detection and prevention.This included how having the first baby before age 30 lowers the risk. I was married and decided to combine medical school with maternity, partly because I really wanted a baby (my four sisters-in-law were all having babies, and I’m convinced babies are contagious when we are young women!) I also wanted to start my family at that time because having my first child in my mid-twenties might help keep me alive to raise them through to adulthood.
My first child was born during medical school, and it has all worked out well. And, the breast cancer diagnosis came at a later age for me than for most BRCA mutation carriers… so who knows if starting a family at a crazy time in my career helped. Certainly, if I had this aggressive cancer back in my thirties, I would not have survived because treatment has really improved since then for this type of cancer.
Having breast cancer has been huge. I got it in spite of constantly looking over my shoulder trying to outrun it with education, good self-care and living a healthy and maximally preventative lifestyle. The good news is that doing my breast self-exams probably saved my life along with getting great medical care. For all of this, I am grateful! To support breast cancer advocacy and research, my staff and I fundraise year-round, and even more intensely during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And it would be great if you could help us!
There is a really good way to join our effort to end suffering from cancer!
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