In April of 2015, my parents sat me down in their living room to talk. For once, the television wasn't on. In complete and total silence on a sunny day, shortly before Easter, we sat tearfully, as they told me my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The next few months were ones of endless fear and tears. I watched three people I knew lose their battles to cancer. My supervisor's wife's breast cancer had metastasized and spread to her lungs and liver, taking her life in early May. Only a few weeks later, our department head lost his battle to colon cancer, which had later spread to his kidneys. And a few months after that, my shoulder to lean on in the battle, my dear friend and confidant, lost his own mother to her years-long battle with breast cancer. To put it mildly, I was terrified.
My mother, however, was the ever-present example of grace and strength. She powered through a lumpectomy and months of painful radiation. We were fortunate that she was diagnosed early. At Stage 1, she was facing the least invasive and most curable form of cancer.
The general timeline for concern of cancer survivors is the first five years after cancer diagnosis and removal. This year, we celebrate four years cancer free.
Because my mother was not diagnosed with cancer until her early 60's, and her gene marker test showed it was not genetic, my doctor has not specified any sort of early testing necessary for me. My only other concern is that my dad's mother also had breast cancer. At that time, no genetic testing was available, so we are uncertain whether it may or may not be hereditary. Sometimes I worry that it might be inevitable for me, though I don't worry about it as much now as I did before. But that doesn't mean that self-examinations and regular clinical breast exams by my doctor aren't necessary.
Women who are not considered at-risk (no familial or genetic history of breast cancer) should begin clinical breast exams at the age of 20 and mammograms at the age of 45. You may also perform a self-exam at home. It is recommended that women perform their self-exams monthly, 3 to 5 days after their menstrual period starts, as your breasts are not as tender or lumpy at this time of your cycle. Women who have gone through menopause should perform their self-breast exam at the same time every month.
Women who are considered at higher risk for breast cancer due to familial history or those with a family member who also tested positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene will need to begin breast MRI's (or mammograms, if a breast MRI is not available) as early as age 25. However, there are a large number of factors that can play into what age a woman should begin receiving breast MRI's and mammograms, such as a history of lobular carcinoma, atypical hyperplasia, past radiation treatments to the chest area, various gene mutations, and breast tissue density, just to name a few.
If you find a lump during your self exam, it is important to schedule a clinical breast exam as soon as possible. If your physician also detects a lump, follow up tests, such as a breast ultrasound or and MRI should be scheduled without hesitation. The good news is that, in a majority of women, these lumps are found to be normal breast tissue or benign tumors. It has also been found that a healthy lifestyle, complete with proper nutrition and exercise can also reduce the risk of breast cancer and other cancers.
For many women diagnosed with breast cancer, getting involved can be personally rewarding and can help impact the lives of others. A year after her diagnosis, I elected to run my first ever 5K, signing up for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. But, I more than happily elected to walk, when my mom chose to be by my side. It was a rewarding and emotional day for both of us. It was both heart-wrenching and inspiring to see so many women at varying stages in their journey gathered together. There were many booths at the end of the walk that seemed to empower my mother more with each smiling face she met. She was honored to stand among the many that had conquered their battle and those that stood with resolve in the face of their disease, never willing to give it more power over their minds than it did their bodies. My mother was emboldened by her own strength and the strength of all the women around her. One year out, we were able to look at our journey and smile.