If cancer could happen to me, the picture of good health, it can happen to anyone, at any time. I learned, and continue to learn, many life lessons
We are our own best health care advocates – I can’t emphasize the importance of annual mammograms enough, even if you are convinced you are at little to no risk for this disease. My only risk factor is that I am a women – I had no other standard indicators for risk of this disease. I was (and am) physically fit, I was young, I have no family history, I don’t smoke, and the list goes on. Each risk factor they identify – I had none of them, except that I am a woman. Even the doctors were convinced that the palpable lump in my breast was nothing to be concerned about, and I agreed, but I also wanted a definitive answer about what it was. They were as surprised as I was when it came back as positive. Read last week’s blog entry for more information on the diagnostic process I pursued until I had a definitive answer.through this experience. As an extension of last week’s blog entry, I wanted to share a few key lessons that I learned.
Pursue Information – I learned that many doctors are reluctant to introduce patients to new information. It is not their job to educate us, it is their job to treat us. It is our job to educate ourselves. There is an abundance of information available at our fingertips, and it is up to us to filter through that information, and net out the information we need, and the questions we need to ask of our doctors. Doctors will answer questions once they are asked, they just won’t offer information for fear it will overwhelm us. So, come into your doctor appointments armed with questions, and if needed, ask a friend or loved one to join you, so they can help interpret the answers to those questions. When we are the subject of the discussion, sometimes our thoughts wander, and it helps to have someone else there to stay on track and take copious notes.
Take the Time – Even when they’ve heard my story, how my persistence saved my life, many people tell me that they are too busy to have annual mammograms – that they can’t take the time to have the screening. Between demands on our time at home and at work, we are all very busy – children need a ride to soccer, hockey, football or the like, or you need to have this proposal done for work, etc. I promise you, the one hour you take out of your busy schedule, once a year, for this crucial screening, is well worth it. Your family and your work colleagues will miss you a lot more if you don’t do it.
I recognize how fortunate I am that I pursued a more definitive answer to the initial medical response “We don’t know what it is”, and that my cancer responded to the medical technology that was available to me at the time. I also know many who are not as fortunate as I am. Medical professionals are very well meaning, but no one cares more about our own survival than we each do. Take the steps required to ensure you are proactive in early diagnosis, educated in order to ask questions to better understand your disease and your options for treatment, and take ownership over your own health and health issues, as best you can.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The Susan G. Komen Denver Race for the Cure occurs the first Sunday in October each year. This year is especially significant for me, as it represents a major milestone for me – 10 years since my diagnosis in 2001 – a milestone I wasn’t sure I would reach when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 40.
It came as a real shock, given that I had my baseline mammogram the year before, which had not reported any issues. In addition, I had no contributing factors – other than being a woman – that would have put me at risk of Breast Cancer, particularly at such a young age. I had no family history, I exercised for more than an hour every day, I ate a balanced diet, and I had no health issues. In fact, it was only first discovered in an annual medical exam as a palpable (nickel sized and shaped) mass, and neither the Nurse Practitioner nor I were overly concerned about it at the time. I wasn’t actually encouraged to check it out immediately, but I decided that I should anyway, and scheduled a mammogram at the same place that did my baseline mammogram. That mammogram did not show any “interval change” from the baseline mammogram, but they too could feel the disk shaped mass, so they did an ultrasound. That too showed nothing. Again, I was not encouraged to pursue it further, but I called my Doctor’s office, and the nurse said I could see a surgeon for a biopsy. I was still not worried at all, but just didn’t want to ignore it. I saw the surgeon, who scheduled me for an excisional biopsy. That biopsy came back positive for Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma. Further pathology showed additional information about the characteristics of the tumor, and its spread, which helped direct the proper options for treatment.
One thing that hit home in this process is how random cancer really is. I was living under a false sense of security that if I did all the right things, and had no significant contributing factors or behaviors, I was at a near zero risk of Breast Cancer – it was not even a remote concern for me. I realized, after all I experienced and learned, that if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone at any time.
I am living proof that the messaging and awareness around Breast Cancer gets through – even if it is not at a conscious level. I am certain that I was as persistent as I was, and am alive today as a result of that persistence, because of the awareness that the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Race for the Cure brought to me over the years, and continues to bring.