Two years ago today my first ever routine mammogram with BreastScreen found four triple negative tumours in my left breast.
Since then I’ve had chemotherapy (three tumours gone), surgery, radiation, surgery to remove what was probably a missed bit of the original cancer (from this we learnt it’s chemo and radiation resistant), and finally a double mastectomy.
Happy Mammoversary to me!
If my test results prompted you to go and have your breasts checked then it’s that time again. Book your appointment. Early detection saves lives. It certainly saved mine.
Here’s some information from BreastScreen:
– 1 in 8 women in NSW will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
– 9 out of 10 women who develop breast cancer do not have a family history of breast cancer.
– Breast screening can find cancers before they can be felt or noticed – you have a better chance of survival when breast cancer is found early.
In Australia, BreastScreen target women aged 50-74 and provide a free screening mammogram every two years. If the mammogram detects anything, they also provide free followup, including ultrasound and biopsy if needed. The availability of screening varies in other countries and continues to be controversial. Statistically, it doesn’t seem to be reducing the incidence of breast cancer related deaths and there are concerns that many cases of DCIS (the lowest grade of cancer) would clear up on their own without intervention.
Having said that, I repeat my previous observation that statistics don’t mean much when you’re the person with the tumours. In my particular case, my tumours were doubling every two weeks. At the time of my testing there was little to warn me of the cancer (more on this later) and even though the tumours were towards the centre of my chest where there’s less breast tissue, they couldn’t be felt through the skin. Early detection might be statistically controversial but it definitely saved my life.
So my first piece of advice is to take advantage of free screening where it’s available, and to consider the benefits of paying for it where it’s not. You usually won’t pick up a tumour with regular home breast examination until it’s the size of a cherry. A mammogram can pick up something smaller than a pea. Catching cancer early can mean it’s treated before it’s had a chance to spread to your lymph nodes and this greatly improves your survival chances and the possible complications associated with lymph removal.
In addition to regular mammograms you should still check your breasts at home every month. Remember the phrase ‘doubling every two weeks’? Now, most breast cancers are not as aggressive as mine, but that’s no guarantee. Regular checking at home in between mammograms might also pick up a tumour.
There are lots of guides to home checking out there. Just google ‘breast examination’ for everything from check lists to photos to videos and find one you like.
Then add this step, which as far as I can tell is yet to make it into any list:
BEND FORWARD AND LOOK BACK
It can be difficult to judge changes in the size of your breasts by standing in front of a mirror. Most people have one larger than the other (I did) and it’s too easy to dismiss changes to the larger breast as just normal variation in size (I did this too). When I was finally sent for an MRI, which is taken lying face down with your breasts hanging in space, I was shocked at the obvious difference in size between my breasts! What I thought was the effect of a bit of weight gain and gravity was actually four tumours.
I was very, very lucky. A random request from BreastScreen saw me fronting up to the local clinic and my cancer was detected. I’ve always been one of those highly compliant people so I regularly examined my breasts for changes. I really did stand naked in front of the mirror with my hands on my waist and think ‘Well that’s old age setting in,” when I noticed that my larger breast looked to be sitting a bit lower.
So please consider adding this simple move to your regular self-examination. Bend forward at the waist and look back at your breasts. Pay attention to what the regular difference in size looks like. If you gain or lose weight it should affect both breasts evenly. If one breast shows a disproportionate increase in size then get it checked.
Never be concerned about getting a negative result and feeling like you’ve wasted anyone’s time. Even more importantly, never be so afraid of having cancer that you delay or avoid getting tested. The only thing worse than having breast cancer is having it and not knowing about it. This is one circumstance where ignorance is not bliss, it’s potentially fatal.
And tell everyone. Encourage your friends to check themselves regularly and take advantage of screening. Share your own experiences. Help spread the word. More and more women are surviving breast cancer and living long and happy lives. I think early detection is playing a big part in this.
Please feel free to share this blog post. We need to get the word out. Bend forward. Look back. It might just save your life.