Add This One Extra Thing to Your Breast Check

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.

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2 thoughts on “Add This One Extra Thing to Your Breast Check

  1. Happy Mammoversary indeed J

    I really appreciate all your postings and will definitely add the ‘extra’ check to my conversations with my friends.

    Can I inquire did you have the double mastectomy after you had chemo and radiation or separately? I had my left breast taken last July 21 as the cancer was growing rapidly through the breast tissue without a clear boundary and was in the lymph nodes too. A lumpectomy was discussed but the surgeon was not hopeful and I didn’t want him to take any chances. He said after that we made the right choice as he would have had to take the whole breast. I would like to have the other breast removed as a preventative measure but the surgeon said my immune system was not up to it yet, but perhaps in 3,6,12 months! Finding a large cyst in it at my 1st check-up was very scary and although it was ‘only’ a cyst, it bought back the trauma of the last 11 months and sent me into a downhill spiral of depression. Thankfully my wonderful psychologist together with my husband are putting boundaries in place to assist me to climb out of ‘my well’ without being so overwhelmed by all that is going on around me, the recent death of my dear father, and ongoing care of my mum with early dementia and returning to work (when I thought I could manage everything)…wrong!!.

    I am yet to read anything that would make me change my mind about having the other breast off (at least I would be symmetrical!!) and at my age, my boobs have done their job of feeding our 3 children many, many years ago and our grandsons are none the wiser when cuddling me!!

    Thanks again for your inspiring words, and interesting posts and research articles. It’s amazing how many people don’t know about TNBC…but then again, I was one of them! I thought breast cancer was ‘it’ and when you had treatment, you were ‘better’….a big learning curve for myself and my friends.

    Cheers,

    Ricki Margaret. xx

  2. Dear Ricki,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so sorry you’ve been having such a hard time.

    Every bit of my treatment is recorded in this blog, including all my reasons for choosing a double mastectomy and not having reconstruction. To give you a quick summary;
    June 3013: BreastScreen detected four three tumours in my left breast.
    I was referred to a surgeon who recommended neb-adjuvant treatment. Tests at that time also showed I now had four tumours. I had chemo BEFORE surgery and it killed the three smallest tumours. The four was surgically removed and unfortunately the pathology showed that it still had active cancer in it. There was also an area of DCIS under it.
    I proceeded with six weeks of radiation which I was told would ‘mop up’ and remaining stray cells.
    Although I was told they no longer do routine scans, I requested them at my 12 month anniversary. Suspicious cells were identified, along with a marker clip that should have come out with the first surgery (!!).
    Attempts to biopsy the cells failed and my surgeon decided she wanted to take the clip out anyway, so I had another breast conserving surgery. I was told it would probably be either dead cells or DCIS. It turned out to be active invasive cancer and a mastectomy was recommended.
    I was an F cup so I requested a prophylactic removal of the healthy breast.
    The pathology for the mastectomy was good with no cancer detected in either breast.
    I chose not to have reconstruction.
    A couple of weeks ago I found another lump, and then a second lump a day later. I haven’t posted a blog about this yet because I’ve been waiting for results, and for my daughter’s exams to be over. It’s not cancer. I’m fine. But I know what you mean about going back down into that hole!
    I joke that at my age my breasts weren’t going to get any better looking. 😀 Actually, even though I’m in my 50’s they were still lovely breasts and I was sad about losing them (particularly my nipples) but having had the surgery and adjusted to my new ‘athletic’ body I am now happy and healthy without them.
    I highly recommend you get a copy of Russ Harris’s wonderful book “The Reality Slap”. This helped me more than I can say.
    Much love
    Meg
    XXX

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