October is internationally recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And while many brands and companies proudly release pink products to benefit cancer research, early detection is the most important part of fighting against this disease. The stats are clear: Breast cancer patients have a 93 percent or higher survival rate in the first five years when detected early.
In addition to giving yourself an at-home breast exam, you must visit your OB/Gyn regularly for checks, scans, and mammograms. In honor of BCA Month, we spoke with breast cancer survivors on their journeys, from the first sign of cancer to their advice to others on how to take preventive measures and stay healthy:
“A small lump at my annual appointment.”
A lump in Kristen Curtis’ breast was discovered during her annual gynecologist appointment. At 31 and a mom of two kids under three, Curtis was diagnosed with Stage 1 ER/PR positive breast cancer. She had no other family members with breast cancer, but she did have some with ovarian cancer, including her mom. Both had extensive genetic testing panels, and neither carried the BRCA gene, making their cancers unrelated. Her diagnosis meant her cancer wasn’t hereditary but ‘environmentally driven.’
After four rounds of preventive chemotherapy, Curtis had a left breast mastectomy and then four reconstructive surgeries to date. Curtis believes this appointment saved her life since she was not performing self-breast exams and had no signs or symptoms at all other than the lump, which was very small. “This is why I am such a huge advocate for scheduling and keeping wellness appointments. Since I had no symptoms, my cancer could potentially have progressed further if I had skipped that appointment, which I almost did,” she shares. “I had a strong intuitive nudge not to skip it even though it was inconvenient. I am glad I listened to my intuition. Don’t wait to see your doctor if you believe something isn’t right. Trust yourself; you know your body best.”
“A small lump — and a painful armpit.”
Eight months before Leeanna Gantt was diagnosed with triple-positive (ER+, PR+, HER2+) breast cancer, she felt a small lump in her breast. At the age of 47, she went in for her annual exam and mentioned the mass she felt, but her doctor said it wasn’t something to worry about and was just part of getting older. Her routine screening mammogram didn’t reveal a lump.
Then, shortly after, her family moved to another state, and it took her nine months to find a new doctor. Again, her physical went well, but her new doctor asked if she had any questions in the end. Gantt mentioned she had recently started taking Pilates classes and felt like she pulled something under her arm because it hurt and felt swollen. So she took a closer look, felt a lump, did a breast exam, and felt the other lump, which had grown in size.
When she mentioned her previous doctor wasn’t concerned, the new doctor was completely shocked and said, “You never let anything like this go unchecked.” So she scheduled a 3D mammogram and ultrasound for the following day, and from the scans, they were pretty sure that it was breast cancer — and that it had spread.
Though Gantt is in remission now, she urges others if they feel or see anything, to get it looked at ASAP. Though chances are it isn’t cancer, if it is, catching it early can make a significant difference. “If your doctor says it’s nothing, then ask another doctor to order the tests,” she shares. “I didn’t even know there was such thing as a diagnostic mammogram — and had never had an ultrasound, even though I had been told for years that I had ‘dense breast tissue’ so they couldn’t see much of anything on my mammograms.”
“A lump after applying an adhesive bra.”
While getting dressed to go out, 24-year-old Alex Whitaker Cheadle was smoothing on an adhesive bra when she felt a lump very clearly in her right breast. It had only been a few since she last wore one and felt nothing, so she didn’t think much of it and continued with her evening plans. The following day, she remembered the lump and went to find it was still there.
Even though she didn’t have a family history and had a healthy annual exam three months prior, she was concerned, so she reached out to her nurse friend and mom. Given she was a healthy early 20-something, both thought it was just a cyst. However, a little voice in her head told her to get it checked out, just in case. She contacted her OBGYN and was scheduled for an ultrasound, mammogram, and biopsy. A few weeks later, she was diagnosed with stage one, triple-positive, invasive ductal carcinoma. She had a complete response to chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.
This experience taught Cheadle that we are our own best advocates. “Understand your risk, but regardless of if you’re considered high risk or not, get in touch with your body, learn how to do monthly self-breast exams, know your normal and monitor for anything abnormal,” she says. “Too often, women’s concerns are written off as being ‘irrational,’ but I’m here to tell you that you deserve the best and should always push for the answers you deserve.”
“At my mammogram appointment.”
One month shy of 41, Angela Crawford gave in to her OBGYN’s pleas for her to get a mammogram. She had already had one at 35 for a baseline, then one at 37, and she didn’t think she needed another. She didn’t have a family history, and while she wasn’t doing breast exams, she also wasn’t concerned. If she had ignored his suggestion, the tumors would have grown and could have spread to her lymph nodes. Luckily, they didn’t, and she was diagnosed with stage one ductal carcinoma. A surgery removed three tumors, and Crawford didn’t have to endure chemotherapy or radiation.
Her journey has made her a proponent of mammograms — even though they aren’t a great experience. As she puts it, they are uncomfortable and nerve-racking waiting for the results. To this day, when she wakes up on the day to take her mammogram or sonogram (she goes every six months), her first thought is to cancel the appointment. But, she talks herself out of it by reminding herself the only reason she had a good outcome was being proactive and listening to her doctor.
“A pulled muscle feeling.”
Before her breast cancer diagnosis, Linda Jones remembers not feeling well for a long time. However, she overlooked it and just thought she pulled a muscle. One day, she lifted a heavy laundry basket and felt a pulling sensation in her chest. The pain worsened, and she started to notice an indentation in her right breast, so she finally booked an appointment,
At the time, she was 59 years old, and due to the cost of health insurance and mammograms, she had not had a mammogram in five years. After her visit, she was diagnosed with stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma, with two tumors in her breast. She underwent chemotherapy treatments that caused her to lose her hair, her nails to turn brown, and the palm of her hands and soles of her feet to turn dark.
After going through weekly treatments, she also had surgery to remove the masses. While she is overjoyed to be in remission, her experience has left her with lymphedema and neuropathy.
It’s been five years since her first diagnosis, and people she met along the way have since passed. This has inspired her to share her experience in her local community and via the NOWINCLUDED app. “My story digitally will serve as medical history information for my children, grandchildren, and maybe even great-grandchildren,” she says.
She hopes to be an example to women to get their annual mammograms because early detection is the key. “If I can be diagnosed with breast cancer, anyone else can too,” she adds.
“A sudden, sharp pain in the left breast.”
Thanksgiving is one of Yolanda Origel’s favorite holidays. She loves getting her family together and making a meal, but it’s quite a production. However, she couldn’t have predicted that this holiday would give her another thing to be thankful for: her life. With a turkey in the oven and family on the way, she was getting ready when she felt a sudden, sharp pain in her left breast.
She describes the pain as so excruciating that her first reaction was to rest her hand on her left breast. That’s when she felt a well-defined lump. “Knowing there was nothing I could do at the moment, I continued getting dressed for the holiday festivities, but fear ran through my mind,” she shared.
She had already watched her mom and sister endure cancer battles, and she knew in her heart she was about to start her own fight. Looking back, she says there were signs before Thanksgiving, but as a young, healthy adult, she didn’t think anything of them. “I recall noticing some swelling and droopiness in my left breast. I also had swelling in my underarm, and occasionally, my underarm would break out in a rash,” she shares. “I also felt a lot of fatigue and had trouble sleeping. I attributed those symptoms to my menstrual cycle and normal day-to-day stress from being a busy 30-year-old.”
Based on the size and quantity of tumors in her breast and lymph nodes, her oncologist said her cancer had been growing for up to three years in her body. She was diagnosed with stage three triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma. Genetic testing also revealed she was a BRCA1 gene carrier.
She started chemotherapy one week after her diagnosis and continued for 16 weeks. She then went through a bilateral mastectomy. Due to her aggressive diagnosis, she also needed to take preventive measures and endured 35 rounds of radiation. Because she had the BRCA1 gene, she had a heightened risk of ovarian cancer, especially after age 40. Once she reached this age, she had a prophylactic hysterectomy to reduce her gynecologic cancer risks.
“By combining cancer treatments, life-saving and preventative surgeries, vigilance, and many personal lifestyle changes, I’m happy to say that I’ve been living cancer-free for the past 15 years,” she shares. “This incredible milestone is something to celebrate; however, I realize I’ll never truly be out of the woods. We all have risks for new cancer developments; in my case, cancer risks are very present in my life.”
Her only regret is she wishes she would have paid attention to her symptoms sooner and performed more regular breast exams. She hopes everyone, regardless of family history or age, is proactive with their breast health.
“Being vigilant sounds like a difficult way to live, and some may consider this as living in fear,” she shares. “However, I think it’s the opposite of fear. It’s empowering to be vigilant, take care of your health proactively and do everything possible to mitigate cancer risks to live longer, healthier lives. Be empowered — take control of your life and well-being by being proactive!”
“Family history — and a very small bump.”
With a long history of breast cancer in her family, Melissa Berry decided to get tested for the BRCA gene at the age of 32. She tested positive for BRCA2, so she was closely monitored for several years by getting clinical exams, mammograms, MRIs, and ultrasounds regularly.
A decade later, she went in for my routine mammogram, and the nurse practitioner felt a very tiny lump that Berry hadn’t found with self-exams. She received a mammogram and an ultrasound during this appointment, but the tumor wasn’t visible on either of them.
During a deep need ultrasound, her doctor could determine that she indeed had a malignant tumor. She had her routine MRI just a few weeks prior, so her oncologist knew right away that it must be triple negative breast cancer because the tumor grew so quickly. She’s now been in remission for ten years.
Given her experience, Berry can’t underscore the importance of knowing your family history enough. “If there is a lot of breast cancer in your family, it’s very important to consider genetic testing. It can be scary, but at the same time, it can be very empowering to know if you’re carrying a gene,” she shared. “I told myself it would be like my navigation system for my health. Just view it as a tool that can help you make proactive decisions and significantly decrease your chances of getting breast cancer.”