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What I Want My Daughter to Know About Breast Cancer

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With breast cancer awareness month ending soon, I can’t help but think about my little girl who will soon be navigating life on her own. This is for you, sweetheart.

You were 9 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. You watched me endure the pains of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. As most moms do, I held strong and bounced back as quickly as possible because I needed to be there for you and your little brother. At 15, I’m not sure you understood when I told you there was a cancerous nodule found in my lung. Your dad and I did our best to present the situation in a positive light. I was thrown into a panic, but of course I was not going to project that to you and your brother.

So, after I got a hold of my emotions, mom made a plan. That’s when I went to Florida for seven weeks of alternative treatment while you were at camp. Remember when you came to see me in Florida and we went to Universal Studios? Fortunately for me, the nodule was not really growing and the doctor did not know what to think. That’s why a year after my diagnosis I had a surgical biopsy and they removed the cancerous nodule. Thankfully, you were busy with high school activities during all of this.

As you know, I have had no sign of cancer since the surgery four years ago. What I don’t know if you understand is that your mom is a rare exception when it comes to metastatic cancer. They told me I would be fighting cancer for the rest of my life. I am thankful they were wrong.

You are now 21, the age that is recommended for your first pap smear. (Welcome to womanhood.) Although I did not have a family history of breast cancer, that is now a part of your medical history. While no young woman should go through life worried about cancer, there are definitely things I wish I would have known and things I have learned through my journey. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story.

Here’s what I wish I would have known:

  • You don’t have to have any common risk factors to get breast cancer. My OBGYN told me, “I don’t know why you got cancer; you did everything right.” Today the list of risk factors has changed to include dense breasts and hormone treatment, and there is suspicion of increased risk due to exposure to certain environmental and household chemicals.
  • Breast cancer affects women of all ages. The statistics show less than 5 percent of women under 40 get breast cancer, and the average age of diagnosis is 62. I was 38 when I was diagnosed, and I met plenty of young women with breast cancer.
  • Never wait if you are suspicious. No matter what age, you have the right and should never feel bad about asking for a mammogram or other test. Knowing this would have saved me a lot of hassle!
  • Dense and fibrocystic breasts (lumpy breasts) can mask a cancerous lump. Fibrocystic breast tissue, dense breast tissue and cancer appear the same on a mammogram. Get an ultrasound.
  • Know your breasts. Self-breast exams are not recommended any more by the American Cancer Society as part of regular cancer screenings, but there are plenty of women who find their own lumps. I had fibrocystic breasts. I felt my lump, as did my OBGYN. We both thought it was nothing because of my lumpy breasts. It wasn’t. A year after the lump was first identified, I was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer which had spread to at least one lymph node. Cancer is much easier to treat at earlier stages.

What I have learned:

  • Just because I had breast cancer doesn’t mean you will. Most women with breast cancer don’t have a family history of the disease. Having a first degree relative like a mom or sister doubles your risk, but overall this accounts for only about 13 to 16 percent of women diagnosed.
  • A double mastectomy does not guarantee cancer will not return. I would still do a double mastectomy, even though I only had cancer in one breast. It does decrease the risk of a re-occurrence, but there are no guarantees.
  • Having surgery doesn’t come without consequences. Although they have refined and developed mastectomy surgery, your body is not the same. Most people lose feeling in their breasts, as I did. When I had my ovaries taken out, I had to deal with menopause a few years early. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits when making a decision.
  • Not everything you read applies to everyone. The metastatic nodule found in my lung was found by accident. I probably would not have had any symptoms until the metastasis had grown and possibly spread further.
  • A higher lifetime exposure to estrogen may increase your risk. 80% of all breast cancer is estrogen positive. You don’t have to avoid estrogen; just be aware. Estrogen is found in everything from birth control pills to cosmetics to food. There is a reason I like to buy natural and organic products.

The best advice I can give is to be your own advocate. Always be proactive in your health care. Go for check-ups. Ask questions. I am always here for support and advice. You know your body better than anyone and doctors don’t always take you seriously. They see a lot of paranoid patients. Don’t be paranoid, but trust your instincts. If you have any doubts or uncertainty, get it checked.

I have a friend with an extensive family history. She is around 50 years old and decided to have a double mastectomy even though she had no sign of cancer, and guess what? They found a tiny amount of cancer, stage 0. I am not suggesting running out and getting your breasts removed; I am just letting you know she had concerns, trusted her instincts and made a personal choice that turned out to be a good one.

The odds are in your favor that you will never have breast cancer. Breast cancer is not something to fear, but being informed can certainly save you some trouble. Catching breast cancer early the first time is the best defense of all. And should you ever have concerns, mom is just a phone call away.

Follow this journey on Stronger Than My Fears.

This story originally appeared on Stronger Than My Fears.

Image via Christie Sproba.

Originally published: November 5, 2019
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