October is Breast Cancer awareness month and for this month’s blog posts, we wanted to do something a little special. Our posts this month will keep with our focus on self-care and confidence but will also feature stories from real women who have experience with breast cancer first hand as survivor, a medical professional, and a current fighter. All of these stories are unique and are meant to provide our readers with information and a connection to someone that might be going through the same thing as they are. We hope that by sharing these stories you will find comfort in knowing that while each experience is unique, you are not alone and there are other women out there who are fighting similar battles. In addition to sharing these stories, we are also releasing a Limited Edition Tinted Lip Serum this month called Sharon. This glowing pink shade will only be available for the month of October and $5 from every sale will go towards Soul Ryeders, a non-profit that helps provide resources and support to people battling cancer.
This week we are featuring, Debbie, a medical professional. She resides in Maine with her husband and is the mother of three, including Sarah, TNB’s Creative Director. Debbie has been a nurse and educator for over 3 decades and her medical background has allowed her to have a unique first-hand experience in supporting and caring for someone with breast cancer.
Here is Debbie’s story:
I have been a nurse for over 30 years and I started my career in the oncology (cancer) unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center in 1986. Currently, I teach nursing at the University of Maine in Orono. Little did I know soon after starting my career, that the knowledge and experience I gained on the oncology unit would be useful in a few years. In November 1991, my mother was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 49.
Sometimes when you are going through a stressful time or medical emergency, it can be hard to really listen, focus, understand, and retain what someone, especially a doctor who is using medical terms, is telling you. I was very fortunate that I was able to go to her appointments with her and help her understand all the information she was given. Because of my degree and experience with treating oncology patients, I was able to aid and support my mom as she selected her course of treatment and answer questions she had concerning her diagnosis and treatment choice. My mother ultimately chose to have a mastectomy and chemotherapy as it was an aggressive cancer.
During this time, my own doctor suggested that I start to perform self-breast exams monthly and have a clinical breast exam with a mammogram annually. So in 1992, at the age of 30, I started having yearly mammograms. Then in 1998, after being in remission for a few years, my mother was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in the other breast at the age of 56. Because of her past history with breast cancer this one was caught early and it was a slow growing cancer. This time, my mother opted for a lumpectomy and radiation as her course of treatment and I am happy to say that my mother is cancer free and is now well into her 70’s.
Since my mother was a two-time cancer survivor and various cancers do run in my family (I have a maternal aunt and a paternal aunt who both died of breast cancer), my doctor and I have discussed the option of genetic testing. I wanted to know what exactly would be done if I did indeed have the BRCA mutation. Essentially there were two choices: keep doing what I was doing or have a preventative bilateral mastectomy. Since I wanted to weigh out all my options, I did discuss this with my primary doctor and an oncologist where I worked. Both stated that having preventative bilateral mastectomy did not guarantee that I would not get breast cancer as it is impossible to remove all of the breast tissue. I decided that I did not want surgery and that I would do exactly what they had me doing anyways, so I opted to not have the genetic testing done. I felt that the anxiety caused by me knowing I had the mutation would be more stressful than not knowing.
While I did feel that my mother’s second cancer increased my chances of breast cancer and it also made me worry about my children. I have three children, two of whom are daughters. As a daughter of a mother who had breast cancer, I am aware that my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer goes up twofold and that the more relatives I have the higher my risk becomes. My mother has been cancer free for 21 years and there has not been any diagnosis of cancer in my immediate family since her last battle with breast cancer. While that is a good sign, it does not mean I, or my children are in the clear. However, we cannot live a life full of fear and it is my belief that if you live a positive life and are proactive with your health, you will have a much better shot at being healthy.
Being proactive about your health can be hard, but here are some recommendations for women who have a first-degree (parent, sibling, or child) family history of breast cancer to help them be proactive. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends a clinical breast exam every 6 months starting at an age 10 years before the earliest diagnosis in the family (so if the youngest age of diagnosis was 50, then you should start clinical breast exams at 40), annual mammograms, possible supplemental imaging (ultrasound or MRI), and possibly alternating the annual mammogram with an MRI. I know that the earlier we catch cancer, the more successful it is in being cured. Screening is very important in detecting breast cancer early. Lifestyle changes can also help decrease the odds of getting breast cancer, these include: moderate alcohol intake, not taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause, and maintaining a healthy body weight.
It is also important to remember that cancer does not discriminate. Just because you have a family history, it does not mean you are guaranteed to get cancer, just like not having a family history is not a guarantee that you will never get it. Do your best to stay proactive about your health and remember to support your loved ones and to respect their choices as it pertains to their own health.