Published: Sept. 24, 2012
Updated: Sept. 24, 2012
By Lauren Ward
Last October I was a healthy, 35-year-old mom with three kids under the age of 7 and no family history of cancer. Breast cancer was the last thing on my mind. Then my husband was transferred to Dubai, and my ob/gyn suggested I get a mammogram “as a baseline” before we headed overseas.
That mammogram saved my life. In February 2012 I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I’ve battled through six months of fatigue, balding chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. Now my cancer is gone and I’m undergoing radiation to make sure it doesn’t come back. I’ll have reconstructive surgery in the spring.
This year, October is different. For me, it’s about bringing awareness to a disease that is sometimes ignored by young women. Talking about our breasts is uncomfortable. But this is about survival. Let’s talk.
This isn’t our Mothers’ Disease
One in 8 U.S. women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Young women (like me) don’t know we are at risk. It’s true that less than 7% of all breast cancer cases occur in women younger than 40. However, breast cancer can strike at any age, and breast cancer is the most common cause of death in women aged 35 to 54. The number of young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer is on the rise and doctors don’t know why.
Know Your Breasts
Some young women with breast cancer ignore the warning signs—lumps or nipple changes—either because they think they’re too young to get breast cancer, or because they attribute changes in their breasts to pregnancy or nursing. Get to know your breasts and talk to your doctor about any changes you notice.
Do Self Breast Exams
More than 80% of breast cancer cases are discovered by touch. Feel for changes in your breasts with circular, horizontal and vertical motions. Don’t be afraid to probe—many breast cancers are close to the chest wall.
Feel under your arms—lumps found in lymph nodes in your armpits can also indicate breast cancer. Look for signs that include one breast becoming larger or lower, a nipple changing position, shape or becoming inverted, skin puckering or dimpling, discharge, constant pain in part of the breast or armpit, and swelling beneath the armpit or around the collarbone. If you experience any of these signs, see your doctor.
Know Your Risks and How to Lower Them
Family history. If your mom, sister or daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk is doubled. About 15% of women with breast cancer have a family member with the disease. If you’re one of them, talk to your doctor to determine if increased screening or further hereditary testing is right for you.
Follow a Healthy Lifestyle
I feel blessed to have been diagnosed with breast cancer early and to be able to share my experience. While I was never much for pink, I now wear it proudly to show we are sisters in diagnosis, and hopefully, too, as survivors.
Lauren Ward is a resident of Austin, TX with her family. She graduated Duke in 1997 and is the Alumni Ambassador for the Duke Cancer Institute. She has a blog at mommyunlocked.com. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org
The content of this article has been reviewed by Kimberly Blackwell, M.D., Director of the Duke Cancer Institute Breast Program.