It was April 1st and my 32nd birthday. My husband, Michael, and I stood over our seven-month old’s crib as he lay sleeping. I smiled at Michael and started crying. “I have pure joy,” I told Michael. It was true. I had everything for which I could possibly dream and my life had been blessed.
Growing up outside of Detroit, I had a wonderful childhood and basically went through life knowing that hard work, loyalty and a positive attitude would get me to where I wanted to be. I was good at sports, had a loving family, excelled at school and always had a plethora of friends. At both my undergrad at Loyola University Chicago and my MBA at the University of Notre Dame, I found communities where I thrived and at Loyola, I even met my future husband. In 2014, we opted to move back to Michael’s hometown of Akron. It took some adjustment, but by this past April, all was well in the world. I had found a wonderful job and we had just given birth in September to a healthy and amazing son, James. I loved the community in Northeast Ohio and participated in multiple organizations. Literally, I had everything I could have wanted.
On April 3, 2017, two days after my birthday, we had family photos. My adorable son laughed as our photographer captured what will forever now be very significant moments. That night, as we lay in bed, my armpit hurt and I touched what I felt was a marble-sized lump. Stupid breastfeeding, I thought to myself. I must have an infection. The next morning, I called my OBGYN and scheduled an appointment for the following day. When I went in, the Nurse Practitioner didn’t think it was an infection so recommended an ultrasound. Akron General could see me a few weeks later. As I was breastfeeding, the scheduler was unconcerned as they saw these things all the time. Thus, with my appointment, I walked out the door. However, I stopped and remembered a speech I had heard back when I was working in Columbus. It was the story told by Lindsay (Wahl) Giannobile of Tallmadge.
Lindsay had come to speak to a group of us about the importance of advocating for your health because at 28, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer…but too late. Having found a lump a few years back, her doctor had dismissed it as just that, a benign lump, and it wasn’t until a few years later when she and her husband had been trying to conceive that she discovered it was breast cancer. Having passed away at 33 in 2016, her story haunted me.
With her speech echoing in my head, the appointment wasn’t going to cut it. I didn’t care if I was breastfeeding. I deserved an appointment earlier than a few weeks out. I called my doctor back and requested they call Summa to see if they could fit me in. As luck would have it, an ultrasound was available that Friday. Although I was supposed to go to Chicago for a bachelorette party, I knew this was important and Michael agreed that we would postpone the trip one day so that I could get my clean bill of health prior to partying!
You know where this story goes. My perfect life came to a screeching halt on April 10, 2017, the date of my triple negative, Stage 2B breast cancer diagnosis. Currently in the midst of my chemotherapy treatment, I hear from many of how shocked they are. However, I write this today because it should not be shocking. Since my diagnosis, I have been introduced to many women in my same position or who are survivors. Some were in their 20s when diagnosed, others were pregnant, still others were new, breastfeeding moms just like me.
Approximately 5% of all breasts cancers occur under the age of 40. As I now realize, with one in eight women in the U.S. being diagnosed with breast cancer, this leaves the figure at about one in 200 women under 40.
One in 200.
I repeat this because I think of the odds that were given to me when I was pregnant with James: Odds of eating a cold cut sandwich and getting salmonella, odds of having a child born with Downs Syndrome, odds of having a c-section. For most of 2016, I worried about these odds. However, not once during my life had I worried about the odds of getting breast cancer so young. Triple negative breast cancer is an extremely aggressive form of cancer that grows and spreads quickly. Thus, by finding it and getting started with chemotherapy (ironically around the day when Akron General had originally scheduled my ultrasound), I just may have saved my life - fingers, toes and every body-part crossed.
Thus, I write this to tell women (and men) to advocate for yourself and your breast health.
Do your monthly self-exams. Ask your healthcare professional to teach you how to give yourself a proper exam. (And trust me, after now having a “true” breast exam, it is more than ten seconds of patting around.)
If you have a history of breast cancer in your family, you should be able to receive screenings 10 years prior to the youngest-onset family diagnosis.
And most importantly, as Lindsay said, “You know your body best. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”