IN THEIR WORDS

Maura Power

Breast Cancer At 36

I have always been diligent about my health – exercising, eating right and knowing my body are important to me. I did self-exams frequently and had the instruction card posted in the shower. One day, I thought I felt something in one of my breasts.

I didn’t have an immediate reaction – I knew it was some kind of lump but assumed it was a cyst, which I knew were common. I checked again the next week, and definitely felt a lump that time. I did some research and found descriptions of tumors – the lump I felt fit three of the four descriptions. I made a mental note to get it checked out, but with two small kids and a hectic schedule, it was on the “get to it eventually” list.

A few days later, I developed what I thought was a sinus infection with extreme symptoms. I knew I couldn’t just ignore the potential infection, and made an appointment with my primary care physician to get checked out.

During the appointment, I mentioned the lump, and also that I noticed I had been losing a lot of hair that summer. I was scheduled for a mammogram and ultrasound to investigate the lump. Less than a week later, I got a phone call saying the next step was to do a biopsy. The word “cancer” never entered any conversation, and wasn’t even a thought in my head.

I had the biopsy about two weeks after finding the lump. Ten minutes later, the doctor and nurse came back with a diagnosis: I had breast cancer. I was shocked. I was only 36. I was healthy. Thankfully I had brought a close friend to the appointment with me, who helped me process and digest the information the doctor provided.

The cancer was classified as stage 3 because of its size – it had moved into the lymph nodes but had not traveled to other organs. A week later, I had a lumpectomy and surgery to remove all the lymph nodes in my right armpit. I also did eight rounds of chemotherapy, another surgery to clean up the margins from the lumpectomy, and radiation.

My advice to anyone reading my story: do self-exams. I am adopted and have no medical history so my general practitioner recommended I get a mammogram done at 35 years old instead of 40 years old. That mammogram – less than a year before my diagnosis – was clear. I am glad I took responsibility for my own health between mammograms and was diligent about self-exams.

Knowing your body, paying attention to subtle symptoms, and tracking symptoms to see if they persist is essential to early diagnosis. I am thankful that I shared my symptoms with my doctor, and that my health care team acted quickly and efficiently to get me to a diagnosis and successful treatment. Empower yourself to know your body, and act on symptoms while they are small.

"I am glad I took responsibility for my own health between mammograms and was diligent about self-exams."

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