What Breast Cancer Taught Me

It’s October: Breast Cancer Awareness month.  Today, I’m reposting my own personal breast cancer story.  I consider this my annual, small contribution to raising awareness for the purposes of educating for early detection and funding for research. [Originally posted: October 26. 2016]

My Breast Cancer Story

As a survivor, this month is always bitter-sweet for me.  It’s a reminder of the darkest time in my life.  Yet, it elicits true gratitude for the blessing of survival and the people who carried me through it.  Every October, my instincts are to remember and be grateful in the same way I fought breast cancer – privately.  But, I think most survivors feel as I do, that we have an obligation – to our sisters who are no longer here to speak to it and those who do not yet know they too will fight it – to be leading voices in honoring, supporting, educating, encouraging and fighting breast cancer.

As a fitness professional, there’s an added responsibility to speak to the importance of regular screening for breast cancer specifically and all health screening generally.  Taken together, there’s no escaping the necessity for me to merge my personal breast cancer experience with my fitness expertise to share with you what I’ve learned:

No one is immune: The majority of breast cancer cases cannot be attributed to genes, family history or lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity and alcohol or drug abuse.  That was true for me.  I had zero breast cancer risk factors.  I was exercising regularly and eating a balanced healthy diet.  But I got it at the age of 43 anyway.  My doctors and I have no idea why I got breast cancer.  I’ll likely never know.

Never put off screening because you’re fit or considered low risk. 

Mammograms aren’t enough: Annual mammograms are important but they’re only one screening tool.  And, for a percentage of women who have dense breast tissue like I did, mammograms are a flawed tool.  My tumor grew to the size of a Brussels sprout less than six months after my last clean mammogram and ultrasound.

Though women with dense tissue aren’t at higher risk for getting breast cancer, they are at higher risk for false negatives on mammograms and ultrasounds, which are the only medical tools used to catch breast cancers early.  And, because early detection is the best predictor of survival, women with dense tissue have a lower survival rate.  Regular self-exams are a must in the fight against breast cancer.

Begin monthly self exams early in life, continue them even after beginning mammogram screenings; demand ultrasound screenings in addition to mammograms if you have dense tissue; advocate for not delaying mammography screening past the age of 40 and request that some resources be allocated to the discovery and implementation of more reliable screening.

Always trust your gut. My friend’s barely-perceptible tumor was discovered only after several mammograms and ultrasounds.  The reason for the multiple tests?  She just knew in her gut something wasn’t right.  And she had a doctor who listened to her, trusted her instincts and advocated for her.

Self-knowledge and intuition are vital in the fight against breast cancer.

Breast cancer isn’t one disease and the women (and men) who have it aren’t homogeneous: Invasive, non-invasive, hormone-fed, non-hormone-fed, stages, grades, metastasized, non-metastasized breast cancers; tests and procedures like biopsies, MRIs, lumpectomies, node biopsies; treatments like mastectomies, radiation, chemotherapy; and post-cancer considerations like hormone therapies, genetic testing, frequency of screenings and risks of recurrence and related cancers; how old she is and where she is in her life stage and overall health…every single one of these variables is different for each woman with breast cancer.  Each variable changes her options and recommended protocols.  Each treatment and follow-up test carries its own set of risks, possible side effects and has an effect on the probability of recurrence and survival.

It’s dizzying, to say the least.  This says nothing of the physical, emotional and sexual repercussions that breast cancer and its treatment causes and how these factors affect decisions about nipple-preserving surgery or breast reconstruction surgeries.  News reports on celebrity cases and published opinions from medical professionals that tend to give a generalized recommendation or, worse, condemnation – such as everyone should be tested for the BRCA gene or too many women are opting for so-called unnecessary mastectomies – do all women a disservice.  How a woman decides to test and treat her cancer, what risks she chooses to accept, how she handles the post-cancer tests, treatment and aesthetic outcome and whom she chooses to involve in these decisions is up to her and her alone.

If someone you care about is diagnosed, it’s imperative to refrain from unsolicited advice, opinions or anecdotal stories.  Even a person who has had a form of the disease should refrain from inserting her experience into someone else’s.  Every breast cancer case is unique.

Breast cancer is an ugly, horrible, terrifying thing.  But more women than ever are surviving and thriving despite this disease.  And, I have no doubt that Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Susan G Komen Foundation and the Avon Walk are among the many reasons for this.

Ladies, self-screen and get screened, encourage the women in your life to do the same and give to the cause in any way you’re able.  Gentlemen, for the sake of your mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, encourage screenings and give to breast cancer research.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life.  Which means, breast cancer will eventually affect all of us, male or female, in one way or another.  Let’s do what we can to honor those who fought valiantly, support those who still fight and find a cure to spare the next generation the scourge of this terrible disease.  Click here to donate.

~Michelle


Learn how breast cancer changed my fitness focus in the About Me section of my website.

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