Ontisar and her daughter At the age of 39, I was encouraged to have a mammogram by my new primary care doctor because of a maternal family history of breast cancer.  After getting the mammogram, I received a letter stating that due to suspicious dense tissue a follow up mammogram was needed.  A self-exam confirmed the presence of a prominent lump in the upper right breast.

The findings from the follow up exam stated that the suspicious mass was merely a benign lymph node.

After a few months passed, the lump could still be felt.  During an OB/GYN visit, I shared information about the mammogram with her doctor.  Subsequent to the doctor performing a breast exam, she said that the lump was not normal and told me to “keep an eye on it.”

As time passed, the lump seemed to be getting bigger and a second, new lump could be felt.  By this time, it was roughly one year from the past year’s mammogram and it was time for a new annual mammogram to be performed.

At the onset of the 2nd annual mammogram appointment, I brought the lumps to the attention of the technician and requested an ultrasound and biopsy.  Still, the mammogram did not pick up the lumpy mass in the upper part of my right breast.  The mammogram did, however, pick up the same benign lymph node that was cleared the year before (which was in the lower quadrant of the right breast).  Before the biopsy was performed, the radiologist offered me the option of marking the lumps and watching them for six months.  I declined this option.  Days later, I received a call from the Radiologist.  She informed me that the results of the biopsy showed that the lumps were cancerous.

Days later, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. There are several learning opportunities from my experience that I want to share because early detection saves lives.

Know your risk factors (i.e. know your family medical history).  If you have family members that have had breast cancer, share this information with your physician(s).  Women with a family history of breast cancer may start getting mammograms at 30 years of age or younger.  In addition, ultrasounds, MRIs or other tools may also be utilized to establish a baseline.

Perform monthly self-exams of your breast.  If you find a suspicious mass in your breast contact your doctor.  An ultrasound, MRI or biopsy may be needed. The importance of self-exams cannot be over emphasized.  There are many stories of women in their twenties finding lumps, which turned out to be early stage breast cancer.  Finding the cancer early is what saved their lives.

Be aware that mammograms are a starting point and can be as low as 50% accurate, depending on whether your breast tissue is dense.  More sophisticated imaging (like ultrasound or MRI) may be needed to establish a baseline for women with denser, fibrous breast.  Only tissue samples (or biopsies) can definitively establish if a lump is benign or malignant.

Understand your findings report.  After you read the report, if there is information or terms in the report that you do not understand, call the radiologist’s office and request a meeting with the doctor or nurse to explain the findings to you.

Have a face to face discussion with the radiologist.  Insist on having a face to face discussion with the radiologist if you are ever called back for a follow up mammogram.  This may mean that you have to wait hours or that you have to come back a day or two later, but discussing what was concerning to the radiologist in a face to face meeting is important.

Sound the alarm.  If you discover a suspicious mass in your breast immediately contact your doctor.  Also, it may be helpful to tell someone you trust.  Suspicious masses should be imaged or biopsied to determine if they are benign or malignant.

The purpose of the information above is to help share my personal experience with being diagnosed with breast cancer.  See your doctor to evaluate any medical situation or to answer questions you have.  In addition, if you ever feel a suspicious mass, pain or an unusual feeling in your breast, consult your doctor immediately.  Early detection of breast cancer can greatly improve your chances for survival.  Share this story and help get the conversation on breast health going and be your own advocate.

Sincerely, Ontisar Freelain

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