This article was first published in the October 2023 issue of DesertLeaf magazine.
My Aunt Jan saved my life.
The overall risk of a woman developing breast cancer during her lifetime is approximately 13%. My risk was much higher—55%-72%—due to a genetic predisposition known as a BRCA1 mutation. I learned of my high risk thanks to my aunt, who, after she was diagnosed with BRCA1-positive ovarian cancer, encouraged me to become proactive about my health and screening.
Learning of my BRCA1 status at the age of 33 prompted me to diligently undergo screening due to my high-risk status. Despite my attentiveness, my triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) was already stage 2b, by the time it was diagnosed when I was 35. During the height of the global pandemic in December 2020, my surgical oncologist confirmed my biggest fear: the lump I had felt during a self-check was, in fact, breast cancer. TNBC grows quickly, and had I not been aware of my genetic mutation or was not closely monitored, my diagnosis could potentially have been later stage and possibly terminal.
The next 18 months were grueling. Undergoing cancer treatment during the midst of the
pandemic was terrifying and extremely isolating. Six months of chemotherapy; multiple
surgeries, including a double mastectomy; blood transfusions; and countless bags of IV fluids, blood draws, and doctors’ appointments were all done solo, masked, and with the fear that I would not reach my 40th birthday.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I want to urge my beloved Tucson community to become aware of the risk factors and the importance of screening for breast cancer. One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. But, with earlier screening and awareness as well as newer treatment modalities, death from breast cancer has been decreasing steadily since 1989, with a decline of approximately 43% since 1989.
However, in recent years, that decline has slowed down.
It is important to know your risk factors. Know your family history: Has your mom, sister,
grandmother, or aunt been diagnosed with cancer? Do you or a family member have a
genetic mutation like mine (e.g., BRCA1 or BRCA2)? Are you over the age of 40? Do you have dense breasts? Know the answers to those questions and discuss them early on with your physician. As of May 2023, the US Preventative Services Task Force recommends women begin screening mammograms at the age of 40, younger than the prior recommendation of age 50. Starting screening 10 years earlier could save thousands of lives annually. Despite advances in treatment, an estimated 43,000 women die of breast cancer in the US every year.
I learned about “feel it on the first” from an incredible organization, The Breasties, which supports breast and gynecological ‘previvors,’ survivors, and caretakers. “Feel it on the first” is an initiative encouraging women to conduct a monthly breast self-exam at the same time every month (some suggest the first day of every month) so you “get to know YOUR normal.” While monthly self-exams do not replace mammogram screenings, becoming aware of your own breast changes with this quick self-check could save your life or that of a loved one. For me personally, despite completing breast imaging in June 2020, I developed a palpable lump in between scans. Discovering my lump while doing a self- exam in the shower is one of the reasons I am alive today.
Additionally, I strongly believe in advocating for yourself. You know your body better than
anyone. If something feels off, talk to your healthcare provider about it. As a nonprofit
consultant who works to address social inequities, I am highly aware that significant health
disparities exist in terms of access to care and clinical trials. Having met survivors of all ages, and from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, I’ve heard too many stories of patients being dismissed. If you feel unheard, bring a trusted loved one with you to your doctor’s appointment and/or consider switching physicians.
Lastly, remember that no one fights alone. Should you find yourself diagnosed or caring
for a loved one with breast cancer, we are fortunate to have many great local resources here
in Southern Arizona, including Tucson Cancer Conquerors and Arizona Oncology
Foundation, among others. And perhaps a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is the
increase in the number of virtual support groups. As a 2-plus year survivor as well as a proud Tucsonan, I am here for you and am always willing to be a resource as someone who has sat in the chemo chair.
Lindsey Baker is a breast cancer survivor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.