October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means there’s no shortage of articles making the rounds that can help navigate women (and men) through many of the most common warning signs of breast cancer.
I read this piece on Babble a few days ago — “Looking for Lumps? 8 More Signs for Breast Cancer” — to see if there was anything on the list that was new to me. To be honest, while all eight signs were helpful reminders, none of the information was groundbreaking. Breast cancer is not a rare disease about which there is little information to be found. But since I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Jan. 6 of this year, I feel increasingly concerned that there exist too many lists of symptoms and not enough emphasis on what I found to be the most effective way of beating the odds: Not waiting until you notice something is wrong, being proactive, and seeing your doctor regularly.
I didn’t have a lump. There was no swelling, irritation, aches, pains, changes in cup size, leaking fluids or unusual discharge. I have a family history of the disease, but it’s still somewhat distant. I simply turned 40 and went in for a mammogram, as is recommended by the American Cancer Society. As it turned out, a radiologist found signs of pervasive calcifications in my right breast, which might have been normal since I breastfed both of my daughters. But then a biopsy revealed that, in fact, I had breast cancer.
It was caught early, I was aggressive in my treatment, and, I’m grateful for the fact that I’m going to be fine. However, I shudder to think what might have happened if I had chosen to delay that mammogram as I know so many women do. Some don’t get mammograms when they turn 40 because they don’t know they’re supposed to. Others don’t have health insurance or adequate coverage. Some women think a lack of family history means they’re in the clear. There are also plenty of (highly intelligent) women who think ignorance is bliss — if they don’t acknowledge it, it can’t happen to them.
In some ways, I feel as if all of the available breast-cancer symptom lists could be hurting more women then they’re helping. If I still had breasts and read that story the other day, I might have breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t exhibiting any of the possibly early warning signs listed. Except the fact is that for many women, there are no warning signs. There are only malignant cells lurking that cannot be felt or seen. Mammograms and biopsies (and, in many cases, ultrasounds) can be key in savings lives. If you don’t go to the doctor, though, you often can’t be saved.
Awareness is crucial — but what to be aware of is even more critical. If your health insurance isn’t adequate or is nonexistent, look up a local Planned Parenthood or get in touch with the Komen Foundation to see where in your area you can get a low- or no-cost mammogram and breast health screening. If you think it can’t happen to you, meet me. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me, either. I didn’t want to hear it when I was told. But it did happen, I listened (and cried) and it’s now (almost) in the past. Not because I was good at spotting a sign, but because I was good and went to the doctor.
Awareness is inspiring and invaluable, but it’s action that saves lives.
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