This is Gina. A two time breast cancer survivor. She was initially diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26. At the time, given her relatively young age and a family history without any cancer occurrences, she had a less than 1% chance of having breast cancer. But because of her diligent self checks and personal advocacy for her health, the cancer was found in its early stage and gave her a greater chance of beating the disease.
As was the case with Gina, early detection includes doing monthly breast self-exams while scheduling annual clinical breast exams and mammograms. When all of these are combined, your chances for finding cancer earlier are even greater. Finding cancer early may also save your life.
When were you diagnosed and at what age?
I was diagnosed May 15, 2003. I was 26 years old at the time. I remember the day vividly as I was down at our Colfax branch office getting ready to meet with a customer when I got a call from my doctor and she informed me I had breast cancer. I remember going out to the front desk and asking them to tell my customer to give me 30 minutes so I could gather my thoughts. After calling my family, I did have the customer meeting and then driving back to Spokane was a blur. I remember one of my first calls was also to HR to see what my medical insurance would cover.
How was the cancer initially detected?
Six months prior to my diagnosis, I had a biopsy that was benign on the other breast. At the time of that exam, they did find a lump on my right side, and said to keep an eye on that one. As time went on, it kept getting bigger. I recall talking about it several times with a good friend of mine and she finally said, you need to call our doctor (we had the same doctor at the time) and if I did not, she was going to for me! That is when I called my doctor to let her know the lump on my right side was getting bigger. She responded “the chances of it being cancer at your age is less than 1%” so she suggested to keep watching it. That night, I could not sleep as I kept asking myself “what if I am that 1%”. So I called my doctor the next morning and told her, “What if I am that 1%? For peace of mind I wanted to get an ultra sound which she ordered. It was confirmed I needed a biopsy right away and the biopsy confirmed I had two malignant tumors. I was diagnosed with stage 2 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). At the same breath I was told I had cancer, I was also told that my chance of having children were not good as the treatment I needed significantly reduced my odds.
My treatment plan was 2 lumpectomies, mastectomy, chemo therapy, radiation and reconstruction surgery followed by 5 years on Tamoxifen. My breast surgeon was adamant that I have an MRI and an monogram annually as part of my ongoing screening which I was thankful she made that requirement as that is how my reoccurrence was found on February 3, 2016 – nearly 13 years later. It was caught early as a result of any annual MRI screening. Had I not had the MRI as part of my annual protocol, I am sure I would have had the same outcome as mammograms are only completed on breast tissue, which would have excluded my reconstructed breast where the cancer reoccurred. With the second round, I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and then a hysterectomy followed by tamoxifen for 10 years.
Did you have a support network? If not, how did you overcome it or find it?
I had great support from my employer, family and friends. I initially struggled and tried to find a support network; however, the issues I was facing were quite different as a 26 year old compared to women in the 50’s and 60’s. My doctor connected me with a couple of younger women an we would meet for dinner and coffee, and they are some of best friends to this date.
Were there any programs or services offered to you that would help with the treatment process?
Though Providence, I was given a grant and was awarded funds toward a wig. Loosing my hair was pretty emotional. Wearing a wig was tough for me and wearing a hat it was evident I did not have any hair and I could not hide the fact I was sick.
What message would you like to provide women in the community?
Be your own health advocate. If something does not seem right, get it checked out. Cancer does not discriminate by age or even gender. Be diligent in self-exams and get your mammograms!
Why is important for Community Cancer Fund and other similar organizations to provide support to patients and our community?
I was fortunate through my journey that I had the resources to get through my two treatment plans. It is critical for organizations such as CCF and others to provide support to individuals who may not have the financial or medical resources to get the care and treatment they need.
What does it mean to you to be on CCF Board of Directors?
After my cancer journey, I wanted to give back to the community and those fighting cancer. I am very proud of CCF and all they have done for the Spokane and CdA areas and I am honored to be on the board.