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Breast Cancer Awareness: I’m still here 10 years later

  • Published
  • By Amanda Dick
  • 445th Airlift Wing

Editor’s Note: This article should not substitute for medical advice as it is a personal story. Please consult medical professionals if you suspect you may have breast cancer.

The month of October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but it also marks a big anniversary for me – 10 years since being diagnosed with cancer and my 10-year cancer “freeversary” in December.

I never thought I’d be 29, having my fear confirmed after finding a lump in my breast. Even 10 years later, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the fact that something tried to kill me before I reached 30.

While the Centers for Disease Control lists being over 50 as a main risk factor, it can happen at any age like it did for me, especially as I fit the two other main risk factors – being a woman and having the Breast Cancer gene mutation 1 or (also known as BRCA1).

I was one of the more than 200,000 women who get breast cancer in the U.S. each year. However, breast cancer doesn’t limit itself to only women. According to the CDC, 1 in 100 diagnoses in the U.S. is a man.

What can you do to prevent cancer?

While nothing can prevent you from getting breast cancer, there are many factors you can change in your life to help lower the risk. However, even if you followed all these tips to lower the risk, you can still get breast cancer. I was the most fit I had been in my life and active-duty career; my weight was managed; and I ate the best I ever have in my life when I got diagnosed.

I don’t say this to discourage you; I say this, so you don’t have a false sense of hope or berate yourself if you “did all the things” and still got cancer.

Lower risk factors include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Staying active
  • Abstaining from alcohol or drinking in moderation
  • Talking with your doctor about risks associated to hormone replacements or contraceptives
  • Knowing your family history of breast cancer and the BRCA1/BRCA2 genes

How do you know if you might have breast cancer?

My grandmother, mother and aunt are all breast cancer survivors, so I knew I was already at a higher risk for breast cancer. I regularly conducted breast self-exams which is how I found my lump the size of a small pea. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a BRCA test done until I went to the doctor to undergo cancer testing and found out I had the BRCA1 gene.

Thankfully, because I knew my family history of breast cancer and was proactive with self-exams, I caught my cancer early – Stage IA. While I did have to wait 1.5 months to have my double mastectomy, early detection meant I only hit Stage IIA by the time the tumor was removed.

There are many ways besides breast self-exams ways to help with early detection such as mammogram*, MRIs and clinical breast exams.

The CDC also states there might also be some warning signs in both men and women such as:

  • A new lump in the breast or armpit
  • The breast swelling more than normal
  • Breast skin showing signs of irritation or dimpling
  • Discharge from the nipple (other than breast milk)
  • Pain around the nipple area or pulling of the nipple

If you have a family history of breast cancer, especially on your mother’s side, make sure your doctor knows this history and you discuss with them options – whether it be BRCA gene testing, earlier screening, clinical exams, etc. If you have the gene mutation, it will be up to you and your doctor to determine next steps.

I think I have cancer; what now?

If you have any of the symptoms listed in this article or on the CDC website, talk to your doctor as soon as you can. You and your doctor will determine the best course of action that will be based on what type of breast cancer you have and if it has receptors.

Treatments could range from surgery to radiation to chemotherapy, but it’s all tailored to you and your type of cancer. Many of the breast cancers that have receptors can also be treated with other types of therapy.

I had a special type of invasive breast cancer – triple negative – which meant it lacked the receptors and my only options were surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. I chose a double mastectomy since I had the BRCA1 gene and chemotherapy since I opted for a double mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy. If chemo didn’t work, I didn’t have other options outside of that.

At the end of the day, each of us are different and handle experiences different. It comes down to you and your doctor and what you feel comfortable with.

How can you help support?

Many times, our family and friends don’t know what to do when we tell them we have cancer. My answer – be there for them. Whether it’s offering prayers and good thoughts, being someone to listen to them or a shoulder to cry on, understanding when they are too tired to hang out and cancel plans, or encouraging them to push through or start slowly exercising again.

I remember receiving a care package and flowers shortly after getting to Hawaiʻi from the friends I had to leave in England. It was filled with English goodies, and trinkets that reminded me of the good times I had there and the friends I missed.

There are also various organizations who focus on breast cancer education, treatment, providing free wigs, transportation and more that can be given monetary donations. But beware during the month of October with people and businesses who prioritize profit over donations.

Just because it’s pink and says it’s for Breast Cancer Awareness Month doesn’t mean the money goes to breast cancer patients or organizations who help them.

If you are a supervisor or leader of an Airman, empathy is the best way to support your Airman. Provide direction to where they can get help. Understand giving their best will be significantly lower than previous while their body goes through multiple surgeries, chemo and/or radiation. Be there for them in action; don’t just say you have their back.

My leadership in England moved mountains during a government shutdown to get me, a single Airman, to Hawaiʻi where my parents were that also had a major military medical facility. I had to leave my household goods and dog in England, but I knew things would be taken care of by leadership, coworkers and friends.

I am beyond grateful to be here 10 years later and be counted as one of many breast cancer survivors, including my mom who celebrates her 20-year breast cancer “freeversary” this year. For those who lost their battle, I continue to fight and educate in the hopes one day there will be a cure.

I am also thankful to my coworkers, friends and family around the globe who supported and encouraged me. I know for a fact I would not be here today if it weren’t for you. You were the foundation I was able to stand on to fight “The Big C,” and I know I couldn’t have done it without you!

*Per their 2016 Final Recommendation Statement, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends starting mammograms at 50 but to discuss with your doctor if one is needed before then. However, the USPSTF is currently working through the Recommendation Development Process to finalize draft guidance that will move the starting age back to 40 with many doctors already adhering to this new recommendation.