Hi there! I’m Caitlin, the Marketing and Communications Manager here at My Gene Counsel.
One year ago this month, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33.
The irony is not lost on me that my job at a healthcare tech startup focused on accurate and timely health information and precision medicine has become inextricably linked to my new role as a patient. I have seen firsthand that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to be able to make informed fact-based healthcare decisions. Instead, many simply do as their told or base their decisions on fear.
So, because I know not everyone can have an amazing My Gene Counsel team behind them (and healthcare team, of course) when they’re diagnosed with cancer, and because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought I’d periodically pop in to share some of my experiences, advice, and resources. And to actually do my part to raise “awareness.”
Today seems like a good day to start at the beginning because today, October 15, is National Mammography Day. Here are some things I’d like to raise awareness about in relation to breast cancer screenings:
SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING
Like most healthy 33-year-olds, with no strong family history of cancer, mammograms were not on my radar. Breast cancer was not on my radar. I guess I inherently knew that young people got breast cancer, but I had no reason to think that I would be one of them.
That was until I found a hard lump on the underside of my left breast while in the shower. I ignored it. Because like I said, I was a healthy 33-year-old, with no strong family history of cancer – and because it was 2020 and healthy people weren’t making doctor’s appointments in the middle of a pandemic.
Fortunately, I called my gynecologist to get a refill on my birth control, and she said I was overdue for an appointment and would need to come in to get my prescription filled. So, I had my appointment, and I mentioned the lump. Four days later, I had my first mammogram and breast ultrasound.
I’m sharing this to, again, raise awareness of a few things. First, as the adage goes, if you see something, say something. There’s a lot of controversy (especially among young adult breast cancer survivors) surrounding the American Cancer Society and their recommendations against breast self-exams and even clinical breast exams by a health professional. I found my lump by accident. Whether you want to do a self-exam or not is up to you, but if something looks or feels suspicious, call your doctor. Get it checked out.
I was incredibly fortunate that my doctor took me seriously because I’ve heard many stories about women being told they’re “too young” to have breast cancer, consequently delaying diagnosis and treatment. Be an advocate for yourself. I often morbidly think about if my doctor and I had both ignored the lump, and I had waited the 7 years until I turned 40 to get my first mammogram as an average-risk woman. But that’s not what happened. Early detection and prompt treatment happened.
KNOW YOUR BREAST CANCER RISK
Varying guidelines can make knowing when to schedule your first mammogram confusing. Most organizations agree that annual mammograms between age 40 and 55 for average-risk women have the greatest lifesaving benefit. A woman is considered average risk if she doesn’t have a personal or strong family history of breast cancer or a genetic mutation known to increase breast cancer risk. For women at high risk, screenings can start as early as age 25, depending on type of gene mutation and/or youngest age of breast cancer in the family.
If you’re not already getting regular mammograms, take a good look at your personal and family health history to assess your risk and talk to your doctor (e.g., primary care provider, gynecologist) about when you should start breast cancer screenings. When to start, how often you have them, and the type of mammogram will depend on your unique situation. Your healthcare provider can also refer you to a genetic counselor, who can further evaluate your risk and discuss genetic testing.
CANCER WON’T WAIT AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU
I can’t take any credit for this catchy slogan. It’s actually a campaign by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), the American Cancer Society (ACS), and a slew of topnotch health organizations to get people to resume cancer screenings and treatment.
Many women missed their annual mammograms during the pandemic, so if you are due (or overdue), make the appointment now! Don’t delay your screenings due to COVID-19. Healthcare facilities have precautions in place to keep you safe during your visit.
As a heads up, if you happen to schedule your mammogram soon after getting the COVID-19 vaccine, be aware that swollen lymph nodes (a normal side effect of vaccination) may show up on your mammogram.
So, whether it’s your annual mammogram, your first mammogram, or a physical with your doctor to start assessing your risk – please go make that appointment today.