Most of us have been touched by cancer, either directly or indirectly. Pink October is a reminder to remember those lost to breast cancer, to encourage those still fighting, to celebrate the survivors and to prevent future cases. A year ago, I had my own battle with breast cancer. As a health care practitioner working in prevention and wellness, I felt almost immune to the possibility of developing cancer. I was healthy, I ate right, and I thought I knew the risk factors. In hindsight, I had more risks than I wanted to admit. With 1 in 8 women developing breast cancer, the likelihood that many of us will be touched personally is high.
The best thing you can do is to know your risks, and take charge of the ones you have control over. According to the American Cancer Society, there are several uncontrollable factors that can increase risk for breast cancer. They can include family and personal history with breast cancer, benign breast conditions, and previous chest radiation. Additional controllable risk factors may include birth control use, intake of alcohol, and hormone therapy following menopause.
Based on these criteria, more than 50 percent of the uncontrollable risk factors applied to me, with family history probably being the strongest. As my doctors were aware of my risks, I was followed closely with annual mammograms and ultrasounds. Although all the factors were presented to me and I had been told I was a high-risk case, I was still in denial. It would never be me.
Until, one day, it was. Three months after my routine mammogram, I found a pea-sized lump that was sore to touch. After that, my life changed forever.
Suddenly, I was plunged into the patient arena. I was now a cancer patient, a title that to this day is hard to accept. My life was re-routed, driven by testing, procedures and doctor visits. I had to put my life into the hands of my medical team and trust that they would prescribe the right treatment. Once I had an accurate diagnosis and plan of care, I could go forward with purpose. Receiving a cancer diagnosis was mind-numbing. At times, I felt the information given me was just washing over me in waves. I could no longer assimilate or comprehend what was being said. Luckily, I had the support of my family, friends and co-workers to hold me up through the tough times and gently nudge me in the right direction.
I am a living testimony to the importance of self-exam. My cancer was identified early, providing for a good prognosis. I am blessed to have Dr. Nakita Shah from UF Cancer Center at Orlando Health as my oncologist. Greeting me with a hug at each visit, Dr. Shah and her team have skillfully guided me through the most difficult time in my life. I want to take this time to personally thank the gifted caregivers at UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. From the women who graciously took my emergency phone calls to the nurses in the port room, at every touch-point I was treated with care, respect and dignity.
My journey continues with regular mammograms, MRI’s, medication and follow ups with my healthcare team. I am a member of the Cancer Support Community, which has provided me and my family with many free services to aid in recovery and healing. As a survivor, I have controllable risk factors like staying at a healthy weight, exercising and focusing on a plant based diet. I have been given another chance – and I am going to do it right.
Take control of the things you can change. Be diligent about breast exams, mammograms and preventive lifestyle factors.