June 2, 2013

Happy second re-birthday to me!

I've been meaning to post for MONTHS (okay, actually a whole year...) to let people know how I'm doing. However, I've been so busy trying to get my life back on track that there always seems to be something more urgent in the cue of things to do. As today is a really important day, I'm making time, even if it means sacrificing some (more) sleep.

In case you've lost track of time, I got my breast cancer diagnosis two years ago in May. So I had my annual cancer check a couple weeks ago. Just yesterday I just received the results in the mail, and I wanted to share them with all of you. Fortunately, all the tests were CLEAR!! *happy dance*

As my previous blog post described, last May was tough because of all the difficult and stressful memories it brought back. Thankfully, this May hasn't been as hard because I'm focusing on all the possibilities that lie ahead. It reminds me of the difference between how we see birthdays when we're kids and when we're adults. Most kids can't WAIT for their next birthday because each year brings new opportunities, skills, responsibilities and achievements. When we're older, each birthday seems to remind us of how long we've been around, how much we've endured and/or how much (or little) time we have left. In some ways, I feel like my life restarted after cancer. I've been reborn and am forging a new and different path from the one I was on just a few years ago. So, rather than marking my second cancerversary, I'm celebrating my second re-birthday!

In this second year since my diagnosis, I've accomplished quite a lot. Remember those two New Year's resolutions I made last year? (If you don't, they were to learn Finnish and get back in shape.) Well, I achieved them both! It think it might be the first time in my whole life that I actually fulfilled my resolutions...

Last fall, I took an(other) intensive Finnish class, which was aimed at getting immigrants with advanced degrees into the workforce in Finland. It was a LOT of work– five days a week, 4.5 hours per day, for 6 months. Although I'm not fluent yet, I definitely understand well now. I'm still a bit hesitant to speak but am now working on that with a private tutor. So maybe next year's resolution is to actually be able to speak well!

As a health educator, I knew what I needed to do to lose weight and get in shape, but getting started is the hardest part. The breast cancer rehabilitation class I took last spring gave me the final push and support I needed to get going. Since then, I've lost 42 pounds and 13% body fat. I went from a US size 16/18 to a 10/12! Although looking good and having one's clothes fit are huge perks, the most important outcome is that I feel great. I am strong and have more energy and the endurance to do the things I really enjoy.

One of the things I've really missed since moving to Finland is my career. Fortunately, the Finnish class I took involved an internship period so we could get some experience in a Finnish workplace while practicing our Finnish skills. Though some very lucky networking, I managed to organize an internship in my field (public health). The first internship led to a second and then to a temporary work contract. Via more networking, I also landed a second, three-month contract with a health technology start up company. So for the past three months, I've been working full time and loving it! Working two part-time jobs while raising two children, getting in shape and learning a new language has not been easy. However, the fact that I have the stamina to do it just two years after a cancer diagnosis is a testament to how far I've come in the last year.

I still have plenty to do, such as trying to land more steady employment. However, you're supposed to learn to sit up on your own, crawl and stand before you are ready to walk. So I'm hoping to add some more to my list of skills and achievements by my third re-birthday!

May 31, 2012

I hate May.

I hadn't realized how hard this month would be until I got here. The entire month of May 2011 was one of the most traumatic of my life, and reliving all of those "anniversaries" this year was tougher than I anticipated. I mean, they're just dates, right? However, somehow just noting the dates has brought back the memories of how I felt on these same days last year:

May 10- Appointment to the doctor to have her examine the lump I found. Her urgency at getting me in for an ultrasound was the first clue something was amiss.
May 17- My ultrasound appointment led to an urgent, immediate mammogram and biopsy. Again, the speed at which the processed moved was unsettling, even though I had thought there was no chance it could be cancer.
May 24- I received the results of the biopsy: malignant. I remember nearly falling out of my chair in shock and fear.
May 25- Consultation with the breast surgeon where I learned I'd be in surgery within a week. More shock, fear and sadness.
May 31- A year ago today I had a complete mastectomy. It was terrifying, especially before I received the "lucky" news that the lymph nodes were clean. That day was so filled with worry, sadness, pain and loss. Although some of those feelings have diminished with time, they are sometimes still vivid, especially when passing this milestone date.

What has helped me emotionally cope with this month is the camaraderie of my fellow survivors in my breast cancer rehabilitation class. Oddly enough, most of these dates fell on Thursdays, which is the day the class meets. So it was truly a blessing that on most of those days I was surrounded by 9 other women who could completely understand!

The good news is that I made it through the month, in addition to having survived the last year. The results of my first yearly mammogram and ultrasound were clear. So I'm cancer free for the time being and can now call myself a cancer SURVIVOR. However, I wonder for how many years the month of May will be this difficult? Fortunately, I have a year before I have to think about it again. I'm so glad that this month is over and that tomorrow begins a new year!!!
Navy Breast Cancer Survivor Women's T-Shirts

February 1, 2012

New year, new "me" and a new guest post

Happy New Year!

Well, okay, the new year isn't so new anymore, but I hope the start of it bodes well for everyone. After returning to Finland from our trip to California for the holidays, we had a crippling bout with jet lag, and then I started my intensive Finnish course. So I haven't been able to get a new blog post up quite as soon after the start of the new year as I'd hoped.

The new year marks a new beginning for me. Now that cancer treatment is over, unless (heaven forbid!) the cancer recurs, I'm focusing on getting myself back into mental and physical shape and trying to make plans for the future. My two New Year's resolutions are to learn Finnish and lose weight/get in shape. Although this year is going to require a lot of hard work to achieve both those goals, I'm looking forward to the challenge. Since I have this opportunity to continue living and growing, I'm planning to make the best of it!

I think my biggest hurdle will be to learn Finnish. For all of my friends in Finland who have tried, you know how daunting it is. It's especially challenging for those of us who have been home with our kids, with whom we speak mostly English, and, therefore, outside of an environment (like work or school) where we can get regular opportunities to practice Finnish. As a native English speaker, I've been able to get by fairly well without having to speak Finnish since many Finns speak English well. However, if I'm going to live here long term and raise kids who also speak Finnish, I want to be able to get around in the native language and be able to understand what my kids say in Finnish!

So, as I mentioned in my December post, I took a placement test to try to get into the intensive Finnish course. Luckily, I got offered one of the limited spots- a great Christmas present! However, now the hard work has begun. The class is almost 5 hours per day, 5 days a week with an average of 2 hours of homework per night. Basically, it's a full time job. Since my last Finnish class was two years ago, and I've had a baby and cancer treatment during that time, I'm really struggling to remember everything. Every day is a grueling (often unsuccessful) attempt to get my brain to focus, learn, remember, think, and operate my mouth! However, I'm plodding ahead as best I can.

Although I've continued my Pilates classes as much as possible throughout treatment, I'm now going to require more exercise to be able to take off the weight I put on following my surgery and during chemotherapy. I haven't quite figured out how I'll juggle that with classes and kids, but I'm working on it. (If anyone wants to exercise with me, your company would be welcome!) In the meantime, I figure we can all use some inspiration to exercise more. So, I bring you a guest post...

David has been following my blog and is interested in the link between fitness and cancer treatment/recovery/recurrence prevention. So he asked if he could share an article with everyone else who reads my blog. Although most of you aren't cancer survivors yourselves, you may know someone else who is. In addition, the advice still applies to almost everyone. So please read, absorb and share.

Good luck to everyone on your own New Year's resolutions!

Staying Fit During Cancer- by David Haas

Living with cancers, such as mesothelioma or lung cancer, is a difficult process that many people need all the help they can to get through it. Being strong and positive is one of the best ways to survive and one of the best ways to stay strong and healthy during cancer is to stay fit. The benefits of fitness and helping to treat and live with cancer have been noted by a wide variety of sources.

For example, The Cancer Treatment Centers of America has stated, "Exercise-even minimal physical exertion-increases heart rate and muscle flexion, while boosting your body's tolerance to conventional bone care treatments such as chemotherapy." They are speaking specifically of bone cancer but this benefit should be available to all patients that are suffering from cancer.

Another major benefit is that it increases your health and helps you live longer and stronger. Obesity has been linked to increased risk of cancer, cancer death and recurrence after treatment. Staying fit helps keep you thinner, stronger and healthier. This helps increase your generalized life span after you have beat cancer.

A healthier body is more likely to be able to eliminate a recurrence of your cancer. Dr. Kerry Courneya of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, states , "Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and a longer survival after a cancer diagnosis."

Improved mental health is another link to increased fitness and cancer. People who exercise during cancer are taking control of their lives and eliminating the demand cancer places on the mind. Exercise endorphins will also help increase their mood, boost their self confidence and help reduce fatigue. Fatigue can make a person feel weak so eliminating this as much as possible can help a cancer patient feel stronger and happier.

These benefits can begin as quickly as 8 to 12 weeks after you begin exercising. A study done by doctor Matthew Buman of Standford University found that patients that included vitality boosting exercises into their life during treatment and increased fitness, vitality, perceived stress and fatigue. They found that sustaining this activity preserved the improvements for the entire length of the year based study.

Fitness during your treatments may seem difficult to start, due your pain and stress. Please talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

December 14, 2011

The gift that keeps on giving...

It's been a while since I've had time to post anything. The last few weeks have been pretty busy, and blogging hasn't seemed as urgent since the official end of treatment. However, just because I'm done with treatment doesn't mean I'm able to resume normal life just yet. So I figured it would be helpful to fill you in on the reality of things, especially for those of you who are far away and haven't seen or spoken to me lately.

I was really surprised to find that a number of the chemo side effects didn't actually START until between the fifth and sixth (aka last) treatment, and some continued to get worse even after treatment ended. My best guess is that some of the cumulative effects finally built up to a critical level during the last treatments, and it might be for this reason that many treatment regimens stop after six. Perhaps that's the threshold where chemotherapy's toll on the body outweighs its cancer-fighting benefits.

The downward spiral started with the loss of my eyelashes and eyebrows. I knew that it was possibly/likely that they'd go, but, when it didn't happen after the first four treatments, I thought I might have escaped that fate. No such luck. By the end of treatment, I had about two lashes under each eye, and only slightly more above. I had almost no eyebrow hairs on one side and few enough to count (but I didn't actually want to know) on the other. I never really thought about how helpful eyebrows and eyelashes are until they were gone! Eyebrows do a great job of keeping sweat and shampoo from running into your eyes, and eyelashes really do help keep the dust out. Plus, having lashes fall out so quickly meant that I had one in my eye continuously, which was a real pain! Luckily, they are FINALLY starting to grow back now.

I had a tingling sensation under my fingernails and toenails after almost every treatment. However, that got worse as time went on. By the end of treatment, my nails (especially on my toes) were lifting off the nail beds at the ends. It felt like someone was jamming razor blades under my nails. The nails didn't actually come off entirely, as I've heard happens to some people, but they sure felt like they might. I even have blood trapped under one toenail, which seems to indicate that it lifted off enough to be bleeding under there...

My nails are super thin and bendy. Anytime I catch a nail on something, it bends backwards and hurts like hell! They're also quite yellow and have ridges like a Ruffles potato chip. Come to think of it, the eyelashes that remained were also quite wavy. It's almost like you can see when the treatments happened and slowed the growth and when growth resumed between/after treatments.

Chemotherapy causes super dry skin, but that has also been aggravated by dry, indoor climates. My skin has been so dry and thin that any firm pressure causes it to tear. So I've got constant paper cuts and scratches, especially on my hands.

My taste buds are getting slowly better, but I continue to have a bit of a dead mouth feeling. Some foods still don't taste like I know they should. I'm still attempting to eat a lot of spicy/spiced foods in order to taste something. I'm praying that my mouth starts to bounce back a little faster because I know I'm eating too much in the hope that I'll eventually taste it!

The treatments also cause menopausal symptoms because the chemotherapy drugs damage the ovaries. These are actually some of the most annoying continuing side effects. I have alternating hot flashes and cold sweats, and they seem to be totally random. So I'll be just sitting on a bus or something and break out into an intense sweat, but other times I can run to catch a bus and not sweat at all! So weird and SO annoying, especially in cold weather. I'm also more irritable and moody (a la PMS but worse), but some of that might be aggravated by the short, dark winter days.

During my last appointment with the oncologist, I asked about whether there was anything I could do to manage some of the menopause-like symptoms. She said that the medications often used are only really effective for about 30% of women. So her suggestion was to wait and see if the symptoms get better with time since it takes several months for the effects to reverse. It's going to be a long wait...

I'm also waiting for the "chemo brain" to improve. It's maddening not to be able to remember things that happened 15 minutes ago or to be able to access information in my head that I KNOW is there. For example, I had to take another Finnish course placement test on Monday, and it was terribly frustrating. There were so many words that I used to know well that I just could not recall. They were so familiar I could almost see them, but I couldn't actually grasp them. I know that these issues generally get worse with age, but I'm not ready to deal with them just yet since I'm not even 40!

The one area where I've actually seen improvement since the end of treatment is my hair. It's really thickened up a lot, especially in the last couple weeks. It is not much longer, but it is much fuller. You can't see my scalp any longer, which makes me feel like I look less like a cancer patient. I'm anxious for it to grow long enough to actually style and look hopefully more feminine, but I'm happy for the progress.

I'm planning to take things easy for the remainder of December and to enjoy the holidays and my vacation to California. After we return in January, I really hope to get life back on track in some kind of normal fashion. Even if things won't be truly back to normal, I'm at least going to focus on maintaining a routine and improving my health. I'm hoping to start an intensive Finnish course (hence the placement test) and join a gym. Hopefully, one baby step at a time, I'll get my life back.

November 23, 2011

Giving thanks

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured it is a perfect time to reflect on some of the things I'm grateful for this year. Of course, I'm not glad I got cancer. However, even given that reality, there are still plenty reasons to give thanks. There isn't room or time to mention everything for which I am grateful, but here are some of the highlights.

I am thankful that:
I found the tumor at all but especially in time to do something about it.
The diagnoses of my two friends prompted me to get the tumor checked, even though I was sure it couldn't be cancer...
I had a nice vacation in April before my diagnosis.
My mastectomy surgery was successful in removing the tumor with clean margins.
My lymph nodes were clear.
My parents were able to visit while I was recovering from surgery.
We got spots in a good, publicly subsidized daycare for both kids and that they are happy there.
I made it through six rounds of chemotherapy.
I have a nicely shaped head. It made hair loss just a little more tolerable.
I got so much invaluable advice and support from my friends who have/had breast cancer.
I had excellent care throughout my treatment. I feel truly blessed to have had such caring and competent surgeons, oncologists, and oncology nurses.
Nurse Leila caught the cause of my hideous side effects after the fourth round of chemo.
I hardly had to pay anything for all that outstanding care.
I have so many friends who stepped up to give their support in a variety of ways: accompanying me to chemo, preparing meals, taking Leila on outings, babysitting, checking in on me, distracting me, visiting me, sending care packages and emails/cards/texts of good wishes, and much more. THANK YOU ALL!!!
My husband still finds me attractive after all I've been through...
I don't have to do radiation or additional Herceptin treatments so I am officially done with cancer treatment just in time for the holidays!!
I get to spend Christmas and New Year's in California with my family.
I can "start over" in 2012.

I am also incredibly thankful for my two sweet daughters. Although it was hard work to fulfill parenting duties on top of cancer treatment, having that to focus on was good distraction. They have both done so well throughout this process, and I hope they will be stronger for it in the long run.

On that note, I have one more thing to mention. Both girls stayed home from daycare today because they had dental check ups. Of course, I'm thankful that we all survived the appointments and that both girls have healthy teeth. Moreover, I'm so happy that Elisa chose to take her first steps today while home with me instead of at daycare! I've missed a lot over the last six months and am thankful I didn't miss this:

I wish everyone, near and far, a very happy Thanksgiving surrounded by family and/or friends. Thank you for being a part of my life.

November 3, 2011

It ain't over until the fat lady sings!

Forgive me for not sounding overwhelmingly excited today. Although yesterday was my sixth and last chemotherapy session, I don't yet feel "done" with my cancer treatment. First of all, sitting in a chair with an IV hooked up to my arm isn't the hard part. The worst is yet to come when all the side effects hit like a ton of bricks over the next few days. So I feel I'll be more able to celebrate (at least the end of chemo) after I'm through the aftermath.

Secondly, I have a meeting with the oncologist on November 22, when it will be decided what steps are next. I'm actually dreading that appointment. When I got the original pathology results on my tumor, the surgeon told me I would need chemotherapy but not radiation. However, when I met with the oncologist for the first time, she said, "Well, we might want to do radiation. We'll see." So there's a possibility that she'll decide on the 22nd that I should do it. That would be 5-6 weeks of daily radiation appointments. (Crap.) In addition, the nurse yesterday mentioned that the oncologist may also encourage me to do Herceptin treatments every three weeks for the next year. (Double crap.) Of course, I want to do whatever will give me the best chances of survival and will minimize recurrence, but I've honestly had it with this torture and would like to avoid any more, if not absolutely necessary.

Plus, I really, really wanted to be done with my treatments before we leave for the US in December. I was so looking forward to being able to enjoy the holidays with my family and friends without a black cloud of additional procedures hanging over my head. I wanted to come back in January and start over with trying resume a "normal" life (although I'm not really sure what that is now...).

So a lot is hinging on that oncology appointment. I even tried to move the appointment up to get it over with sooner, but there were no availabilities before that date. I just have to wait.

Mentally, it's also hard to wrap my head around the fact that my routine for the last 5+ months is over. Odd to say, but when the majority of my recent life has revolved around this every three week schedule, it seems a bit strange not to have that anchor anymore. There was something predictable and stable about the routine, even though parts of it were miserable.

NOW what do I do? Of course, I have a million tasks that have been piling up waiting for me to feel better. Before my diagnosis, I also had plans to take intensive Finnish classes and look for a job. However, all these things now seem so overwhelming (and many so tedious) that it's hard to fathom where to start.

I saw this quote today, which seemed fitting:
The things we can't change
The last 6 months certainly have changed me profoundly- physically, mentally and emotionally. I honestly don't know who "I" am anymore. Of course, I'm still a woman, wife, mother, friend, public health professional, etc- just not the same ones I was before. It's going to take me some time to redefine myself and find a new "me." Once I make some progress on that, I might feel like my time as a cancer patient is finally behind me.

I appreciate everyone's support throughout my treatment so far, and thank you for all the congratulatory messages. I just hope you can all understand why I'm not yet jumping for joy. Hopefully, that time will come soon, perhaps even by the end of the month. Meanwhile, please continue to lend your encouragement as I enter this next phase of my recovery. Somehow I have a feeling that the emotional healing will be an even greater challenge than the physical.

However, so that I don't end this post on a low note, I'll share another great quote I read today. I don't quite know if I can do this, but I'm sure as heck going to try. In the same vein as trying to seize the day and make the most of the present, I'm also going to try to be happy in whatever state I'm in currently. "Fake it until you make it," right?

Be happy

October 19, 2011

No matter what you already know about breast cancer, READ THIS.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Being in public health and part of many health education campaigns, I've known that for a long time, but I have never been more cognizant of it than I have this October. It takes on a whole new meaning this year and not just because of my own diagnosis. When two of my friends were diagnosed just five months before me, I didn't realize how UNaware I really was about my own risk. How could I know so much about disease risk and health promotion and not know THIS?

Therefore, in honor of this month, I'd like to share my story and what I've learned so that others will be truly informed. No matter what you think you already know about breast cancer risk, you probably don't know about this. Of all the people I've told so far, NO ONE has told me, "Yeah, I already knew that!" I cannot understand how such information isn't more widely discussed, especially in my generation. So please read this post and share with as many people as possible. If there's any good to come out of this horrible year, let it be that everyone I know tells everyone they know so that no one else in their circle is caught unaware.

Back in early January, one of my close friends in Finland informed me that she was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say, I was shocked. It wasn't so much the diagnosis as it was the circumstances. After all, I've known several people with breast cancer, but none were ever in my circle of friends and certainly not the same age as me. However, I chalked it up to being a really unlucky, one-off kind of event.

Then, the following week, I got an email from another good friend who had just moved back to the US from Finland. Her email explained how she was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and I nearly fell out of my chair. I couldn't comprehend how now TWO of my friends could have breast cancer and was grasping at anything that could explain how this was possible. I rationalized that, in the second friend's case, it must have been genetics because her mother had had breast cancer. But STILL.

In late March, I found a lump on myself. At that point, Elisa was six months old and still breastfeeding quite frequently. I had been out for several hours and was way overdue to nurse her. While I was getting ready to feed her, I saw and felt this hard mass pop up along the surface of my left breast. I assumed that it must be a clogged milk duct from going so many hours without breastfeeding and expected that it would just go away once Elisa's normal nursing schedule resumed.

Even though it was less noticeable the following week, it was still there. However, we were about to leave for a month long trip to California, and I didn't see how I was going to find time to get it checked out before we left. Since it wasn't painful and seemed smaller than when I noticed it, I decided to wait to see if it would go away on its own. I figured that, if it wasn't gone by the time we returned from the US, I'd have someone examine it then.

I was well aware of the lump's presence while we were away and even mentioned it to my mom and one sister, who were both concerned. However, I was still convinced that it was somehow related to breastfeeding. Plus, I figured that there wasn't much I could do about it while on vacation anyway. So I tried not to think about it too much, but the fact that it had not gone away after a month was nagging at me.

We got back to Finland on May 9th, and I went to see a doctor at the health center on May 10th. The doctor took my concern very seriously, or perhaps she actually suspected that it was truly serious, and went to a lot of effort to get me in for an ultrasound the following week (the 17th).

After doing the ultrasound, the radiologist suggested that they do a mammogram. Then a doctor came in and told me they wanted to do a biopsy. She said that, no matter what the lump was, it would need to come out. At that point, I was still sure it was something benign, although I was stressed about the idea of surgery regardless.

The next week (May 24th), I went to another doctor at the local health center to receive the biopsy results. I still thought it was so unlikely that it could be cancer. I remember thinking that it would just be coincidentally impossible, and maybe even statistically improbable, that my two friends and I could all be diagnosed with breast cancer within 5 months of each other. So when the doctor confirmed that the lump was malignant, I was so stunned that I couldn't even react. I cried, but it wasn't really about me. I just could not fathom how the result could even be possible.

I was immediately referred to the breast surgeon the following day. After her exam and a discussion of the findings and the requisite surgery, my first question to her was, "How can this be?" I told her about my friends and how similar we are: all 38 or 39 years old, with (at the time) 2-year-old daughters, who lived in Finland at some point. She carefully explained that the most likely common denominator was that we all had children, particularly our first child, in our mid-30s.

My thought was, "Huh, what? Since when is that a risk?" The majority of women I know waited until their 30s to have kids, and I'd never heard any mention of breast cancer risk. In fact, when I was pregnant, I heard about nearly every other risk imaginable except breast cancer!

Because I turned the magic age of 35 when pregnant with Leila, every nurse and doctor I saw in the US commented on the fact that I was of "advanced maternal age." The number of times I heard that phrase was actually annoying. I recall thinking how ridiculous it sounded since I didn't feel all that old. It made me feel like I was 60 and trying to have a baby.

I was sent for additional fetal screenings and an appointment with a genetic counselor. On top of the risks for chromosomal abnormalities, I was warned about miscarriage, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, pre-term labor, placenta previa, and low birthweight. Never one word about cancer.

So when the breast surgeon talked about how my tumor was likely brought on by being pregnant in my late 30s, I couldn't understand how I'd never heard this before. As a health educator, I thought I knew who the high-risk populations were. In my experience, they certainly weren't healthy women under 40 with no family history. I'd even heard that women who never have children could have a higher lifetime risk of breast cancer because having children had a protective effect. So, how could my risk possibly be elevated by having kids?

The health educator in me took over. I had to figure out if this information was out there in general circulation or even in the research literature. Lo and behold, it was. However, in most of what I read, it was certainly not highlighted. It was mentioned as more of an aside and buried further down on the list than most of the risks I already knew. The most succinct and clear explanation I've found so far is this:

I don't know about you, but I found the lack of information and discussion on the topic shocking and infuriating. In this era, when women are waiting longer to finish their education or start a profession before having children, why is this not a priority issue? Maybe the increased risk of breast cancer due to pregnancy after 35 is still relatively small compared to the other things on the laundry list I was given when pregnant. However, I still wish I had heard it then.

Knowing of the risk before now would not likely have changed my decision about when to have children. What it would have done is made me more vigilant, on my own behalf as well as on behalf of my friends.

As much as I try to practice what I preach about health screenings, I confess that I haven't always been so consistent with my breast self exams (BSEs). Since I considered my risk to be so low, especially before the age of 40, I have only done them a couple times a year. I don't think I've even done them that frequently over the last three years since pregnancy and breastfeeding changes breast tissue so much. However, if I had known of this risk, I would certainly have been more systematic about it. If I had actually believed in the possibility of finding something, maybe I would have found the lump earlier. Maybe I could have even avoided having to have a mastectomy. It's impossible to say exactly what might have happened, but I do know I would have been looking.

Even though I didn't find the lump until it was large enough to discover by chance while breastfeeding, I'm "lucky" that it seems to have been soon enough to save my life. My two friends were similarly "lucky" to discover their tumors in time. However, I'm sure there are many women out there who missed theirs because they simply didn't know how hard they should be looking.

If anyone you care about has been pregnant in their mid-to-late 30s (or later), please share this information with them. Please urge them to do their BSEs regularly because there is a chance that they might actually find something. If they do, you would want to be sure they have as much time as possible to get it evaluated and dealt with, if necessary. You wouldn't want their chances to be riding on luck.

P.S.- A number of women have told me they don't know what they are looking for when doing a BSE. I'm not sure I truly did either, but, when I did find something, I knew it was wasn't supposed to be there. Just try to know what is normal for you and keep looking for anything that changes. I thought this was a good illustrative guide: http://www2.breastcancercare.org.uk/sites/default/files/ybyh_quick_guide_web_2011.pdf
If you find something/anything, have a doctor evaluate it so you can act in time if it really IS something.