Kristin Raworth: Check your breasts
I didn't think breast cancer could happen to me at 42. Check your breasts; listen to your instincts.
By: Kristin Raworth
I remember the first time I felt it.
I was in the shower and I could feel a lump on the right-hand side of my breast. I immediately dismissed it, thinking I was being paranoid, finished my shower and went to sleep. However, a voice in the back of my head kept whispering at me to check again. And there it was, impossible to ignore: a hard lump on my breast.
I booked an appointment with my family doctor, despite thinking that I was overreacting. He said he thought it was nothing, and I shouldn’t be worried. But that voice in my head came back. It’s not nothing.
I pushed to get a mammogram and he booked me one for a week later. I honestly believed that I was getting the test to check a box and that would assure me that it was no big deal.
Nonetheless, I did the mammogram and was told to wait for an ultrasound. If you know me you know I am very impatient and so the longer it took the more annoyed I got. In retrospect, it’s funny that in those moments my biggest problem was having to wait in a room scrolling my phone.
During the ultrasound, I couldn’t help but look over and see this black mass on my breast. I was still hoping for the best, but on some level, I knew. Then the tech left to get the doctor. I sat there in that cold sterile room in that awkward gown they give you and when he walked in, he had that look. If you have ever had a doctor give you bad news you know that look. Before they say anything, you know it’s not good. Then he sat down, clasped his hands together and looked at me and said: “I believe it’s cancer.” I lost my breath.
I don’t even remember much right after that. I remember getting the appointment for my biopsy. I remember getting dressed. I remember shaking so much I wasn’t sure I was going to make it down the stairs without falling. When I got outside to my car, I remember thinking about how everything was exactly as it had been an hour earlier — but for me, nothing was the same. I called one of my best friends and just blurted out what the doctors said and she talked to me until I was calm enough to drive home.
My mammogram was conducted on December 21st and my biopsy was scheduled for the 29th. In a way, the Christmas timing was a blessing because there was so much going on with my family that I could distract myself and put this in a box on the shelf in my brain. So I celebrated the holidays and spent days in my PJs doing nothing and then on the 29th I drove my dad to the airport to see my sister and I came home and my best friends drove me to my biopsy.
The biopsy was an experience I highly do not recommend, the freezing part was painful and while the anesthesia managed the physical pain, I just sat there feeling every feeling that I had pushed down for the last week. I started crying during the procedure. I was told it would be about a week for my results. My birthday is January 2nd, my brother is the 3rd, my sister is the 4th and my mom is the 10th so all I could think about afterwards was how much I didn’t want to know during this festival of birthdays because I didn’t want to make anyone around me sad.
On my sister’s birthday at 9 a.m. my family doctor called me. I picked up the phone, still holding onto some hope that it would just be some weird mass or benign, but that wasn’t to be. It was confirmed. I have cancer.
I am 42 years old. My age cohort of 40-49 accounts for only 18 per cent of breast cancers. I also have no history of breast cancer in my family so I was not ever considered to be at risk.
Yet, here I was, two days into 42, being told I had breast cancer. A week later I would learn that I have a particularly aggressive form of the disease. Cancer is graded on a scale of 1-3; 1 is if your cancer cells are there but just very lazy and don’t do much. If your cancer cells are overachievers, you are a 3. As a lifetime try-hard, of course my cancer is grade 3. In addition, I have a protein in my cancer cells called HER2 which means the cancer is replicating faster than average cancer cells. Only two out of 10 cancer patients have this protein. I will have to have a lumpectomy and then two separate rounds of chemo, with a course of radiation in-between the chemo rounds.
I am not going to lie. This is scary as shit. I am going to lose my hair. I am going to be incredibly sick. The next year will likely be the hardest of my entire life. When I think too long about it, I start crying, grieving for the year that I am about to lose. Instead of planning fun New Year’s resolutions like “doing more yoga” I am in a fight for my life.
Guess what, though? It could have been much, much worse.
In Alberta, in 2022, the recommended age for a mammogram was lowered to 45. Anyone younger than that needs a doctor referral. In Canada, only Ontario, B.C., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, and Yukon allow self-referral before the age of 50. Quebec has announced they will evaluate whether they will lower regular breast screenings to 40. Nunavut doesn’t even have an organized program for screening and often patients are referred to another province or territory.
If I had waited to the recommended age and not checked myself monthly, my cancer would have progressed to a point where I would be looking at stage 3 or 4. As terrifying as the next year looks for me, I am keeping my breasts and, though the year ahead will be horrifying and hellish, I have great odds of survival.
But we can do better for women. Our governments across Canada and my provincial government in Alberta should examine lowering the age of self referral to 40. More women my age are being diagnosed with breast cancer and often it’s more advanced when we are diagnosed, because we are not encouraged to “worry” about mammograms until later in life. At least for me, breast cancer feels impossible at this age, and that contributes to the low levels of women who self check, let alone the number who ask for a referral to a mammogram.
Opening up the self-referral age to 40 will help women my age understand that even without a family history (which I don’t have) this a serious thing we need to keep an eye on, and much like a yearly pap smear, checking needs to be part of our yearly physical exam.
I have always believed even when the most crushing things have happened to me that they have happened for a reason. After my sexual assault I became an advocate on those issues, and used my platform to help survivors and the sexual assault centres across the province. I feel the same way about this. It is heartbreaking for me to accept, but cancer happened to me for a reason and I sincerely hope that reason is to encourage every woman reading this to not only self check every month but to write to your ministers of health and your premiers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories, as well as the federal minister of health, and ask that self referral for mammograms be expanded to 40 and above regardless of family history.
This will save lives. Maybe yours.
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