Last week, the food media celebrity Sandra Lee shared that at the age of 48 she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She joins my rank and the rank of other celebrities, such as Martina Navratilova and Wanda Sykes, afflicted by this diagnosis. Hearing of Lee's diagnosis really hit home for me because I received the same diagnosis when I was 48. Coincidentally, we were both diagnosed with the same form of breast cancer, DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ),which is a relatively common form of the disease, and considered an early form of noninvasive breast cancer.
This type of cancer begins in the mammary ducts; however, if it breaks outside of the ducts, then it is considered invasive. DCIS is most commonly treated with a lumpectomy, followed by radiation. After the lumpectomy, if the margins of the tumor are unclear or undefined, then further treatment is necessary because the cancer can become invasive, or spread.
This was the scenario for both Ms. Lee and myself. After consulting with her breast surgeon, Ms. Lee decided, like many others, to undergo a double mastectomy, even though only one of her breasts was affected. She used the rationale of others who did not want to face the chance of additional breast cancer in the future. Her doctors told her she was a "ticking time bomb."
My path was a little different. My diagnosis was in 2001. While some women opted for the double mastectomy, it was not as common as it is today, so I opted to keep one breast. I was also warned that because my DCIS was so widespread in the one breast, a lumpectomy would leave me severely deformed, so I opted for a complete mastectomy. I learned that having a double mastectomy meant that I would never again feel any nipple sensation and I did not want to forego that pleasure. So I opted for one mastectomy. Granted, the decision was a gamble. Yet I decided to look at that point in my life as a major turning point and to begin taking care of myself, physically, psychologically and emotionally.
I viewed the news of breast cancer as a scare. A wake-up call.
While the stigma of cancer was less than it had been in earlier decades, it was still not easy to share the news, "I have breast cancer." For me, the news was magnified in the face of being diagnosed weeks before the tragic events of 9/11. In my particular case, not only was I mourning a loss for my country, I was privately mourning the loss of my womanhood. A double whammy either way.
Until recently, many people were of the mind that breast cancer was more common during the golden years, but we are hearing more and more that the diagnosis can strike during the third and fourth decades of a woman's life. Statistics have shown that even though the risks do increase with age, there are many other factors which come into play, such as genetics, family history, ethnicity, breast density, weight, and general emotional, physical and psychological health factors.
A few months ago a 32-year-old colleague shared that she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, something she discovered during a routine self-breast exam in the shower. Diagnosed by herself. This is another reminder to all women to be proactive in their breast health care. We must be comfortable doing self-breast exams and reporting any suspicious findings. We are our own best physicians. Those with dense breasts, like myself, may have a difficult time identifying tumors, which is why my breast surgeon recommended early regular mammograms and MRIs. Studies have shown that women with dense breasts are six times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
In summary, maintaining healthy physical and emotional health is vitally important in all aspects of life, especially when it comes to breast cancer.
Here are some tips:
To maintain physical breast health
• maintain a healthy body weight
• avoid cigarettes, recreational drugs and minimize alcohol consumption
• avoid processed foods
• avoid sugars (cancer loves sugar)
• minimize alcohol intake
• eat a plant-based died of cruciferous vegetables
• be aware of your genetic history
To maintain emotional and psychological health
• minimize stress
• be active
• meditate and/or do yoga
• trust your instincts
• be educated about your health
• do daily journaling
Since an early age, I have used personal writing as a way of healing and transformation. It all began when my mother gave me my first journal at the age of 10. I continued to journal during other milestones in my life. My self-help memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer's Cancer Journey shares my experience with DCIS and offers writing prompts for others wanting to chronicle their journey, whether for their own private reflection or for possible publication.