Battling Stage 3 Breast Cancer
- Laura Strathearn, a beauty therapist from Scotland, was recovering from a miscarriage at 33 years old when she noticed a protruding vein on her right breast. Following a talk with her husband and a visit to the doctor, a biopsy confirmed she had stage 3 breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes.
- Stage three breast cancer typically refers to a relatively large tumor, which may have invaded nearby skin or muscle tissue. It may also mean that lymph nodes near your breast and/or under your armpit are involved.
- While it is possible to have a baby after going through cancer treatment, that decision will depend on the kind of breast cancer you have and the kind of treatment you received. Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical advisor to SurvivorNet and a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, advises having a discussion with your doctor early on in your cancer journey so you can explore all your options. These may include egg or embryo freezing.
Following a talk with her husband Fraser, Strathearn decided to see a doctor and a biopsy later confirmed she had stage 3 breast cancer and it spread to her lymph nodes.Read More
Twelve weeks into Strathearn’s pregnancy, during a December 2020 check-up, the heartbroken mom-to-be found out her baby had no heartbeat and miscarried just days later.
Then, during her recovery, Strathearn found a prominent blue vein on her right breast. She waited until after Christmas to get the vein checked but was ultimately sent to get checked at the Gartnavel Hospital breast clinic in Glasgow.
“I was sent for a biopsy and a few weeks later I received a call asking me to go to Gartnavel Hospital for the results. I thought I’d be out in five minutes, so when I was told it was cancer, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Strathearn explained. “It turns out that our amazing little baby saved my life. I never expected somebody of my age to receive such news. I felt like the world stood still and I was in a dream, unsure of how to react.”
“The team of amazing consultants and nurses fast-tracked my treatment due to the severity of my illness, and for that, I can never be more grateful,” she added.
Strathearn, who lost her hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows during her treatments, fought the disease through chemotherapy, radiotherapy, 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor, and breast reconstruction. Now, she’s in remission and regularly visits her doctors to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned.
“After about a year of intense treatment, the surgery and the emotional and mental recovery, I took the time to think about how I could use my skills as a force for good and give something back. Identity is so integral to our ultimate well-being, and I fully came to realise this during my treatment.” Strathearn said. “In my days spent at Maggie’s Cancer Centre, I would teach my fellow patients how to draw their brows on and accentuate their eyes through the power of make-up.”
She explained further, “What I’m doing now is my way of giving something back and helping people during what I know will be one of the hardest struggles they will ever face. I can relate to what my clients are experiencing and know exactly how a cancer diagnosis makes you feel. Having beaten the disease, I now want to help others and the feedback has been wonderful.”
“Just being able to give people tips to feel their best is an absolute privilege. I want to stress the importance of knowing and listening to yourself. People should check for cues and never leave something to chance,” she concluded.
Stage Three Cancer
When you are diagnosed with stage three breast cancer it typically refers to a relatively large tumor, which may have invaded nearby skin or muscle tissue. It may also mean that lymph nodes near your breast and/or under your armpit are involved.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical advisor to SurvivorNet and a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, adds “it also means that most women who’ve been diagnosed with stage three cancer are going to end up needing chemotherapy and if their tumor is hormone receptor positive, likely aggressive hormone therapy, as well.”
Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Being aware of how your breasts normally look and feel is an important factor when it comes to breast cancer detection. Doing regular self-exams is one way to familiarize yourself with how your breasts normally feel so that you will be able to identify anything out of the ordinary like a lump or hard mass.
Below are some other symptoms to look out for:
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
- Swelling on all or part of the breast
- Skin dimpling or peeling
- Breast or nipple pain
- Nipple turning inward
- Redness or scaliness of breast or nipple skin
- Nipple discharge (not associated with breastfeeding)
Of course, these symptoms can be due to things other than cancer. For example, a lot of women experience breast tenderness during certain times in their menstrual cycles. If you’re worried — talk to your doctor about it. They may want to perform an exam, or even schedule a mammogram just to be safe.
The Importance of Breast Cancer Screening
Screening for breast cancer is typically done via mammogram, which looks for lumps in the breast tissue and signs of cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should begin yearly mammogram screening for breast cancer at age 45 if they are at average risk for breast cancer. The ACS also says those aged 40-44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year, and women age 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms.
For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer such as a BRCA gene mutation or a medical history including chest radiation therapy before the age of 30.
Beyond genetics, family history and experience with radiation therapy, experiencing menstruation at an early age (before 12) or having dense breasts can also put you into a high-risk category. If you are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, you should begin screening earlier.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Connie Lehman, chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, said people who hadn’t reached menopause yet should prioritize getting a mammogram every year.
“We know that cancers grow more rapidly in our younger patients, and having that annual mammogram can be lifesaving,” Dr. Lehman said. “After menopause, it may be perfectly acceptable to reduce that frequency to every two years. But what I’m most concerned about is the women who haven’t been in for a mammogram for two, three or four years, those women that have never had a mammogram. We all agree regular screening mammography saves lives.”
Understanding Your Risk
The risk of developing breast cancer varies greatly from person to person, so it’s important to discuss your specific risk level with your doctor. That being said, there are some important risk factors to keep in mind.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Comen laid out several risk factors for breast cancer including:
- Being a woman: Women are at a higher risk for breast cancer, though men can get the disease too.
- Age: “Breast cancer becomes increasingly more common as women age,” Dr. Comen said.
- Family history: “Some people think that breast cancer is only inherited through genes on the mom’s side,” Dr. Comen said. “But it can also be related to genetic mutations that could be found on the father’s side.”
- Having had a prior biopsy on an abnormal area: “There are different markers, that if a woman has had a biopsy, it’s important that she talk to her doctor about whether those markers are lending themselves to an increased risk of breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said. If you’ve had a biopsy that indicated atypical hyperplasia, for example, you are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Atypical hyperplasia isn’t cancer, but it is a precancerous condition that describes an accumulation of abnormal cells in the milk ducts and lobules of the breast.
- Radiation exposure: Cancer survivors who’ve had radiation to their chest are at an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Lifetime estrogen exposure: “About 2/3 of breast cancer are driven by the hormone estrogen,” Dr. Comen said. “So, that means if a woman has had her period at an early age and started to go through puberty at an early age, at seven, eight, nine, and potentially a later age of menopause, means that her lifetime of having had menstrual periods and being exposed to higher levels of estrogen is higher, and therefore her risk of breast cancer is slightly higher.”
- Not having a child before age 30 or never having children
- Drinking alcohol
- Lack of exercise: “While there’s more research to be done in this area, it looks like if a woman is not exercising, she may also increase her risk for breast cancer,” Dr. Comen said.
Fertility After Breast Cancer
There are a variety of fertility preservation options for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. “It’s incredibly important that patients feel comfortable talking to their doctor about these very personal issues,” says Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a medical advisor to SurvivorNet.
While it is possible to have a baby after going through cancer treatment, that decision will depend on the kind of breast cancer you have and the kind of treatment you received. Dr. Comen advises having a discussion with your doctor early on in your cancer journey so you can explore all your options. These may include egg or embryo freezing.
There are some specific challenges for women with breast cancer:
- Young women who need chemotherapy could have their fertility significantly affected. Many chemotherapy drugs, can damage a woman’s eggs.
- If women are on medication to stop the hormones which feed their specific kind of breast cancer, they may not be able to get pregnant for several years–in some instances 10 years.
- Many stage four breast cancers need estrogen to grow and pregnancy is a very, very high hormone state, so pregnancy is not recommended in these cases.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff