Advocating for Your Health as a Woman
- Helen Laws, now 50, felt a lump in her breast when she was 38, but her doctor didn’t think it was an issue. A second opinion and a specialist referral led to a diagnosis of grade 3 breast cancer. She’s since had recurrences and even a secondary breast cancer in her lung, but she has a great outlook on life.
- Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include: a breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue, a change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast, changes to the skin over the breast, a newly inverted nipple, peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin and redness or pitting of the skin over your breast (like the skin of an orange).
- Sadly, we’ve heard many stories of women’s concerns being dismissed by doctors. That’s why being your own advocate can be a key to getting a correct diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible.
- One cancer survivor told SurvivorNet she recommends asking many questions, so doctors “earn that copay.”
Laws is a 50-year-old mother of one who first discovered a lump on her breast in 2011 when she was 38. Her doctor told her there was nothing to worry about, but her gut told her otherwise. After seeking a second opinion and being referred to a specialist later that year, Laws was diagnosed with grade 3 left-sided breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, grade 3 breast cancers are faster-growing and more likely to spread.Read More
Laws was able to recover from that setback, but, sadly, the cancer returned in 2014. This time, she had a skin-sparing mastectomy. She initially wanted to have a double mastectomy, but her doctors advised her against it.
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“My gut reaction at the time was I wanted both removed,” Laws said. “I thought if they removed both breasts, it would remove the risk. But that was not the case for me.”
Laws had immediate breast reconstruction right after her surgery and nipple reconstruction in early 2015. But the cancer returned, yet again, in 2015, meaning she needed another six cycles of chemotherapy. Then, 2016 brought another recurrence, too, so more surgery and 90 cycles of targeted treatment followed that.
As if that weren’t enough, Laws was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in her right lung in 2020.
“I had about an orange-sized section of my lung removed,” she said of treatment. “It was fairly unpleasant and uncomfortable because the lung is accessed through your ribs in the VATS surgery.”
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Laws has since returned to work, but treatment has become a part of her life. She receives treatment targeting her cancer once every four weeks.
“On a day-to-day basis, I think you just have to get on with it,” she said. “Treatment is very much built into my lifestyle and life carries on as normal.
“I think your whole outlook on life changes, and you appreciate the fragility of life, and you really learn to focus on what’s important.”
Understanding Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a common cancer that has been the subject of much research. Many women develop breast cancer every year, but men can develop this cancer too – though it is much more rare, in part, due to the simple fact that they typically have less breast tissue.
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Signs and symptoms of breast cancer may include:
- A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
- Change in the size, shape or appearance of a breast
- Changes to the skin over the breast, such as dimpling
- A newly inverted nipple
- Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin
- Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange
It’s important to keep an eye out for these symptoms while remembering that having one or many of them does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. Regardless, you should always speak with a doctor promptly if anything ever feels off or you’re experiencing one or more of the signs listed above. You never know when speaking up about your health can lead to a very important diagnosis.
When You’re Getting a Mammogram, Ask about Dense Breasts
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.
It’s also important to be on top of self breast exams. If you ever feel a lump in your breast, you should be vigilant and speak with your doctor right away. Voicing your concerns as soon as you have them can lead to earlier cancer detection which, in turn, can lead to better outcomes.
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There are many treatment options for people with this disease, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Appropriate treatments depend greatly on the specifics of each case.
Advocating For Your Health As A Woman
Helen Laws’s cancer story is, sadly, not the first of its kind. In fact, we’ve heard many women talk about how their health concerns were not taken seriously prior to a very serious diagnosis. And so many of them emphasize the importance of advocating for your health.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake.
Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
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“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Jenny Saldana is another woman who’s spoken up about advocating for yourself. She says she was told, “you can’t keep coming back here taking up resources for women that really need them” when she was trying to get her breast cancer diagnosis.
“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” she said as advice for others.
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Evelyn Reyes-Beato feels similarly. As a Latina – like Saldana – and a colon cancer survivor, she urges people to “get knowledge” so they won’t feel intimated by their doctors. She wants to remind others that they have a right to ask questions and make physicians “earn that copay.”
Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet that healthcare guidelines are meant to do the right thing for the largest number of people while using the fewest resources.
“The truth is you have to be in tune with your body, and you realize that you are not the statistic,” he said.
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Dr. Murrell says not every patient will “fit into” the mold, so it’s important to “educate yourself and be your own health care advocate.”
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Murrell said. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
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