Battling Breast Cancer
- Angela Butterworth, a 42-year-old mother of two, received her diagnosis on March 20, 2020, after noticing her right breast was shaped differently and more firm on one side – a change that occurred overnight.
- After undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and beating sepsis, Butterworth is urging others to check for unusual changes in their breasts as signs of cancer may not be so obvious.
- Getting to know how your breasts look and feel may be one of the best ways to recognize when something is not quite right. “When we think about breast cancer prevention and awareness, the first step is that women need to feel comfortable with their breast and know what their breasts feel like normally,” says Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and an advisor to SurvivorNet. Here’s how, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
- Many women who are fighting breast cancer, like Butterworth, use the power of music and art to get them through tough times. SurvivorNetTV’s original series SN & You’s episode Music and Art: Reflecting On Your Journey shows how music and art can impact a cancer journey.
The cancer warrior, who lives in Oxfordshire, England, received her diagnosis on March 20, 2020, after noticing her right breast was shaped differently and more firm on one side. Now, after undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and beating sepsis, Butterworth is urging others to check for unusual changes in their breasts as signs of cancer may not be so obvious.Read More
“I couldn’t say it in the end, so my husband told them,” Butterworth explained. “We sat them down and he said, you know, ‘mommy is very poorly. She is going to have to go through a lot of treatment, (and) she will lose her hair… but the good news is, they are going to treat mummy and we will get through this.”
“My younger daughter cried; my older one sort of stared into space for a while and then cried, so it was a bit horrible really, but we had to tell them what was going on,” she continued.
Despite “nearly dying” after getting sepsis during her cancer treatment, Butterworth admitted it was hope that got her through the tough times when she felt “absolutely battered” from treatment.
When she was diagnosed she was told she needed a mastectomy to remove the tumor in her right breast, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, but that her treatment might be delayed due to the hospitals being overcrowded during the pandemic.
Doctors first gave her a hormone treatment of Zoladex injections to prevent the cancer from spreading, until days later when she was told a mastectomy could be done sooner than later.
Just 10 days after her diagnosis, Butterworth underwent surgery to remove her right breast and found that cancer had spread to the lymph nodes under her arm.
“I’m always somebody that’s planning for the future. I plan everything in advance, I’m very organized, and I had to stop doing that,” she explained. “I couldn’t look into the future too far anymore, or even, you know, there were days where I thought, do I have a future?”
“But the chemo was the thing I was most afraid of, and as it turned out, I was right to be afraid of it because it was awful.”
She started her intensive chemo treatment on May 6, 2020, which concluded on September 30. Then, about a month later, she underwent radiotherapy for three weeks.
And when she grew upset about her hair and breast loss, she recounted, “It was more about surviving than anything else. You don’t realize you’ve lost a breast, you’ve lost your hair, this all happened to me, until after all the treatment is over. Initially, it’s just, I’ve got to get through this.”
Butterworth noted that her “lowest point” during chemo was when she got sepsis and “nearly died in hospital.”
Luckily, Butterworth kept pushing through despite feeling terrified, thanks to the other “brave” patients in the hospital who offered support for her, along with a UK charity called Maggie’s.
“It’s terrifying really, but then you keep going. There’s almost this unspoken rule, you know, you don’t get upset, you keep each other going in those rooms,” Butterworth, whose treatment concluded in November, added.
Although she is not yet cured of the cancer, Butterworth is getting back to normal life through her love for art, silk painting, and taking trips with her family. And she’s urging others battling cancer like her to “have hope, even at your most despairing times.”
How To Perform Self-Exams
Getting to know how your breasts look and feel may be one of the best ways to recognize when something is not quite right. “When we think about breast cancer prevention and awareness, the first step is that women need to feel comfortable with their breast and know what their breasts feel like normally,” says Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and an advisor to SurvivorNet. Here’s how, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation:
- While standing straight in front of a mirror, place your hands on your hips and look at your breasts for any swelling, bulging, changes in shape of breast or nipple (inverted), redness, rashes, or any fluid leaking. Then do the same with your arms in the air.
- Next, while lying down, use your right hand to examine your left breast and vice versa, while using your first three fingers to apply pressure. Ensure you cover the entire breast area, from your collarbone to below your ribcage and from your armpit to your cleavage area. Do the same self-exam standing or sitting up. Be sure to use light to medium pressure for the middle breast area and firmer pressure when feeling deep breast tissue.
Once you get the hang of it, Dr. Comen recommends you do it once a month – after your period. However, it should be emphasized that breast self-examination is NOT a replacement for mammography.
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.”
The Impact Art and Music Have on Survivors’ Journeys
Sometimes you just need a little inspiration to make it through the day, like Butterworth found by taking up silk painting. That’s the case for many women fighting breast cancer, and this film about the power of music and art is just the boost you need.
Presenting SurvivorNetTV’s original series SN & You. In this episode, Music and Art: Reflecting On Your Journey, we follow Marianne Cuoozo, Bianca Muniz, Joel Naftelberg, Marquina Iliev-Piselli and Matthew Zachary as they reflect on the impact music and art had on their cancer journey. While going through breast cancer treatment, it can be challenging to keep a positive attitude when you’re feeling worn out from treatment. These survivors have been in your shoes and have tips to help get you through.
Marianne Cuozzo is a mother, an artist, and a three-time cancer survivor. Her first cancer diagnosis came at the age of 28 and she had a recurrence a few years later. Then in 2014, Cuozzo got breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction. After suffering with numerous infections, she opted to “go flat.” Through some difficult times, Cuozzo found art to be a tool to help express herself in ways she didn’t want to do verbally.
Singer/songwriter Bianca Muniz is a two-time cancer survivor. She had ovarian cancer at 11, was diagnosed at 22 with breast cancer and was diagnosed with lung cancer at 24. Throughout her struggle with cancer, music has been her savior.
While Marianne and Bianca chose art and music, air guitar was Marquina Iliev-Piselli’s calling. Playing the air guitar allowed Marquina to dress up in fun, whacky outfits, try on different personas, and really stay in touch with herself during a tough time. “With cancer specifically, every couple weeks I would grab a bunch of different clothes that were donated and bring them to the hospital and would just try to make something happen in those six to eight hours while I was in the hospital. It was glam rock chemo,” Marquina says. “I air guitared [during] my chemo, and it saved my spirit. It made it so I don’t look back on that time with fear.”
We later see Joel Naftelberg, a pancreatic cancer survivor, who saw music as his lifeline after his first cancer diagnosis. “It doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but it does let us dance on our problems for at least an hour or two,” he says. Joel has undergone treatment for both liver and pancreatic cancer. He compares his cancer to a monster, saying it has affected every aspect of his life. However, he hasn’t allowed his disease to take over his life. Joel handles cancer by taking it one day at a time–and of course, by making time to feed his love of music.
Lastly, we hear from Matthew Zachary, CEO and founder of Stupid Cancer. When he was facing brain cancer as a 21-year-old college student, he noticed a lack of resources for people in his situation — that’s how he got into advocacy. Through being his own advocate and asking questions during his treatment, he was able to find alternative solutions that would give him the ability to continue pursing his passion, piano.
Marianne Cuozzo, Bianca Muniz, Joel Naftelberg, Marquina Iliev-Piselli and Matthew Zachary share inspiration and hope through their stories. These are tales you should not miss on SurvivorNetTV.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff