How Self-Exams Can Help with Early Detection
- A woman was diagnosed with both brain and breast cancer before the age of 30. About two years after battling brain cancer, Sofia Perry conducted a self breast exam and found a lump in her breast. The discovery led to her breast cancer diagnosis.
- Her story highlights the importance of early detection and advocating for your health.
- SurvivorNet experts recommend performing a monthly breast self-exam to look for anything unusual because it can help catch breast cancer.
- Talk to your doctor if you notice one or more of the following symptoms: a new lump in the breast, unusual sagging, new swelling in the breast, changes to the nipple (such as puckering), flaking or redness in the breast or nipple, discharge (including blood) coming from the nipple and pain in the breast.
Sofia Perry, who married her high school sweetheart Max just months before her brain cancer diagnosis, followed her gut feeling earlier this year when she felt a lump in her breast while performing a self-breast exam. Thankfully she acted on her suspicions and learned she was battling yet another type of cancer.
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It was then, a biopsy confirmed she had breast cancer at age 28.
Perry told CBS News Texas, “I think breast cancer has this stigma of only happening to people whose mom’s or grandma’s had breast cancer, so it was very unexpected to me.
“When you find something wrong with your body and you’re thinking something might be off, you really have to be your own health advocate and take yourself to your doctor to get checked.”
Expert Breast Cancer Resources
- Mammograms Are Still the Best Tool for Detecting Breast Cancer — A Warning About Thermography
- 6 Common Excuses for Skipping a Mammogram That You Need to Stop Using!
- Getting to Know Your Breasts with Self-Exams
- Samantha Harris, Breast-Cancer Survivor: ‘Feel Your Melons!’ Why Breast Self-Exams Matter Now, More Than Ever
- Genetic Testing Is Increasingly Driving Treatment For Breast Cancer And May Actually Help Lower Costs
Perry, who is now undergoing chemotherapy, ultimately decided to get a double mastectomy due to her having a rare gene mutation, known as Ataxia-Telangiesctasia Mutated (ATM). The gene is similar to the BRCA-1 mutations that raise a woman’s risk of having breast cancer.
“I had no family history of cancer on either side so that was definitely shocking to me,” she told the news outlet. “I’ve been telling all my friends and family to give themselves exams as often as possible. I went from stage 1 to stage 2 in five weeks…that’s how fast that tumor was growing inside of me.”
She continued, “If you feel like something’s wrong or you feel a lump, or you feel that something is off, you can always go to your doctor and have that conversation. Get that scan, get that gene test.”
WATCH: Why advocating for your health is important.
Perry insists she’s “not going to be the victim of cancer,” but instead, “cancer is gonna be my victim.”
On June 26, Perry took to Instagram to open up about her breast cancer journey, writing, “This June, our world was rocked again when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, since I found it early, it was stage 2 and no spread. Unluckily, the genetic testing led to a discovery of the ATM gene. A very rare (less than 1%) gene that increases your chances of several cancers, including breast.
“Due to this diagnosis, earlier this month I went forward with a double mastectomy & will go through 2 months of chemo starting in August. After going through Fall 2021 with the support of family and friends, I knew I would get through this again. Nothing can be worse that brain cancer, right?! Survival mode is now my 2023 mindset just like 2021 was [clapping emoji].”
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She concluded, praising her husband for being by her said through it all, “Thank you to our friends & family that supported us with food, sweet texts, prayers, flowers, gifts, donations, visits, the list goes on… you are our lifeboat through this. To all the ladies – give yourself breast exams.
“The ONLY reason this was found early was because I found the tumor myself and brought it to my doctors attention. Be preventative! You have to be an advocate for your own health.”
Treatment options for breast cancer include surgery, such as a mastectomy or lumpectomy (the removal of the tumor and a small amount of surrounding tissue), as well as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy (which harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer).
While Perry is still undergoing treatment, her experience draws added attention for women to do regular self-exams on their breasts for signs of anything unusual.
When Breast Cancer Risk Runs in the Family
To help understand your inherited risk of developing certain cancer, like breast and ovarian, you and your loved ones have the option to undergo genetic testing.
“Genetic testing is an exploding area, and it started out with a very narrow field of women and men who were recommended to have it based on certain risk factors, family history of breast cancer or other cancers and also ethnic backgrounds,” Dr. Elisa Port, a surgical oncologist at Mount Sinai, previously told SurvivorNet.
“We now feel that casting a wider net with genetic testing is probably very prudent because finding out that one has a cancer predisposition gene can definitely change their course, their risk for cancer and what they might want to do about it.”
There are many gene mutations that can raise your risk of breast cancer, including PALB2, ATM, TP53, CHEK2, PTEN, CDH1, and STK11. But the BRCA genetic mutation puts people at the highest risk of developing breast cancer.
“If a woman has one of these mutations the genetic BRCA1 and (BRCA)2 mutations, it puts her at basically the highest quantifiable risk for getting breast cancer,” Dr. Port explained. “We typically say between the 60 (percent) and 80 percent range.”
As for the ATM gene, which Perry has, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center says the gene increases your risk for breast cancer and also pancreatic cancer, but this is less common.
“While an ATM mutation means you have a somewhat higher risk of developing cancer than the average person, it may not fully explain why your blood relatives have cancer,” according to the center.
Cancer.gov states that people with the ATM mutation “are associated with a 20 percent or higher lifetime risk of breast cancer.”
Advice For Women At Risk
People who have a family history of breast cancer may want to consider being tested for mutations, particularly if the relative was diagnosed with cancer before age 50.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a BRCA mutation, there are still steps you can take to lower your risk of developing cancer.
“When I meet with women who are at an increased risk for breast cancer because of BRCA mutations, I like to talk about the three options that they have for managing their risk,” Dr. Freya Schnabel, Director of Breast Surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center, told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. Those options are:
Intensive surveillance: This means keeping an eye on your health, in an attempt to catch disease early if it does present itself.
Medication: There are certain drugs available to lower the risk of developing breast cancer. But as with any medical treatment, risks, and benefits must be considered.
Surgery: This is the option that will lower a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer as much as possible. It involves removing as much breast tissue as possible while attempting to preserve the nipple area, should a woman opt for reconstruction.
Breast Cancer Screening
Breast cancer screening methods all aim to look for lumps in the breast and signs of cancer. The medical community has a broad consensus that women have annual mammograms between the ages of 45 and 54. However, an independent panel of experts called the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is saying that women should start getting mammograms every other year at the age of 40, suggesting that this lowered the age for breast cancer screening could save 19% more lives.
Dr. Jeannie Shen, medical director of the Breast Program at Huntington Hospital, an affiliate of Cedars-Sinai, told SurvivorNet that she agrees with starting mammogram screenings for women with an average breast cancer risk at age 40.
The new recommendations apply to women with an average risk of breast cancer, including people with a family history of the disease and risk factors like dense breasts. Dense breasts mean you have more fibroglandular tissue and less fatty tissue in your breasts. The density can make detecting cancer more difficult for a routine mammogram. To screen dense breasts more closely, a 3D mammogram is often used, which looks at the breast tissue in several layers.
“With digital mammography, 3D tomosynthesis, we’re taking thin slices through the breast tissue, like slices of a loaf of bread,” said Dr. Connie Lehman, the Chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital.
WATCH: Dr. Connie Lehman explains how 3D mammograms work.
However, she disagrees that screening occurs every other year between 40 and 50, when “interval cancers (cancers which develop between screening mammograms) are more common.”
For women aged 55 and older, the American Cancer Society recommends getting a mammogram every other year. However, women in this age group who want added reassurance can still get annual mammograms.
Meanwhile, 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 the risk of breast cancer, such as a BRCA gene mutation, or a medical history including chest radiation therapy before the age of 30.
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.
What To Ask Your Doctor
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may have questions about how to keep your strength through treatment. Here are a few questions to help you begin the conversation with your doctor:
- What treatment will I be receiving?
- What side effects are associated with this treatment?
- Are there steps I can take in my daily life to help minimize these side effects?
- What physical activity routine do you recommend for me during treatment?
- Do you have recommendations for someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy exercise?
- Can you recommend a dietician who can help me with healthy eating tips and maintaining a healthy weight?
- I’ve been having trouble sleeping, do you have any treatment recommendations?
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff