Spreading Breast Cancer Awareness
- Loving wife and mom of one, 35-year-old Rhiannon Baxter is “grateful to be alive” and ready to live fully after a lump on her right nipple, which she initially dismissed as a clogged milk duct during pregnancy, turned out to be invasive breast cancer.
- Thankfully, her son Alvie was born healthy when she was induced at 38 weeks pregnant. Now she’s urging other to be aware of their symptoms and get checked for breast cancer when something seems off.
- 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.
- Here are some other symptoms to look out for: a 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, and nipple discharge (not associated with breastfeeding).
Rhiannon Baxter, a 35-year-old pharmacy care coordinator living in Wallasey, England, ultimately discovered she had three cancerous tumors during her pregnancy and had to be induced at 38 weeks pregnant.Read More
Baxter, whose mom had battled breast cancer and lost an uncle to cancer, ended up getting checked at a hospital about two weeks later.
She ended up getting a scan, some biopsies, and undergoing mammograms, which led a breast cancer nurse to inform her the lump in her breast could be “sinister.”
Baxter, who received her invasive breast cancer diagnosis weeks later, told PA Real Life, “I was scared because I had finally got to a point in life where I loved my life and I didn’t want to leave it, and I thought, I’ve got a husband and a baby now, I cannot leave them. I just thought, I can’t die, I have too many people to live for.”
To get her cancer treatment started as soon as possible, Baxter was induced at 38 weeks pregnant, giving birth to a healthy son on September 22, 2022.
Four weeks after Alvie was born, Baxter had her right breast surgically removed via mastectomy. Six weeks later she underwent a second mastectomy due to pre-cancer being discovered in her left breast.
Expert Mastectomy Resources
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- Should I Have a Lumpectomy or Mastectomy?
Luckily, the cancer didn’t spread. Now she’s in remission and determined to “live life” after undergoing 15 rounds of chemotherapy, which she completed on April 18, 2023, followed by three weeks of radiotherapy, which concluded in June 2023.
Now, as she hopes to spread breast cancer awareness, she told PA Real Life, “If something good can come out of what happened to me, or I can prevent someone else going through what I did, then this has happened to me for a reason. I’m so grateful to be alive, and I just want to live.”
Baxter, who also admits that her moms stage 1 breast cancer journey inspired her fight against disease, no longer has any sign of cancer in her body.
Despite being “cancer-free,” she will continue getting hormone treatment and taking medicine to prevent recurrence.
“When I was pregnant, I thought I was invincible. I’d just urge other women who are pregnant to get checked because I don’t know whether it was me being naive, but I didn’t think you can get cancer while you’re pregnant,” Baxter concluded.
“If you are worried that you’ve got a lump or anything, go and get it checked because it’s better to catch it earlier – and just remember, having cancer is not a death sentence.”
How to Perform Self Breast 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 may need to 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 live.”
Considering a Double Mastectomy
A double mastectomy is when both breasts are removed to get rid of cancer. In Baxter’s case, she had two separate mastectomies. A double mastectomy may also be performed as a preventative measure for women who are at a very high risk of developing breast cancer.
Following the procedure, some women may choose to have their breasts reconstructed and have implants put in, while others don’t have reconstruction at all.
“A double mastectomy typically takes about two hours for the cancer part of the operation, the removing of the tissue,” Dr. Elisa Port, Chief of Breast Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System, told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “The real length, the total length of the surgery, can often depend on what type of reconstruction [a patient] has.”
Dr. Port notes that these days, most women do opt to have some sort of reconstruction. The length of these surgeries can vary a great deal. When implants are used, the procedure can take two to three hours (so the total surgery time would be around five hours). There is also the option to take one’s own tissue (usually from the belly area) and transfer it into the breast area, but this is a much longer procedure.
“When you take tissue from another part of the body and transfer it to fill in the empty space where the breasts are, this is a very long operation,” Dr. Port says. “It can take anywhere from six to 12 hours because it’s really like having a tummy tuck and then transferring the tissue and grafting the tissue, connecting the vessels, so those tissues have blood flow to live in.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff