Breast CancerSurvivorship

Listening to Our Instincts

Teresa Todt could not shake the nagging feeling that the pain in her breast was something serious, but repeated visits to her gynecologist and a mammogram didn’t lead anywhere. It was only after she found blood in her bra that additional tests showed she had invasive breast cancer.
October 2019 Vol 5 No 5
Teresa Todt
Farmersville, Illinois

Cancer was the furthest thing from my mind, for many reasons. There was absolutely no family history of cancer. I was an avid fitness enthusiast. I tried to eat healthy, and the list goes on. And perhaps the most important reason for my peace of mind, a few months before my diagnosis, a mammogram and a follow-up appointment with my gynecologist gave me the “all clear” reassurance. Despite continued pain in my left breast, and sensitivity in the nipple, I was grateful that nothing was found.

A Nagging Concern

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. For several months I was unable to let the shower touch my left breast, for fear of the stinging pain I experienced every time the water touched it. I had a tingling sensation in that nipple almost constantly. I shared these concerns on more than one occasion with my gynecologist, but each time I was told that nothing showed up.

Everything I read, and everything I was told at that time, assured me that there’s rarely, if ever, pain associated with breast cancer. This was confirmed by my gynecologist. Yes, I had mammograms, sonograms, and did self-exams. My doctor followed up, but not enough. My breasts are extremely dense, and as my radiologist said as he reviewed my x-rays with me before beginning radiation: “Who could find anything in there!?”

A few months after that all-clear mammogram, I visited my daughter and her family. One night, when I removed my bra before bedtime, I found a tiny drop of fresh blood in the left cup. I didn’t tell anyone, but again I was certain that my symptoms and my body were telling me that something was wrong. When I got back home, I called my gynecologist with this news, and he sent me directly to a surgeon.

A Look That Says It All

I was in the surgeon’s office within a week, and during the exam, she discovered a suspicious lump in my left breast. I knew by the look on her face that this was not good. I was scheduled for a biopsy the next day. The doctor who performed the biopsy had that same look. Without anyone saying the word, I knew it was cancer.

My surgeon called the following day with the results, and 2 days later my husband and I, along with my sister and our 2 adult children, were sitting in her office. The diagnosis was stage pT1cpN0(i-), cM0, invasive ductal carcinoma, grade 3 of 3 (meaning the tumor tends to grow and spread fast and has poor prognosis). The tumor measured 1.3 cm. The surgeon explained my treatment options, and together we decided on a lumpectomy (surgical removal of part of the breast with the tumor). The follow-up treatment would be determined after surgery.

I was blessed that the cancer did not spread to my lymph nodes. But an Oncotype DX test revealed that my tumor was triple-negative breast cancer, with a high recurrence score—an aggressive type of breast cancer. I had the surgery, followed by chemotherapy and then radiation. This all took place nearly 5 years ago, but anyone diagnosed with this disease knows that you never forget the day you hear the words, “it’s cancer.” Those 2 words changed my life forever, undeniably in some positive ways, as well.

Listen to Your Body

I often think about those symptoms I had early on, nearly a year before my diagnosis, and how I tried several times to communicate my concerns. I knew my body, and it was saying that something was terribly wrong.

My gynecologist listened and was sympathetic, but he dismissed the pain and tingling as nonsignificant, even though I thought otherwise. I believe he truly thought he had done all the necessary testing. During treatment, I told my oncologist about the symptoms I had experienced months before my diagnosis. She, too, seemed to think those symptoms were unrelated to cancer. I’m still not convinced.

My different doctors made it seem as if I were the only one who had ever mentioned these symptoms, but there must be others with similar symptoms, and I want them to hear this. Listen to your instincts and your body as much as, or more than, you listen to your doctor. Press for more aggressive tests, and don’t stop until you are satisfied with the answers you receive. Perhaps my symptoms are unique to me, but I’m not convinced of that, and no one should take that risk.

Speaking Up Together

We breast cancer survivors are a tight group, like it or not, and we must look out for one another. The literature tells us that there’s rarely pain associated with breast cancer, and few symptoms beyond a lump, but I think that information is dangerous. So, we must talk to each other, share our stories, and keep pushing doctors to listen to the patient. Mammograms don’t always work for those of us with dense breasts.

I’ve since learned that an MRI could pick up many things a ­sonogram and even a digital mammogram don’t. I did not have an MRI before my diagnosis, and I wonder what if I had. Although my cancer was aggressive and came on quickly, could an earlier diagnosis have changed the past, or the future?

If I had an MRI when those early symptoms appeared, would my cancer have been stage 0, and the tumor smaller? Would the treatment have been different? These questions will never be answered for me, but ­

I hope others with persistent breast pain will take note, pass this information along, and if need be, press doctors for an MRI or for other testing to facilitate a potentially earlier diagnosis or more accurate answers.

Opportunity to Give Back

One of the many positive things that came from my breast cancer diagnosis is the opportunity to share and connect with women who are experiencing or have experienced what I went through. During treatment, the many cards and letters I received from others who had walked in my shoes and survived were a lifeline to me. Now, I get to be that lifeline to others.

During chemotherapy, I was in awe of the people in my community who brought food and groceries for me and my husband. Now, I get to be on the giving end. I had faith in God’s plan for my life long before cancer entered the picture, but that faith grew stronger during my cancer journey.

The most heart-warming positive aspect is that my story may help others to receive an early diagnosis, thereby changing the course of their life and their treatment plan.

Perhaps you or someone you know has experienced symptoms­ such as I had or other signs that just don’t feel right. Listen to your instincts, don’t ignore them. Be persistent, and don’t give up. Until a cure is found, we survivors need to do what we can to bring that cure closer. Maybe listening to our instincts is one way to make that happen.

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Last modified: August 11, 2020

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