How Early Detection Helped Me Survive Breast Cancer
By Beth Harlor, Director of Regional Design, Bayer Consumer Health
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month — a time to educate women about breast cancer and raise awareness of risk factors. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Additionally, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women.
As a breast cancer survivor, I want to use this opportunity to share my personal story and the importance of screenings for early detection.
I’ve always been diligent about taking care of myself and staying on top of annual routine exams. So, when we moved to New Jersey in the fall of 2019, I began the arduous task of finding new doctors, dentists, dermatologists, etc. If you have never had to do this, consider yourself lucky!
Once I identified my doctors, I began scheduling my routine exams. When I went in for my mammogram, there was nothing unusual. It was the same old routine. But this time, I was asked to wait to speak with the radiologist. I didn’t think anything of it. Maybe a New Jersey thing?
I don’t remember ever receiving bad news or results from tests in my past. When they found a “suspicious mass” on my left breast, it was not that surprising. Some families have a history of heart disease. Mine has a history of cancer, especially breast cancer. My paternal grandmother and two aunts were all diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as my sister. On top of that, my dad died of lymphoma, and my mom is a lung cancer survivor. So, you can understand why it really didn’t come as a shocker to me.
I was a diligent patient and scheduled my biopsy that confirmed it was DCIS, or ductal carcinoma in situ, which means the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast have become cancer, but they have not spread into surrounding breast tissue. On a side note, the biopsy was probably the most painful thing I have ever experienced in my life, which includes the natural childbirth of a 10 lb. baby. Nevertheless, with the help of smelling salts, I prevailed.
Once confirmed, my husband and I shared the news with our children, family and friends, who all expressed their concern, support, and certainty of a positive outcome.
After some research and many recommendations, I chose to receive my care and treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK). I was fortunate that we were now living in New Jersey, which provided me access to the best cancer center in the country, which I wouldn’t have had if I still lived in Ohio. One of those blessings in disguise!
I was fortunate to have caught my cancer early, so the treatment plan included surgery and radiation unless I carried the BRCA gene, which would result in a double mastectomy. It was at this point when I began to get nervous. The test results took longer than I expected. I was in Cancun with friends when I received the news that I did not carry the gene. It was such a huge relief! I was now able to enjoy my vacation and celebrate!
My first surgery was on St. Patrick’s Day 2020. I’m not Irish, so it didn’t have any real significance, except it is an easy day to remember. I wasn’t worried about the surgery since I had plenty of surgeries before, but what was discouraging was that I had to go it alone. It was the beginning of the pandemic. The hospital did not allow visitors in the building, only the patient. That was not ideal, but what are you going to do? The surgeon, nurses and staff were exceptional, and everything went as planned. Well, kind of.
It appeared that my margins were not cleared. So, a month later, I had a second surgery to ensure that the margins were indeed clear. Sadly, I also had to have another biopsy, which was not any better than the first! Once my incisions healed, I began radiation every Monday through Friday for six weeks at MSK. It went by fast and I did not miss a beat.
I consider myself blessed to work at Bayer and have the support of my manager, team and colleagues to help me through it all. I’m happy to say that I just had a “clean” mammogram in May and look forward to many more in the future.
Each person and diagnosis are different, so I can only offer what worked for me. Remain optimistic and know that this is not going to last forever. There is going to be an end to the pain, treatment and cancer. Accept help. People genuinely want to help if they offer, so let them. Talk about it with those you feel comfortable with. The more who know about your situation, the greater the understanding and support you will receive.
And lastly, keep the faith.