Breast cancer survivors tell all: ‘Don’t let anyone say you’re too young, because it can happen to anyone’

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One of our readers, Kelly, following eye surgery. She experienced chemo eye damage. (Photo from April 2020). (Photo provided by Kelly)

For someone who has never had to experience or endure breast cancer, it might be understandable that there are questions involved. Does a diagnosis typically come as a surprise, or do people often suspect that something feels not quite right?

How often should we be performing self-examinations, anyway? (At least once a month, the experts say).

We posed some of those questions, and more, to our readers -- and as you can imagine, there was quite a range when it came to the answers we received.

Like with many things in life, it’s hard to generalize. Many people’s responses sounded familiar, and you could certainly find some common themes, but each story was also different in its own way.

By the way, respondents had the option to self-identify however they’d like. We asked for names, ages and locations, but people were able to provide as much information or as few details as they’d prefer, which is why you’ll see some full names, and some people on a first-only basis. Some responses have been edited for length, clarity and grammar.

We hope by sharing women’s stories, it will encourage and inspire others to stay proactive about their own health.

Here are those answers to a few of our questions.

How did you learn of your cancer?

Kelly in Montgomery County, Virginia: "My significant other and I were watching TV and he accidentally bumped me in the chest. And bam -- there was a huge lump the size of a golf ball! I went to the walk-in clinic and they scheduled a mammogram. I was told right at the mammogram.

“I had already overcome thyroid and cervical cancer, plus a bullet to the chest as a kid. I was worried, as I have small kids to care for. I went on to have surgery, six months of chemotherapy, more surgery -- and a regional recurrence, radiation and now Tamoxifen. Stage 3A.”

Sue Ellen Skime: “I was 32 years old at the time, and I have no other conditions. We had just moved, so when I noticed a lump under my left arm pit, I though it was due to the move. After a week, it didn’t go away, and it started to hurt, so I made an appointment -- and after a lot of testing, I received the news that it was breast cancer.”

Kristina Schlueter, in South Florida: “I found a lump at 29 years old. After having multiple mammograms and ultrasounds, I finally decided to have the lump removed and tested. When they biopsied the lump, it came back as Stage 2 ER PR and HER2- breast cancer.”

Mary: “I was an Inspector in Afghanistan for the Department Of Defense. I hopped around by helicopter to FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). After a morning workout, during my shower, I noticed something I thought was strange on my breast -- or I wasn’t sure if it was in my breast or not. I took leave and came back to Michigan to see my doctor. My doctor ran all the necessary tests, and the results came back as breast cancer.”

Doris in Miami: “I was watching a series on Netflix. It was about a cancer patient. I hadn’t gone in for my annual mammogram this year due to COVID. Something told me to check my breast. I felt a lump. I called my doctor next day to get a referral. After the mammogram and sonogram, they recommend a biopsy. I did a biopsy and they confirmed it was breast cancer."

How did you feel?

Skime: “I felt scared -- really scared, especially because I had an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old girl, and the thought of me not being here to raise them was horrible.”

Schlueter: “I was terrified, for two years I was told it was benign; just a fibroadenoma. To find out I had cancer at 31 years old was devastating.”

Doris: “Scared at first. Now I am hopeful.”

Mary: “I was scared. I was confused. I didn’t think my results were true. They had to be wrong because I was an active, healthy woman. I work out. I am an early riser who has always thought exercise was important."

Kelly: “I was scared more for my small kids not having a mom around.”

"My hair in the sink, as it was starting to fall out with chemo and I wanted to keep it (October 2018)." (Photo provided by Kelly)

Anything else you want to say or share?

Schlueter: “I was diagnosed in 2016, and have been visiting the cancer center at least once a month since. I was first treated in Richmond, Virginia, then moved to Florida after chemo and radiation. I was young, active and in great shape. I was coaching gymnastics when I got my diagnosis, but it was too much for me. Now I have an outlet through dragon boating (our team is all breast cancer survivors, ages 30 to 82) and spin classes. I have no family history. I guess those are the typical questions people ask. I was also seen by multiple doctors before finally getting a biopsy and finding out I had cancer. I had the lump for a year and a half before it was treated. Young women get cancer, too! Don’t let anyone say you’re too young, because it can happen to anyone.”

Skime: “My philosophy is, the more you tell your story, the more people can be saved. I consider myself very lucky to still be here, so if my experience can help someone else, I don’t mind sharing at all.”

Kelly: “Report on all the symptoms of breast cancer. I had nipple discharge about five years prior to my diagnosis, and went to my doctor, and was told (something along the lines of) ‘It must be residual from breastfeeding.’ Argh. ... I just really want to women and men to still be vigilant in this time.”

Doris: “The message I would like to spread is the importance of monthly self-examinations, and if you find something, to seek medical attention and not to listen to family or friends saying that it’s nothing. Going to the doctor to check out a lump can save your life. Thanks to the self-examination, I was able to find it in the early stage. Stage 1, Grade 1, 1 cm. I was diagnosed on Sept. 25, and I already have gone to a few appointments. I don’t know what type of treatment I need. I should be getting surgery soon. I have an appointment with the surgeon (soon). She will explain the the different options and type of procedures she will perform. Hopefully everything will be OK with me in the long run.”

Thank you so much to our loyal readers, who trusted us with their answers and made all of this possible.