What I Wish I Knew: Educate Yourself, Take Care of You
Breast cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in American women. A diagnosis can leave you feeling unprepared for health and treatment decisions you have to make. It can also put unexpected stress on your everyday life, your family and your job.
At LBBC, we know one of the best ways to learn about living with breast cancer is by hearing from others who have been there. This blog is part of a series called What I Wish I Knew, which features people diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in the past who want to share their knowledge with those who are newly diagnosed. What I Wish I Knew will update once a month.
It was summer 2017. For the first time in my entire career, I had been laid off from work. It was a hit to my pride more than anything else, and I decided to take the time I had unexpectedly been provided to step back and think about what I wanted to do next. There were those who immediately came to me with job offers—sentiments that I appreciated, yet weren’t right for me.
No, I wasn’t going to jump into anything. In the meantime, I decided to focus on my health and maybe do a bit of concert-going. I love rock concerts. I bought tickets for two rock shows in New York City, thinking that this downtime might not be as bad as I originally thought, as it would allow for such folly as traveling back and forth from Philadelphia to NYC two months in a row. Most importantly, I set up all my appropriate care appointments, including my annual physical, which I had canceled earlier in order to manage a huge work event—only to be laid off from that job a week later.
Flash forward to the appointment with my primary care doctor. The lump I had recently come across, the one that I thought was of no concern, ended up being the primary focus for my doctor. She immediately set up a mammogram for me, which led to a biopsy, and a week later, a diagnosis: breast cancer. My sudden loss of employment, and everything else for that matter, became like a blurry background. Insignificant.
There would be no concerts that summer, or for the many months that followed.
Things I wish knew before being diagnosed:
No one breast cancer diagnosis is the same, even if it is exactly the same as someone else’s on paper.
There are many things I wish I knew when first diagnosed and starting treatment, but even more important are there things I wish I knew before being diagnosed.
You can quickly go down a rabbit hole once you are diagnosed with cancer because you are so desperately looking for answers. The internet can be a useful tool, or one that gives you nightmares. After diagnosis you begin to research on your own, and between the growing levels of fear and overwhelming disappointment is a lost feeling driven by confusion.
I didn’t understand; when you have breast cancer, you can have a variety of types. Hormone receptor-positive, triple-negative, triple-positive, ILC, IDC, DCIS… all of this combined with a grade which, by the way, isn’t the same as stage. I believe having advance knowledge of these sub-types would allow women to do due diligence when it comes to their checkups. It may also drive them to seek out their family’s history with cancer.
As women, we constantly hear about being proactive. We are encouraged to have our annual mammogram, but rarely are we encouraged to understand what breast cancer is, how it isn’t a one-size-fits-all disease with a one-size-fits-all treatment plan. The definition or significance of the grade of cancer as opposed to the stage of breast cancer, and how the two align, is extremely important.
Having an understanding about the subtypes of breast cancer should be encouraged as much as having an annual mammogram. The peace of mind provided by being armed with accurate and current information about where the science stands with certain cancers, and treatments for them, could prove invaluable to a newly diagnosed patient. I know that being better educated in advance of a diagnosis would have helped me sleep better in what I now refer to as those early “dark days,” or rather those sleepless “dark nights.”
Knowing the subtype of breast cancer can help drive a woman’s decisions regarding treatment, like where she is treated or who is on team of doctors, and it may help guide her in the types of questions she asks about her diagnosis, her pathology report, and her chance for survival.
No one cancer diagnosis is the same as another. That is why it is so important that women educate themselves.
Black women need to be more diligent in taking care of their personal health—especially as it relates to breast cancer prevention.
I assure you. I didn’t know this until after my diagnosis.
While both black and white women may get proper preventive screening or mammograms for breast cancer, and black women are not diagnosed more frequently with breast cancer, black women are more likely to succumb to the disease. There are varying factors for this, ranging from inability to afford proper health care to simply being afraid of going to the doctor.
My advice to women, especially to black women, and women of color, is to keep your doctor appointments, know your family history, and do not take for granted that breast cancer cannot come for you… because it can. However, you can do your best to avoid it, and if not avoid it, be better prepared to make decisions in how to manage your specific diagnosis.
And to all women (friends and strangers alike), do not let any job (that can discard you tomorrow), family obligation (that won’t matter if you are no longer around to fulfil it), or whatever if might be, cause you to minimize the importance of having an annual mammogram or check-up. Do not let it stop you from doing so.
Educate yourself on everything there is to know about breast cancer before a breast cancer diagnosis is ever given you. By doing so you will be able to be a gatekeeper for yourself and for your health.
To quote the film “Pretty Woman”:
“Take care of you!”
Gina J. Range, 50, was diagnosed with stage II, triple-negative breast cancer in 2017. She is a writer and life-long Philadelphia resident. She currently serves as vice president of external relations and development for the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
If you are recently diagnosed and would like to learn more, be sure to check out our Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. If you want to participate in the What I Wish I Knew series, you can share your story with Living Beyond Breast Cancer.
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