Experiencing Breast Cancer During COVID-19

Experiencing Breast Cancer During COVID-19

Experiencing Breast Cancer During COVID-19

Cancer screenings were anything but routine during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Medical offices were closed for weeks, and many yearly screenings were postponed. For one of our members, deciding not to skip it for a year has meant all the difference in how her breast cancer story ends.

In 2020, Jennifer C. had a breast lumpectomy, a surgery to take a tissue sample, after her yearly mammogram showed some areas that concerned her doctor.

“I have no history of breast cancer in my family,” Jennifer said. “I wasn’t worried.”

But this time did seem different for some reason, she said. So she decided to have her husband go with her to the post-op visit, “just in case.”

When the breast surgeon pointed to the images and said, “This second area is cancer,” Jennifer and her husband stared at each other. “We both thought, ‘Did she just say cancer?’”

Believing in Screenings

Jennifer works in the health care field, so she knows how vital preventive health screenings are to a person’s health outcomes. Still, she thought about putting off her mammogram for a year. Her appointment had to be postponed three times because of COVID-19. With no history of cancer in her family, having the screening didn’t seem urgent. But when an appointment came open in July, she took it.

The mammogram found a radial scar, leaving site icon a growth or lesion that looks a lot like breast cancer.

“Even to my untrained eye, it looked pretty big,” she said. “How could they have missed that the year before?” They didn't miss it. It hadn’t shown up on her last mammogram just one year earlier. 

Taking a sample, or biopsy, of the tissue is the only way to find out what exactly a growth is. Jennifer had a stereotactic biopsy, where images help guide the needle that takes tissue samples. A tiny steel marker is then placed at the biopsy site for future reference. One more mammogram is taken to check the marker’s placement.

The biopsy found that the radial scar was benign (not cancer). The second image, though, found another area of concern.

Diagnosis: Cancer

“I had to have lumpectomy surgery to remove the radial scar. After talking with my new breast specialist surgeon, we decided she would just remove that second area at the same time.”

It was the second site that turned out to be ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)leaving site icon

Thanks to Jennifer’s yearly mammogram screenings, the cancer was caught early and was very treatable.  It was stage 0, which means the cancer cells had not spread outside of the duct. “After all of this is over, you will be fine,” her doctor assured her.

And 15 weeks later, after surgery and treatment, she was fine.

“Don’t get me wrong. What followed my diagnosis was hard,” she said. “There were more tests, scans, invasive procedures, a second surgery and 20 radiation treatments.”

During those long weeks, Jennifer said she struggled with fear, sadness and anger along with the pain, general discomfort and fatigue from the treatments.

“But I was grateful. During my cancer treatment, I saw other patients who had it so much worse than I did. Thank goodness my cancer had been caught early and was easily treated.”

A 5-Year Prognosis

After two surgeries and a round of radiation treatment, Jennifer says her prognosis is good. She’ll be taking the drug tamoxifen leaving site icon for the next five years. Her breast cancer was estrogen receptor positive, leaving site icon meaning that estrogen attaches to cell receptors and can help cancer cells grow. Tamoxifen blocks estrogen receptors on breast cancer cells. Taking the drug lowers her chance of getting breast cancer again to just 1 to 2 percent.

And without a doubt, she said she’ll get a mammogram each year.

A Word of Advice

Jennifer encourages women, especially those over 50, to make getting a yearly breast exam a priority.

Remember:

  • Breast cancer doesn’t have to run in your family for you to get it. Family history isn’t the only risk factor that matters.
  • Know all your risk factors. Most breast cancers are found in women 50 years old and over.
  • Understand the causes you can’t change and those you can. Being overweight, not active, taking hormones or drinking alcohol can raise your risk.
  • Get your mammogram every year. It will help catch cancer early, when it is easier to treat.

Getting regular screening tests is the best way to find breast cancer early. Learn more about breast cancer screening.

Presented by Jennifer C.

Sources: Lumpectomy Overview, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2021; Radial Scars, leaving site icon Breastcancer.org, 2018; Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), leaving site icon American Cancer Society, 2019; Breast Cancer Hormone Receptor Status, leaving site icon American Cancer Society, 2019; Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer, leaving site icon American Cancer Society, 2019; What Are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer?, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020
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