‘It happened to me’: Three Yakima-area moms share their breast cancer stories
If you think breast cancer only concerns women your mother’s age, think again. If you’re a woman, this story is for you.
It’s the story of three mothers from the Yakima area who each battled breast cancer before she turned 40. Rare, right? Not exactly.
Let’s crunch some numbers: According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Of that number, 95 percent involve women age 40 and over.
So — whew! — only 5 percent involve women under 40. That means mothers in their 20s and 30s can put that concern on the back burner and get back to making dinner, right? Because that’s just, um, let’s see… about 1 in 165 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40.
Bet you know 165 women. Start with your friends and family. Then there’s the ladies at church and work. Mothers at MOPS or the PTA. Hey, don’t forget to include yourself.
So far, medical experts can’t predict who’s going to get breast cancer. More than 70 percent of the women who get it do not have a family history of the disease.
Unfortunately, the most significant risk factors for breast cancer are just being female and getting older. So it’s more likely to occur as we age, but breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 15 to 54.
Thankfully, there’s a little good news: The five-year survival rate, when breast cancer is caught early before it spreads beyond the breast, is 98 percent.
That’s why we see a lot of pink in October. The official color of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, pink now rivals pumpkin orange as the month’s predominant color: Pink ribbons, pink M&M candies, pink “Save the Ta-Tas” T-shirts. It’s all about raising money for breast cancer research and reminding women to take care of themselves with monthly breast self-exams, regular visits to the doctor and, beginning at age 40, an annual mammogram.
Just don’t be fooled into thinking you can ignore this one until the big Four-Oh lights up your birthday cake. The moms in this story each will tell you that a self-exam saved her life.
She was young and healthy, with no family history of cancer, when this Selah mom felt a lump during a breast self-exam in June 2007. The lump was fairly small but felt different, so Katherine went to her doctor to have it checked out — just to be sure.
“I was told that it was nothing the first time I went in,” Katherine recalls. “By November, it was really painful where my lump was, which is not normal.”
She went back to the doctor, who suspected a cyst and ordered a mammogram. After seeing the images, the doctor requested a biopsy.
“At that point, I knew I had breast cancer before they even biopsied it,” says Katherine.
As they went in to get the results of the biopsy, Katherine’s husband Chad assured her everything would be okay.
“He was like, you can’t have it. People your age don’t get breast cancer.”
Katherine’s tumor was 5 centimeters in diameter at the time she was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer, which had already spread into some of her lymph nodes.
Katherine underwent chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove the tumor, known as a lumpectomy, then radiation. One of the hardest parts, Katherine says, was seeing how her illness affected her kids, Alyssa and Evan, now 9 and 7. Alyssa slept in Katherine’s bedroom and Evan, then a kindergartner, would sometimes ask his mom if she was going to die.
“It just rips your heart out,” Katherine says.
Now in remission for over a year, Katherine, 34, is a preschool teacher for the Toppenish School District.
“Early detection is so important,” she says. “Doing the self-exams and getting a second opinion and trusting yourself that you know your body. That’s what I’ve learned from all of this.
“You think about it (cancer) every day, but you just try to make the most of each day. It’s forever changed me.”
Today, she’s a busy West Valley mom to three daughters. Carole doesn’t think about breast cancer too much anymore. And that kind of surprises her, actually. There were so many days she thought she’d never forget.
Step back 15 years: Carole’s grandmother was a breast cancer survivor, but Carole wasn’t worried about it for herself. After all, she was just 27, married with no children yet. Breast cancer was something that happened to older women — like her grandmother.
Health-conscious, Carole did the perfunctory breast self-exams anyway, not expecting to find anything. However, one day, she felt an unusual lump: “Rock hard, like a marble, but it didn’t hurt,” Carole recalls.
“I just figured that it was nothing, How could it be anything? I was 27.”
She was young, healthy and fit. She felt great. But after a mammography and biopsy, Carole learned she had Stage II breast cancer. Even the doctor couldn’t believe it; he sent the tissue sample twice to the lab to confirm.
Carole had a lumpectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. When the treatments ended, she was ready to start a family.
Three years later, Carole got the go-ahead from her doctor. She and husband Enrique started a new chapter in their lives with the birth of their daughter Nicole.
Then, when the baby was just 6 months old, a mammogram — now a regular part of Carole’s follow-up routine — detected a new primary tumor in her other breast.
This time, Carole opted for a bilateral mastectomy, determined to kick breast cancer for good.
“And then I got it again.”
Her daughter was 4 when Carole found a third lump on her chest near the scar where her breast tissue had been removed. “How could it be? There’s nothing left,” she wondered.
After a lumpectomy, she went through chemotherapy a second time.
Today, Carole has been cancer-free for eight years. In addition to Nicole, now 12, Carole and Enrique have 3-year-old twins, Natalie and Lauren. The couple own and operate Mad Science of Yakima County.
In the 15 years since her first battle with breast cancer, Carole’s mother and an aunt have also been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, doctors haven’t been able to link the women to any known cancer gene or explain why Carole had cancer at such a young age.
“I’ve met a lot of people (other survivors) who were so young. I was surprised,” she says. At the time, “I thought I was the only one.”
“I’ve heard some women who are scared and say they don’t want to do it (get a mammogram) because it hurts. But I’m telling you, it’s just a minute or two of hurting that can save your life.”
Just this summer, the last week of June, Michelle and husband Todd celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary with a cruise to Alaska.
“It was the best vacation we’ve ever had,” Michelle says, enthusiastically ticking off a list off the couple’s adventures: Rock climbing, sea kayaking, riding a zip line.
Aboard the ship, Michelle also performed a breast self-exam, a precautionary task she’d been through roughly once a month for years. This time, she felt a lump.
“I was not nervous or worried,” recalls Michelle, who’d had two benign fibroadenomas removed in the past. Still, the stay-at-home mom to Alex, 5, and Madeleine, 3, arranged for a mammogram as soon as she got back to Yakima.
When she was called back for a biopsy, Michelle still wasn’t worried about cancer. After all, she reasoned, she eats well and works out at least four times a week. “I feel great.”
So, it caught Michelle by surprise when she learned in July that she had a Stage II Invasive Ductal Carcinoma in her right breast. The tumor was fast-growing, but Michelle found it early, before it had spread into her lymph nodes or other tissues.
Nine days after her diagnosis, and just three weeks after she found the lump, Michelle had surgery to remove the tumor. A month later, she had a second surgery so doctors could make sure they’d removed all of the cancerous cells; test results indicated the surgeries were a success.
Dreading the sickness and hair loss caused by the cancer-fighting drugs, Michelle began chemotherapy in mid-September. She remains confident that early detection, aggressive treatment and prayers of support will help her win this battle.
“I have no doubt I’ll make it to the five-year mark,” Michelle says. “I’ve never had any doubt.”
According to the Young Survival Coalition, many young women and their doctors are unaware that they are at risk for breast cancer. Young women are often diagnosed at a later stage than their older counterparts.
The YSC encourages young women to become advocates for their own health and become educated about breast cancer. Learn more at youngsurvival.org.
— Sara Bristol
Filed under From the Mag, Health