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Paul Rhien
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Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October 18, 2018 - Cabinet Secretary - Blog

This year, to commemorate October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am turning the blog over to Dawn Hunter, NMDOH Deputy Secretary, to share a very important and personal message. 

Dawn, thank you for your commitment, dedication and fortitude!

It was a Saturday night.  I was lying in bed, reading my Kindle, and doing a breast self-exam, when I felt a small, hard lump.  I was startled and alarmed.  I wasn’t expecting to find anything, and this felt different than anything I have ever felt in my breast before.  A million thoughts raced through my mind, but mostly I thought --- what if it’s cancer?  Well, turns out it was.  The worst part, for me at least, is that you spend the first couple of weeks after being diagnosed not really knowing a whole lot, other than that you have cancer, and it takes numerous tests and follow-up visits before you know exactly what you’re dealing with.  Even then, it is often months before you are truly done with everything, let alone be able to say you are cancer-free.

I have struggled with the idea of being open about my experience, mostly because I am still very much in it.  I recently finished radiation, and just started a long-term hormonal therapy to reduce the risk of recurrence.  Recurrence is a hard thing to think about – you are having conversations with your doctor about the probability of being alive in 5 years, and there are no guarantees, no matter what treatment you choose.   My prognosis is very good, though, largely because I found the cancer early.  In fact, I share this story because the mammogram I had after finding the lump was unremarkable, and if I hadn’t been able to feel it, it could have gone undetected much longer.

This month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I think of the more than 250,000 women who will also be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.  I think of the huge disparity in breast cancer mortality that exists for Black women.  I think of the just over 11,000 women who will be diagnosed under the age of 40.  Did you know that research shows that many young women with early stage breast cancer often have worse long-term outcomes?  Lots of factors affect any single woman’s experience, including: stage at diagnosis; weight and other risk factors; tumor characteristics; access to care and treatment; and adherence to treatment.  I also think a lot about cost.  I had a $350 copay for just one ultrasound.  I understand that some women opt out of screening because of the cost.  Thankfully, there are programs like the NMDOH Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program.  Also: research matters.  I am grateful to the more than 10,000 women worldwide who participated in the The TAILORx Breast Cancer Trial study, the results of which were released this year.  This study helped inform an important treatment decision for me, and countless other women who are newly diagnosed.

I never thought I would have breast cancer at the age of 40 even though I have a strong family history of breast cancer; my mom, an aunt, and a grandmother are all survivors.  That’s why I started having mammograms regularly at age 35 and conducting regular self-exams.  I credit good self-care with my good outlook now.  However, I also think more about the ways I can be better to my body, from exercise, to nutrition, to the beauty products I use every day, and ways I can be better to the world around me, even just by making more conscious choices.

Over the past few months, I have learned that my tumor could have been growing for 1-2 years.  In fact, one study I read showed that a tumor with the same characteristics as mine takes 1 year to grow an average of 10 mm.  I think back on the year prior to being diagnosed, a year I had cancer and didn’t know it, and I wonder if I would have done anything differently.  I often hope that it doesn’t take cancer to make anyone think about how to live their best life, and to be kind, to others as well as to self.  I share my story because I hope that you will think about living your best life every day and get your recommended screenings. Preventive care is one way to ensure you are on the right track with your health.  This month, take a few minutes to do a breast self-exam, and encourage the women in your life to do the same.

My three tips to remember about breast cancer:

  1. Minorities are disproportionately impacted by breast cancer, and men can get breast cancer, too
  2. Lifestyle matters –  before and after diagnosis
  3. Don’t be afraid to get screened

If you are unsure how to do your breast self-exam or want to know more about breast cancer awareness or to contribute to any program that helps bring attention to eradicating breast cancer and all other cancers that impact too many in New Mexico and nationally, I share below a few websites that I found helpful during my journey through cancer. I hope my story empowers you to make a change toward a healthier you.

Additional Resources

Versión en Español

En un esfuerzo para hacer que nuestros comunicados de prensa sean más accesibles, también tenemos disponibles una versión en español. Por favor presione el enlace de abajo para acceder a la traducción.

Mes de Conciencia del Cáncer de Seno