by Lana Jelenjev
I can still picture that day in my head like it was yesterday. The words “I’m sorry it’s breast cancer” sinking in my resistant brain. And as if on cue, the tears fell. The surgeon offered a box of tissues nearby. I should have known that the biopsy results revealed something. I didn’t pick up on that, how the box of tissues was so prominently displayed.
And I cried on my husband’s chest for what seems like the longest period when it fact it was only for a few minutes before we dived right in to what to do, when and how. Both of us, shaken, eyes red, holding each other tight.
How the rest of the day went is now a blur. But those few moments are etched in my mind so vividly. There are days when I wished it wasn’t so. But there are days that I am grateful that we got in that room in that specific moment. I cringe at the thought of “but what if I didn’t feel it? What if I didn’t know that there is this tumor growing inside of me?”
But I did know. I did know because years of attending to my mom, who died of breast cancer at the age of 49, made me aware of the importance of doing self-checks. I have been doing monthly self-checks since my early 20s. About 20% of the time, breast cancers are found by physical examination rather than by mammography. When I was diagnosed the tumor size was barely 2 cms. Think of it as less the size of the top of your two pinkie fingers. After my lumpectomy , which was a month after my diagnosis, the size was already at 2 cms. I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer with grade 3 tumor. I still shudder at the thought of a fast-growing tumor was once creating havoc inside my body and I didn’t know about it!
But I was one of the 20% who discovered the tumor by doing physical examination and from the words of my oncologist “I was lucky to discover it that early.”
That was 2 years ago. Now, after countless blood tests, a lumpectomy, 21 sessions of radiation, 11 rounds of chemotherapy, a port-a-cath surgery, and almost a month long breast infection, at 39 years of age, I am an advocate for women to do their monthly self-checks. For those who don’t know how to do that, please watch this video (you won’t regret it!)
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Cancer stage is based on four characteristics:
- the size of the cancer
- whether the cancer is invasive or non-invasive
- whether cancer is in the lymph nodes
- whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body beyond the breast
Grade is a “score” that tells you how different the cancer cells’ appearance and growth patterns are from those of normal, healthy breast cells. Your pathology report will rate the cancer on a scale from 1 to 3:
- Grade 1 or low grade (sometimes also called well differentiated): Grade 1 cancer cells look a little bit different from normal cells, and they grow in slow, well-organized patterns. Not that many cells are dividing to make new cancer cells.
- Grade 2 or intermediate/moderate grade (moderately differentiated): Grade 2 cancer cells do not look like normal cells and are growing and dividing a little faster than normal.
- Grade 3 or high grade (poorly differentiated): Grade 3 cells look very different from normal cells. They grow quickly in disorganized, irregular patterns, with many dividing to make new cancer cells.