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Can fibrocystic breasts make cancer harder to detect?

Diagnosed in her early 30s with fibrocystic breasts, Rebekka never thought the breast discomfort she experienced at age 44 was cancer.

When she was initially diagnosed with fibrocystic breasts – generalized lumpiness and pain in the breasts – she followed her doctor’s guidelines for the condition and the cysts eventually went away. The discomfort reoccurred at 40, but she was again diagnosed with a cyst, which eventually went away. Because both cysts disappeared, there hasn’t been a medical consensus about when to begin annual mammograms and she felt healthy, Rebekka thought she could wait until she was 50 before scheduling regular mammograms*.  

However, the year she turned 44, she began experiencing the discomfort again. She decided to schedule an appointment at Piedmont’s Doris Shaheen Breast Health Center.

“When I went in for the diagnostic [mammogram], I wasn’t overly concerned because I thought it would be a cyst again,” she says.

The radiologist came into the exam room and told her they recommended two biopsies. She asked the physician if she suspected cancer.

“She looked at me and there was this pause in the room. She said, ‘Yes.’”

Her breast cancer diagnosis

Rebekka admits she was stunned by the diagnosis because she has no family history of cancer.

“What I found out was, only 10 percent of breast cancers are genetic,” she says.

Within 48 hours, she had a diagnosis: Stage I triple positive breast cancer, which meant it was positive for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and HER2.

She needed chemotherapy because the cancer was HER2 positive.

“I was almost more frightened of the chemo than the cancer because I knew the havoc it can wreak on your body,” she says.  

Determining the right treatment plan

Rebekka had to choose between several treatment options and credits the Doris Shaheen Breast Health Center staff as well as her surgeon Bill Barber, M.D., her oncologists Adam Nowlan, M.D., and Vasily Assikis, M.D., and their teams for helping her navigate the process.

“When I was initially diagnosed, the nurse navigators, the doctors there – it was a very professional, but also a very warm environment. I had lots of questions – they sat there and showed empathy and caring, and took their time with me to explain very complex information in a way that helped me process my diagnosis and make the right decisions that ultimately I had to make,” she says. “The entire experience with Piedmont and all the doctors, teams and nurses was really stellar.”  

Rebekka encourages other patients to be proactive in their healthcare by asking questions and serving as their own advocates when they have a health concern.  

*Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often they should get them.

Click here for more information about the Doris Shaheen Breast Health Center.

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