The North Gwinnett Voice wishes to do its part during the month of October to raise awareness of breast cancer and encourage individuals to know their bodies and be observant of changes. We encourage monthly self exams, regular physicals, including a clinical breast exam, and consistent and timely mammograms as recommended by your doctor. In fulfilling this mission to raise awareness, the NGV also spoke with three incredible women, local survivors of breast cancer, who impart wisdom and hope in their stories.
Statistics surrounding breast cancer
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, and the American Cancer Society projects more than 287,000 U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2022. It’s the most commonly occurring cancer in women across the globe.
During October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and year-round, the National Breast Cancer Foundation encourages the public to RISE — “Rally in Screening Everyone” — to ensure everyone has access to screenings, support and care. Early detection is key as breast cancer death rates declined 40% from 1989 to 2016 among women, progress attributed to improvements in early detection. Individuals are their own greatest allies against breast cancer, and learning to spot its signs and symptoms is a great first step in the fight.
Knowing your body is important. The American Cancer Society urges women to take note of how their breasts normally look and feel. That knowledge is vital because it helps women recognize when something does not look or feel good to the touch with their breasts. Screening alone may not be sufficient, as the ACS notes that mammograms do not find every breast cancer.
Being observant of signs and symptoms is key. When women are well acquainted with how their breasts look and feel, they’re in a better position to recognize any abnormalities, which may or may not be indicative of breast cancer.
Signs and symptoms of the disease
• A new lump or mass — The ACS indicates that this is the most common symptom of breast cancer. A lump or mass that is cancerous is often painless, but hard and has irregular edges. However, lumps caused by breast cancer also can be soft, round and tender. Some even cause pain.
• Swelling — Some individuals experience swelling of all or part of a breast even if they don’t detect a lump.
• Dimpling — The skin on the breast may dimple. When this occurs, the skin on the breast sometimes mimics the look of an orange peel.
• Pain — Pain on the breast or nipple could indicate breast cancer.
• Retraction — Some individuals with breast cancer experience retraction, which occurs when the nipple turns inward.
• Skin abnormalities — Breast cancer may cause the skin on the breast to redden, dry out, flake or thicken.
• Swollen lymph nodes — Some with breast cancer experience swelling of the lymph nodes under the arm or near the collarbone.
The presence of any of these symptoms merits an appointment to see a doctor.
The North Gwinnett Voice was honored to interview three local breast cancer survivors, Buford resident Katie Bowman and Sugar Hill residents Tabetha Short and Kathy Brady. Through their stories, they share their unique experiences in becoming survivors.
At 30 years old, with no family history of the disease, Buford resident Katie Bowman found a lump and knew, deep down, she had breast cancer. Now at 34, with a double mastectomy and reconstruction behind her, Katie runs a private Facebook group, North GA Young Breast Cancer Survivors, for one-of-a-kind survivors like her.
When Katie found a lump in her breast, she saw her OB/GYN — “He thought it was nothing but we ordered a mammogram.”
After Katie was diagnosed in September 2018, she immediately opted for a double mastectomy, which was followed by chemotherapy — 16 rounds over 24 weeks — and then 30 rounds of radiation.
“My tribe rallied like I could’ve never imagined,” she recalls.
From meal trains to fundraisers to pink-outs, Katie felt the support of family, friends and her community. Katie’s kids and her best friend even shaved their heads.
“Our tribe prayed for us and prayed for my kids in ways I’ll never be able to explain or extend enough gratitude for,” she says.
Two months after completing radiation, Katie underwent a prophylactic full hysterectomy.
“I was found to be BRCA1+, a gene mutation that increased my risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” Katie says. “One year after my double mastectomy, in October 2019 I started my reconstruction process and completed reconstruction in July 2020.”
Katie is still on an aromatase inhibitor and will continue to take the medication for seven years.
Her advice to anyone diagnosed with or battling breast cancer?
“Listen to your body, be your own advocate,” she says. “No one will advocate for you more than you can. Trust your gut.”
She encourages self-exams once a month and regular and consistent mammograms.
“Every single breast cancer journey is unique, no one is like the other,” Katie says. “In my opinion, our amazing community and the people in it truly made mine one of a kind.”
Diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2020 during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tabetha faced doctor’s appointments, treatments, surgery and recovery mostly alone. The 37-year-old Sugar Hill resident is now a survivor who helps raise awareness by sharing her story.
After finding a visible lump in her breast, Tabetha was diagnosed with Stage IIA IDC (Invasive Ductal Carcinoma) and DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ) in June 2020, the day of her father’s birthday. A married mom of two children, Tabetha says her family was amazingly supportive and her friends and the community rallied around her.
“From dinners, books, personal care items, endless phone calls to Zoom calls and so much more,” Tabetha says. “We are forever grateful!”
But Tabetha’s journey through treatment was unusual compared to that of most breast cancer patients.
“At the height of the pandemic, no visitors were allowed to be with me at any appointment,” Tabetha says. “I remember being taken to my room after having the cancer, 21 lymph nodes and both of my breasts removed to NO ONE. It was very hard to be alone after such a traumatic surgery.
“My treatment seemed quick when hearing others’ stories, however it was very invasive,” says Tabetha, who underwent a double mastectomy in August 2020 with expanders put in to assist with reconstruction later on. Her oncologist decided four rounds of chemotherapy in three months — once every three weeks — was best for Tabetha’s diagnosis.
“I decided to use DigniCap in an attempt to save my hair,” she says. “This took place before, during and after chemo every time. I was lucky enough to keep the majority of my hair using this method.”
In late December 2020, Tabetha had the expanders removed and underwent reconstructive surgery.
“This surgery allowed me to feel whole and like a woman again,” she says. “It’s truly amazing.”
Her advice to individuals diagnosed with or battling breast cancer?
“Stay strong, stay brave and believe that you’ll get through everything,” Tabetha says. “In the moment it’s all very hard, but the reward of Life is so worth it.”
This 70-year-old Sugar Hill resident is a 16-year breast cancer survivor who credits the support of faculty and students at Buford Middle School, where she taught for 24 years, for helping her through the journey in overcoming breast cancer and becoming a survivor.
In September 2006, Kathy received a message from her doctor’s office on her answering machine.
“I was told to call the office back and I knew there was a problem,” she recalls. “I thought it must be wrong, it must be someone else’s mammogram. When I came to the reality that I had breast cancer I was looking for an escape from reality.”
Kathy’s diagnosis was unusual; there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
“One of my doctors asked me what I was doing with breast cancer,” she remembers. “There wasn’t any explanation.”
Kathy’s treatment plan included a lumpectomy — the surgical removal of a portion or “lump” of breast tissue — the removal of three lymph nodes to ensure clean margins and 33 treatments of radiation.
“I was so blessed that I did not need chemo,” she says.
Today, Kathy imparts wisdom she gained during her experience battling breast cancer — “Face the fact that you do have breast cancer, rely on a great support system,” she says. “I am so thankful for what I call the 3FS in my life; Faith, Family, Faculty (I’m a school teacher) and the S is for my students. I was open with them the entire time.”
For those who want to support individuals facing the health challenges of breast cancer, Kathy imparts this knowledge: “I at times did not want to admit having breast cancer. When we did the Susan Komen walk I did not want to be singled out. I have met others who feel the same way. I wanted to be ‘normal.’ People need to be aware of that.
“The best thing to do,” she continued, “is to let the person know that at any time, that you will be available.”
FEATURED PHOTO: From left to right, Tabetha Short, Katie Bowman and Kathy Brady, all local breast cancer survivors, pose for a photo at Sims Lake Park. Photo by Alicia Payne.