Often times, our good health is something that we take for granted until we have reason to be concerned or receive news that something has changed for the worse. As we made our plan to promote the importance of proactively understanding and maintaining our health with our partner Bright Pink® during Ovarian and Breast Cancer Awareness months, our very own Vice President of Product Development offered to share her personal journey with breast cancer. Below Kristin Firrell shares how self-examination, routine screening and early detection has helped save her life.
I have always been very responsible with my health╌I saw my doctors when they sent reminders to book an appointment for annual check-ups, never missed an annual mammogram after the age it was recommended (40) and regularly conducted self-examinations. But it wasn’t until I found a lump in my breast that I truly realized the importance of proactively pursuing and maintaining my good health╌a message our partner Bright Pink® proudly delivers and one that I gladly support.
In July of 2006, a period of high-stress in my life, I found a lump and immediately made an appointment for a mammogram. Incidentally, I had my regularly scheduled mammogram in January of that same year and nothing had been detected. The lump had grown very rapidly in just 6 short months. A call back led to an ultrasound, then an incisional biopsy followed by an excisional biopsy╌procedures and medical terminology I had never heard before, let alone experienced. Following the excisional biopsy, the doctor explained that they found a rare, malignant Phyllodes tumor. Stunned, yet ultimately grateful for early detection, I underwent another surgical procedure to create what they call "a margin", removing all of the tissue surrounding the area where the tumor had been located. Blessedly, the cancer was fully contained within the excised tumor and had not spread to the surrounding tissue. Whilst the diagnosis and surgeries were extremely emotional times for me and my family, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I did not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation at that time. Those are the cancer treatments that knock you off your feet in a whole different way.
After my successful surgeries, I religiously scheduled mammograms every six months for the following three years, to ensure I remained cancer-free, and of course annually since then. If there is one lesson I learned during my journey, it was the importance of knowing your body, knowing what’s normal and knowing when something is wrong. During this time, the importance of prevention, self-examinations and early detection became crystal clear. I often thought to myself, "We live in these bodies and yet we know so little about them!" Through regular self-examination and screening you realize right away when something is new or different and can treat it early.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I also learned from experience that sometimes self-examination is not enough and that annual screening is a life-saving test that should never be skipped. In late 2014, during a routine mammogram, a radiologist identified an abnormality deep in my breast, an area that I never would have been able to find or locate with self-examination. Following another few rounds of ultrasound, MRI and biopsies I received the news of a second cancer diagnosis located in the Mammary Duct itself. I considered a few options for fighting the cancer, but ultimately chose to undergo a mastectomy. Now, after multiple surgeries, countless doctor visits, infections and healing issues, hundreds of bandages changes and a ride on an extreme emotional roller coaster, every day I am grateful for the skill and ability of the medical professionals at UCLA and the early detection of this diagnosis.
When we’re equipped with knowledge about our bodies, our family history and our risk for developing breast or ovarian cancer, we are better able to manage our health. A dear friend of mine is currently battling breast cancer and going through the ringer: double mastectomy, chemotherapy, the inevitable loss of hair, radiation and countless painful physical symptoms that have disrupted every aspect of her daily life, making even the simplest tasks arduous. Breast cancer runs in her family and she found out through her journey that she has the gene linked to higher rates of breast cancer, so her diagnosis was nearly inevitable. These tests and the ability to assess your individual risk of developing cancer are what make me feel so strongly about supporting Bright Pink’s message of prevention and early-detection. While my friend and I have bound together to create an unbreakable support system╌daily texts, sharing inspirational quotes and consoling each other through our shared pain╌I wish every day that she had better understood her risk factors earlier on so she wouldn’t be subjected to so much discomfort.
When asked what I would share if my words could spare my daughter and other women from knowing this same challenging journey, I offer this:
- Know your body and know it all the time. Constantly check your body against what you know to be normal and be empowered to speak up with something isn’t right. Be religious about scheduling mammograms and other recommended screening procedures.
- Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge that is available to you to Assess Your Risk for developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. Know your family history and whether you have the gene that may lead to a cancer diagnosis, so that you can maintain your good health rather than battle poor health.
- There is great medical technology available so ask questions, seek multiple opinions and choose to see highly-rated doctors. My diagnosis in 2014 may not have been made if it hadn’t been for the amazing technology and knowledgeable staff at UCLA. Be careful of internet searches. Just because it’s on the web doesn’t mean it is accurate!
- Love yourself, be grateful for your gifts and surround yourself with positive, caring people.
Every day I am deeply grateful for the love and support of my husband, daughter, family, friends and the Paul Mitchell extended family who have all been here for me every step of the way on this journey with breast cancer. This experience is certainly not one that I’d like to have again, but I am thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and am now able to share with a larger community. Know your body and know it all the time; this is the key to proactively maintaining your health!