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Everything you need is already within you: The importance of being your own health advocate

Alyssa Kitlas | October 31, 2017

Alyssa (second from right) with friends helping cut her hair.

It all started in a chaturanga. A chaturanga is not my favorite yoga pose to begin with, but since I was practicing yoga three to five times a week, I knew this pain I suddenly felt in my right breast wasn’t supposed to happen. I waited a few weeks before going to my doctor, thinking I had pulled a muscle, but every time I slept on my stomach or was in a push up position in yoga class, I felt the same sharp pain.

I went to my doctor and she assured me that I was “too young for cancer,” and even if I wasn’t, “cancer doesn’t cause pain.” I insisted something was wrong and we should do a test, just to be safe. I mean, I had health insurance that would cover it, so what was the harm? My ultrasound indicated I had a fibroadenoma, a benign tumor in the breast, which the pathologist assured me is completely normal in women my age. She decided that since I was symptomatic, we should go ahead with a biopsy. Right before I got the biopsy, a different pathologist asked me if I was sure we should do this, since cancer was so unlikely―I had no family history and there wasn’t a lump. I asked her if we could go ahead anyway, since we were already there—her with the needle, me with my shirt off.

A week later when the results came in, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer, at the age of 29. The diagnosis came with a flood of emotions such as fear, anxiety and stress, but also relief. I knew something was wrong and I pushed my health care providers, who were hesitant and doubtful, to test it.

In 2017, approximately 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed, and 26,393 will be in people under the age of 45. Even though that is less than 10 percent of all new breast cancer cases, young women generally face more aggressive forms of breast cancer and have lower survival rates. They also face a number of unique challenges, such as financial instability, fertility issues, anxiety, depression, loss of work and early menopause. Several health inequities exist: young African-American women under the age of 35 have rates of breast cancer two times higher than Caucasian women of the same age and are three times more likely to die from it.

The Prevent Cancer Foundation® recommends annual mammograms for women beginning at age 40. For women of average risk in their 20s and 30s, they recommend a clinical breast exam (CBE) at least once every three years. For most young women, though, the most important factor is knowing your own body. Most of the other young adult cancer survivors I know have similar stories of trying to convince people that something was wrong. Unfortunately, too many of their stories include metastasis or worse health outcomes than they would have had if their cancers were detected earlier.  

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, make sure the women in your life are up-to-date on their breast cancer screenings AND remind them that, although screening guidelines are important, it is critical to listen to your body and be your own advocate. One of my favorite yoga philosophies is “everything you need is already within you,” and my cancer self-discovery taught me that this couldn’t be more true. We know our bodies more than anyone else, and sometimes we have to trust ourselves and advocate for our needs, even if our doctors have doubts.

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