As a correspondent for NBC News for more than a decade, I've reported on countless stories. Some stand out more than others, but there is now one for which I will be forever grateful. It's a story I credit with saving my life.
It was November 2016 and I was just back from maternity leave. I was sent to Rochester, Minnesota, to interview a doctor at the Mayo Clinic for what I thought was a routine assignment. A research study from the U.K. had found that around 1 in 6 women diagnosed with breast cancer went to the doctor with a symptom other than a lump.
While lumps are still the most commonly reported symptom of breast cancer, this study identified other signs such as nipple changes, dents, dimples, pain or redness.
For the story I interviewed a woman who was diagnosed only when she insisted on a second opinion, after noticing a subtle change in the shape of her breast. It turned out she had stage 3 breast cancer.
"It's profoundly important to be aware of your breasts," Dr. Deborah Rhodes, an internist with Mayo Breast Diagnostic Clinic, told me. I remember thinking that the story would save lives.
I had no idea the life it would save would be my own.
In September this year, breast cancer was the last thing on my mind. I'm in my 40s. I'm active. I don't have a family history of anyone getting breast cancer early — and perhaps most importantly, in April I had just had a mammogram that was negative.
Then, my world was turned on its head.
On my 47th birthday, I was getting ready to meet friends when I caught a glimpse of a slight dent in my right breast. I had never noticed it before. I wasn't great about regular self exams, but this time I paid attention.
Beneath the dent, I didn't feel a lump, but something I might describe as a "thickening." It just felt different than everywhere else. I knew I needed to have it checked out, but life got busy.
The next day I was sent to cover a hurricane along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It would have been easy to put my own health aside and focus on work. My husband, however, wouldn't let me, and I couldn't get the study about unusual symptoms out of my mind.
My doctor wrote a prescription for breast screening and, in between live shots, I ran to the local hospital. With people evacuating in advance of the storm, they had an opening for a mammogram and ultrasound.
"Why not just wait until you get home?" the nurse asked. I said, "I just need to know."
Within days, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.
Since then, my life has been filled with doctor appointments, chemotherapy and, yes, tears. In my darkest moments, I ask, "Why?" though I try not to dwell on that. I have too much to do.
It is not easy to talk about, but I have always known I would share my story. Often it still feels surreal, but I know there is power in knowledge.
If I hadn't done that story, I might have ignored the change in my breast. I might have assumed a mammogram would have picked up cancer.
I have since learned they are only 87% effective and are less sensitive in women like me with dense breast tissue. I might not have gotten another mammogram for a while. I hate to admit it, but I had let years go between screenings in the past.
I try not to play the "what if" game too often, but I will say, I feel very lucky I got checked out when I did.
I recently traveled back to Rochester, Minnesota, and met up again with Rhodes. After collapsing in her arms in a puddle of tears and gratitude, we talked about what we want other women to know.
"If this story saved me, how many other women are out there that need this?" I asked. "This is more common than we appreciate."
She answered, explaining, "In almost every case of a patient who has found her own breast cancer, she will tell me a similar story ... 'I didn't exactly know what I was looking for, but when I noticed it, I knew it was important.'"
Rhodes detailed symptoms women should look for:
- A dimple
- Change to the contour of the breast
- Any discharge
- Itching and swelling
It may be nothing. Often, it is nothing. But a visit to your doctor is an easy way to make sure.
I am doing well now. I have amazing and optimistic doctors and more support than I ever knew. I have a friend, a breast cancer survivor herself, who comes to every chemo with me. My parents drive 10 hours every other week to help out and my husband has been my absolute rock.
I end 2019 full of gratitude, knowing there is a long road ahead, but hopeful that sharing my story might make a difference for someone else.