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NBC's Kristen Dahlgren shares the unusual breast cancer symptom she nearly missed

NBC's Kristen Dahlgren shares the unusual breast cancer symptom she almost ignored.

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 2019, 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."

Correspondent Kristen Dahlgren
It still feels surreal, but I have always known I would share my story.Courtesy \ Kristen Dahlgren

Within days, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

Over the past year, 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.

Last year, 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.

Correspondent Kristen Dahlgren
In between live shots in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, I ran to the local hospital for a mammogram and breast ultrasound. Courtesy \ Kristen Dahlgren

"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
  • Redness
  • Itching and swelling

It may be nothing. Often, it is nothing. But a visit to your doctor is an easy way to make sure. Doctors I have talked to recently stress, with all the precautions being taken, it is safe to seek medical care. By some estimates there will be tens of thousands of additional cancer deaths due to delays in treatment and routine screenings because of COVID-19.

Today, I am doing well. In late April 2020, I celebrated being cancer-free after eight rounds of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation. Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about my cancer returning. As one doctor put it, “a headache is never just a headache, after cancer.” Indeed, every ache and pain can bring anxiety that my cancer has returned, but I try not to dwell on the fear.

Exactly one year after I first found my cancer… I went waterskiing. It’s something I thought I would never be able to do again, but cancer hasn’t taken as much as I once feared. I enjoy every second with my family, including my 4-year-old daughter, who always made me laugh through the toughest times when she pointed out "the other bald guys" we would see when we were out.

My hair is coming back in a mess of unkempt chemo and quarantine curls. I hope to never spend another second worried about how it looks. I have too many important things to focus on, and I know I am one of the lucky ones. I am grateful every day, and I never forget those who are not as lucky in this fight. It’s why I will continue to talk about things that aren’t always easy, but are so important to share. If I can help one person get diagnosed early enough to save their life, it is all worth it.

My journey is by no means over. There are still surgeries and hormone treatments ahead, but I know I am not going through any of it alone. Your notes and words of encouragement have meant the world to me over the past year, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

This story was originally published in December 2019.