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How One Runner Discovered Her Own Breast Cancer

Learn how intuition helped one runner discover her own breast cancer—and what you should do to arm yourself for early detection.

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breast cancer

Heather Cantore was only 38 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a mom of two young children, the runner was otherwise healthy. The radiology technologist in San Diego was no stranger to breast imaging—but with no family history and being two years younger than the recommended age for routine mammograms, she had never been screened.

After discovering an unusual lump in her right breast, Cantore chalked it up to hormonal changes; she had recently started a new birth-control regimen. A nagging voice in the back of her mind told her breasts are typically symmetrical, meaning the tissue on the right should be similar to the tissue on the left. Still, she quieted the suspicion and decided to continue self-exams while her body adjusted to the medicine.

RELATED: Two Years Later, Here Are 10 Ways Breast Cancer Changed Me

Six months and several different brands of the pill later, she stopped taking the prescription. However, the lump in her right breast remained.

Noting that breast tissue is typically dense for women her age, a nurse practitioner told Cantore she didn’t think a mammogram was necessary. But Cantore pushed and asked for a baseline mammogram. When the nurse declined her request, Cantore thought she might be concerned with limiting exposure to radioactive waves. Not wanting to give up, Cantore asked for an ultrasound (which is radiation- free). Thankfully the nurse complied.

Three days later, Cantore’s worst suspicions were confirmed. She was immediately referred to have a mammogram and then an ultrasound biopsy. Her eventual diagnosis revealed she had invasive carcinoma in her right breast, meaning the cancer cells were no longer encapsulated or contained.

Not wanting to deal with the anxiety of wondering whether she would later develop cancer in her left breast, Cantore opted for a bilateral mastectomy. Her surgeon removed all of her breast tissue and 12 lymph nodes while inserting expanders for a future augmentation.

RELATED: The 4 Steps To Restructuring Life After Breast Cancer

She also endured four months of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiation. Nearly a year after the initial surgery, Cantore received breast augmentation and nipple tattooing to complete the procedure.

Now 42, the survivor hopes sharing her story will inspire women to trust their guts when it comes to their healthcare. And if she’s able to help one woman achieve early detection, then Cantore believes her experience was well worth the fight.

Tips for Max Support

1. Always Examine
Don’t be shy: Self-exams save lives! Cantore recommends getting to know your breasts by performing a self-exam at least once a month. Premenopausal women should avoid the week before and during your period, since breast inflammation can occur at this time. The week following your cycle is usually best—and don’t forget the tissue should typically be symmetrical.

2. Know the Test Options
For initial screenings, there are three types of tests: mammogram, ultrasound and MRI. Because an MRI isn’t often covered by insurance, the first two are more common. If you’re concerned with limiting your exposure to radiation, go for the ultrasound—but know that you’ll come into contact with more waves on an airplane than you do during a mammogram. Whatever you and your doctor choose to pursue, don’t let fear override your health.

3. Be Your Own Advocate!
Whether you want to establish a baseline for your breast health or you have already been diagnosed with cancer, stand up for yourself. Cantore believes that she discovered her cancer early because she wasn’t afraid to ask questions. If your intuition tells you something is wrong and you feel like your doctor isn’t listening, find a doctor who will. It’s important to have a medical team you trust to avoid the chance of second-guessing your decisions later.