TAMPA - I have some very personal news to share with you. I've spent my whole adult life in fear of getting breast cancer. I watched the disease ravage my beautiful mother. So when I was diagnosed with breast cancer about two weeks ago it literally brought me to my knees.
Coming up with what I would say to you has been a struggle for me. How much should I share? Should I share anything at all? But there are big billboards of me all over Tampa Bay asking you to watch me and Jamison at 5pm and I can't just disappear.
I'm the health reporter. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Over the last 17 years, I've asked many of you to share your stories with me, so I can't just vanish without sharing mine with you.
My mother Connie Yokum blessed me with her dark hair and eyes, her sense of humor and her love of people, but I always feared she would also pass on a genetic time bomb. I was away at college when she found the first lump. A mastectomy and chemotherapy bought her time, but eventually the cancer came back.
Despite a stem cell transplant, I watched the sun set on my mom's once magical life and the painful experience tattooed a raw fear inside me.
Over the years I've been diligent, getting mammograms, ultrasounds, MRI's, and second opinions on suspicious areas until I had finally had enough.
I was married and had children, so I took a genetic test to see if I carried the BRCA 1 or 2 genes. That's a genetic mutation passed down within families that gives you an extremely high risk of developing breast cancer.
Mine came back negative. I was so relieved the devil haunting me -- always close but never in sight -- would finally leave me alone. I was so sure I was no longer at risk I almost didn't get my annual mammogram. You know why I did? I did it for all of you. I thought of all the times as a health reporter I've begged women to go get their mammograms and here I was talking the talk but not walking the walk. So I went because I didn't want to be a hypocrite and it saved my life.
Doctor Mary Gardner, a radiologist with Florida Hospital Tampa (formerly UCH), read my mammogram.
"You have some calcifications in your left breast and the calcifications I see now are new compared to your prior mammogram," she told me.
Calcifications are common, but something caught Dr. Gardner's attention.
"Scattered all over is generally a benign distribution not associated with cancer. If they are grouped, it’s a little bit of a more interesting thing for us to look at. And yours are grouped."
A needle biopsy removed those calcifications. The pathology came back atypical hyperplasia, not even cancer.
This provided a bit of relief but my surgeon, Dr. Sylvia Campbell, knew my family history and asked if she could take more. That's when we found the ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS -- breast cancer.
Doctor Gardner said we caught it at the right time.
"This is the earliest form of breast cancer that we can find," she said.
I know I should have focused on the fact my cancer was most likely 100 percent curable. Unfortunately, all I could think about is if I'd have the courage to do what I've said I'd do if this disease ever caught up with me: remove both of my breasts.
You may think this is a little extreme, but consider this: There could be DCIS elsewhere that has not calcified yet.
After watching my mother die, now seeing the fear in my own children's eyes, I decided to only dance with this devil once.
Doctor Charles Cox, a breast surgeon affiliated with both USF Health and Florida Hospital Tampa, told me removing both of my breasts would significantly reduce my risk of relapse.
“By removing both breasts, studies have quoted that you're at least 90 percent risk free after that. In my estimation, it’s more like 98 to 99 percent."
To be perfectly honest, my decision to have Dr. Cox perform my surgery had to do with more than just getting rid of the cancer and reducing my risk.
Dr. Cox is now doing a mastectomy that leaves women looking as if they've just gone in for breast augmentation.
The outside is all you, the inside an implant, and the scar is hidden.
When I saw pictures of some of his results, I felt hope for the first time since my diagnosis.
"I think that's what were really about, providing hope, hope for the patients to get through this without it being such a devastating outcome for them emotionally, physically and spiritually," Dr. Cox said.
So now I'm leaving for four to five weeks to take action for my own health. I will be back, God willing, cancer free. If you can do one thing for me after hearing my story it would be to schedule a mammogram if you haven't had one in a while.
If you can't afford it, I've put together a web site that has some information on it about where you can get free or reduced cost mammograms in the Tampa Bay area. I've also put a number of stories up that I've done over the years like how to do a proper self breast exam. You can find that website here.
I want to take action for all of us women because were in this together. You can keep up with me on my Facebook page. I'll post when I can or when I feel up to it. Leave me a comment; share your thoughts or personal experiences. It will be like you're holding my hand all the way through this and I'd like that.
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