By: Deean Yeoh
As we move away from October, we sat down to reflect on the past month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to envision what it means for several of those in our community moving forward.
Through the nature of our jobs at Amour Caché, we’ve had the pleasure of facilitating conversations with breast health educators and several breast cancer survivors. Many of the latter being young survivors who’d discovered their breast lumps through self exams or by sheer coincidence. These shared stories made it all the more surprising when we, at Amour Caché, learned that the American Cancer Society (ACS) actually advises against self-exams, and only recommends mammograms for those 40 years or older.
In an effort to continue increasing breast health awareness, we reached out to Paige Shafer, Know Your Lemons educator and breast cancer survivor. This is Paige’s story. The story of a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 and, as she puts it, “probably wouldn’t have made it to 30 if [she had followed ACS] guidelines.”
Paige Shafer captured by Lindsey
Growing up, Paige was predisposed to getting cysts. It was a hereditary condition that would cause cysts to grow in odd places - on occasion even her wrists. But the cysts always disappeared over time and never caused her any significant health problems. In any case, Paige said she’d felt like she knew what a lump was supposed to feel like when she did conduct breast self-exams.
One day, while Paige was “free-boobing” it on the couch when she noticed a lump in her breast. She decided to bring it up to her gynecologist during her next visit (4 months from when she’d discovered the lump).
September 9th, the day of her OB appointment, rolled around and Paige mentioned the lump to her doctor who then ordered an ultrasound. As the radiologist looked closer at Paige’s images, her conversationalist demure faded, leaving a trail of silence in the air. The doctor ordered a biopsy, which was performed on the same day.
Paige was told she would have her biopsy results in 7 to 10 days. She recalls tending to a patient in her dialysis clinic when she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. “I fell to my knees when I heard the news.” The receptionist who saw Paige collapse rushed to her aid, wordlessly, but intuitively, knowing the phone conversation that had just taken place.
It was one of my more somber conversations with Paige, which felt off-kilter and heartbreaking in contrast to most of our conversations, which were typically speckled with wholesome commentary and light-hearted humor. Paige’s recount marks the reality that many young survivors share, and is one of the reasons she found a sense of purpose and urgency in the Know Your Lemons campaign.
“It’s important to know your baseline,” Paige tells me when we discussed the Know Your Lemons period tracker. As menstrual cycles play a large role in the shape, feeling, and tenderness of our breasts, it’s important to conduct your breast self-exams on the same day of every month. “Oh, so that’s why they say to “feel it on the first,” I said to Paige, none the wiser.
Paige still does breast self-exams to this day because maybe “they missed a little bit of breast tissue,” and notes that her current routine is to do a full body self-exam. “I really look at my skin too. Since I’ve undergone a lot of treatments (like radiation) I’m more susceptible, and really stay intimate with my breasts, but also with my body. I’ve become really self-aware.”
In spite of the ASC, many doctors, mine and Paige’s included, continue to recommend regular breast self-exams as a way for individuals to keep a pulse on their body's baseline. The Know Your Lemons campaign has even expanded their programs to high school and college campuses to teach people how to conduct these life saving breast self-exams.
As Paige puts it, “I started chemo in September of 2019 and even then, by March 2020 it had already spread to my lymphnodes. I might not be alive today if I’d followed the ACS guidelines.”
To learn more about Paige Shafer’s story and support her small business, Titty Cat Tees, which raises money for breast cancer research organizations, visit https://www.instagram.com/tittycattees/
To learn more about Know Your Lemons and download their period tracker, visit https://knowyourlemons.org/self-exam-app