Too Young For Breast Cancer?

Maile Feuerman was under the recommended age for a mammogram screening when her cancer was found. Fortunately, she was vigilant in other ways.

In August 2013, Feuerman was getting ready for a friend’s wedding and noticed something strange. “I lifted up my arm to put on deodorant, and my armpit was protruding,” she explained. “It was swollen.”

A former medical assistant, Feuerman knew not to ignore things like this. She called a friend, Cassandra Kennedy, MD, who is a general surgeon at Redwood Memorial Hospital. Dr. Kennedy recommended an ultrasound of her armpit and a breast exam. Both were inconclusive.

“No one could feel anything,” said Feuerman. “So they decided to recheck everything in six to ten weeks and watch for changes in the meantime.”

This wasn’t a hard assignment for Feuerman. “I’m always doing breast exams because I work out a lot and I’m always sore,” she said. Then one morning several weeks later, she felt it.

“All of a sudden, there it was,” Feuerman said. “There was a breast mass.”

Not Worrying Until You Have To

Still, Feuerman wasn’t too alarmed. “As a woman, often you feel something weird and it goes away with your menstrual cycle,” she said.

Unfortunately, the lump didn’t go away. So Dr. Kennedy ordered an ultrasound on Feuerman’s breast, a second ultrasound on her armpit, and a mammogram. Because of her young age, Feuerman hadn’t had the chance to get regular mammograms. At 38, she was outside the screening guidelines of both the American Cancer Society, which recommends mammograms starting at age 40, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which advocates them starting at age 50.

Over the next week, Feuerman also underwent a CT scan of her abdomen, pelvis and chest as well as a biopsy of her breast and armpit. A day and a half after the biopsy, she learned she had breast cancer.

“It was invasive ductal carcinoma,” Feuerman said. “Since it was in the lymph nodes, it was stage 3 breast cancer.”

Getting Through Treatment

Feuerman underwent six rounds of chemotherapy in conjunction with 18 rounds of a medication called Herceptin.

“I started chemotherapy in December 2013 and I finished in December 2014,” she said. She also had radiation, as well as a lumpectomy and axillary dissection (surgery on the lymph nodes in the armpit). Feuerman’s surgery was done at Redwood Memorial and her chemotherapy and radiation took place at St. Joseph Hospital.

How did she get through it? Feuerman credited two consistent behaviors. First, she continued to exercise. “I walked every day that I could during chemo,” she said. “I think that definitely helps mentally and physically, because you feel like you’re doing something to stay healthy.”

Second, she accepted help from others, both close friends as well as casual acquaintances. “I just realized during this time that I really needed to rest and get better,” she explained. “There’s not that much people can do for you, but they can give your kids a ride to school, they can make you a meal, and they can come over and keep you company. Just give into that and accept the help.”

Preventing Cancer’s Return

These days, Feuerman is doing everything she can to prioritize her wellness and make it difficult for the cancer to come back.

She has a list of healthy habits, and she aims to do five of them each day. (A few examples are drinking a cup of green tea, eating a low-fat lunch, taking a time out to rest, taking a bath with aromatherapy oils, and reading a book). “I just try to do things that will help my immune system so that hopefully the cancer will not come back.”

She also gets a monthly injection to suppress her ovaries and a daily pill that stops her body from converting hormones into estrogen. “It’s all to make sure that I have as little estrogen as possible so it will not fuel my breast cancer,” she explained.

When she was deciding whether or not to undergo the ovarian suppression, Feuerman consulted a physician at Stanford for a second opinion, who gave her reassuring news. “The first thing he told me was, ‘You had excellent care, they did everything perfectly, and I wouldn’t have done anything different,’” she said.

Now, Feuerman said she feels pretty good most of the time but acknowledged that she and her family are still processing the experience. Feuerman and her husband, Neal, an anesthesiologist at Redwood Memorial, have two children, Claudia, 12, and Brian, 10.

This summer the family took a trip to Mexico and another to San Francisco to see a Giants game and a Taylor Swift concert. Then in the fall, Feuerman and Neal will travel to Paris to celebrate her 40th birthday. “That’s my post-cancer trip,” she said. “I can hardly wait.”

Mammograms Help Save Lives

Early detection is your best defense against breast cancer. If you are a woman 40 or older and have not had your annual breast exam, request an appointment today by calling St. Joseph's Outpatient Imaging Center: (707) 269-4240.

Cancer Care Close To Home

St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial Hospitals bring together cancer services extending beyond the traditional doctor-patient relationship. Our cancer services start with a range of screening options for early detection and extend through personalized treatment following diagnosis — enabling you to take charge of your health. For more information about our cancer program, please call (707) 269-4242. Read more about St. Joseph Hospital and Redwood Memorial Hospital.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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