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Young Breast Cancer Survivor Urges Women with a Family History to Get Screened

Article date: April 16, 2012

Michelle Teel

"I try to see the positives in this whole thing."

 

For most women, 40 is the recommended age to begin breast cancer screening with yearly mammograms. But Michelle Teel, 31, began thinking about screening when she turned 30. That’s because her mother, a 2-time, 20-year breast cancer survivor, was first diagnosed at age 33. Grandmothers, aunts, and cousins in Teel’s family have had cancer too. Some members of the family have found out through genetic testing that they carry a mutation in the BRCA2 gene, an inherited gene abnormality that increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

Aggressive treatment

Teel’s own cancer journey began in June 2011. Her 30th birthday had come and gone when she noticed a lump in her right breast that felt like a marble. She didn’t have health insurance, so began looking for a way to get a free mammogram. After 2 months of looking, she found the New Jersey Cancer Education and Early Detection (NJCEED) Program, which provides cancer screening services for New Jersey residents who are uninsured or under-insured and meet certain income requirements. A mammogram and biopsy confirmed the lump was cancer. Two days before Teel’s 31st birthday, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. More tests revealed that Teel had a BRCA2 mutation.

In November, Teel underwent 12 ½ hours of surgery for a double mastectomy and reconstruction of her breasts. Surgeons removed and tested 18 lymph nodes and found cancer in half of them. They classified Teel’s breast cancer as stage 3 and recommended aggressive treatment. She began chemotherapy in December 2011, and finished in April 2012. Then she started 5 weeks of radiation.

Teel experienced side effects from the chemotherapy that included nausea, fatigue, and loss of her hair, including most of her eyebrows. She attended a Look Good…Feel Better program where she learned how to use a pencil to draw them back on, which she said improved her appearance and self-image. Look Good…Feel Better is a free, national program developed by the Personal Care Products Council, in cooperation with the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association /National Cosmetology Association. It teaches hair and makeup techniques to cancer patients.

Teel recommends that women with a family history of breast cancer get screened early.

Looking on the bright side

Today, Teel’s hair is starting to grow back. She supports herself through freelance and part-time work while she looks for a full-time job. In her spare time, she performs stand-up comedy “to help keep my sanity.”

“I try to see the positives in this whole thing,” said Teel. “It makes it less weird for your friends.” She said, “My attitude is so different from everyone else who gets cancer. I just want to get it over with and get on with my life, so I turn to humor a lot. Cancer is a different experience for me because I’m used to it. My mom got it when I was 9.”

In the 1990s, Teel’s mother enrolled in a national breast cancer registry that collected data from thousands of patients and family members. Researchers use the data to study breast cancer in BRCA carriers.

Teel said, “It’s nice to know all the studies my 2-time cancer-survivor mom participated in for BRCA mutations in the 1990s are helping me now. “