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Breast Self-Exam ‘Basically Saved My Life’

October 21, 2022 Posted in: Patients & Providers , Cancer Care , Women's Care  2 minute read time


Emily May has been steadfast in her monthly self-exams since she was 27 years old. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in 2005 at age 41. Emily, who works as a supervisor of oncology support services at CHI Saint Joseph Health – Cancer Care Center, also had been doing the high risk screening mammography and MRIs.

Her scan last August was clear, as were her follow-up in November.

But earlier this year, Emily, 35, who was nine months pregnant at the time, found a lump in her left breast. 

“It just didn’t sit right with me,” she said.

So she went into the cancer care center for a mammogram ultrasound. A biopsy followed shortly thereafter.

The diagnosis on May 31 was not good – triple negative cancer – but the response and treatment were quick.

Emily's Treatment Plan

Emily gave birth to her son, Bennett, on June 7. She had a treatment port placed on June 17 and began what would be 16 chemotherapy treatments on June 21, just three weeks after diagnosis.

“You hear some places that it takes time to get treatment started,” she said. “We just don’t do that here.”

That’s important, since, Emily says, “the hardest part was waiting from that initial ‘you have cancer’ conversation to a game plan. You have all these things floating through your mind.”

Her baby’s birth was imminent, but Emily sometimes forgot that she was having a baby in that brief timeframe – about a week – that the “game plan” was being developed.

“You start thinking, ‘what do I need to do to survive?’” she said. “What do I need to do to make sure my family is taken care of.” In addition to Bennett, Emily and her husband Zack have another son, Harrison, 3.

Emily May with her family
Emily May and Dr. Croley at Yes, Mamm! 5K

Support System

Her support systems at both work and home have been a godsend. Twelve treatments in, she said the biggest side effect has been the fatigue from the treatments. She has had use of the cold cap therapy made possible through the Saint Joseph Hospital Foundation and still has a full head of hair.

With her mother’s cancer, Emily and several female family members underwent genetic counseling. Her sister, aunts and cousin all tested positive for the BRCA gene, which can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Emily did not test positive for the gene, though she was positive for another genetic mutation that causes breast cancer.

That knowledge is powerful, but Emily credits her persistent habit of self-exams for finding the cancer early.

“If I had just relied on imaging, I wouldn’t have caught it for a while,” she said. “Check your breast. Get used to what is normal for you. If you feel any difference, no matter what, big or small, get it checked out. I could have dismissed what was going on with me as part of my pregnancy.”

“One simple screening can save your life, and it doesn’t take that long to do,” she said. “Self-exams basically saved my life.”

How to do a Self-Exam

  • Begin with a visual inspection; stand in front of a mirror to check for any changes. Start with your arms at your side then raise your arms and check for any change in shape, swelling, dimpling in the skin or changes in the nipple. Be sure to check both breasts.
  • While standing, use the pads of three middle fingers on opposite hand to do manual inspection of each breast. Be sure to press on every part of your breast using light, then medium, then firm pressure. Feel for any lumps or changes. Also check the tissue under your arms.
  • Also conduct an exam of each breast while laying down, using the same technique as in the previous step.


Learn more about breast health and self-breast exams

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