Lisa Stowe has a message: Regular breast self-exams save lives. So, she says, does trusting your gut and speaking up when something's wrong.
Stowe is living proof.
Flash back to July 4, 2006. Stowe, then 35, was showering and did her monthly breast exam. On the side of her right breast almost under her arm, was "a little bump, the size of a pea."
Stowe has no family history of breast cancer. "So I took a deep breath and didn't panic," she says. But the next month when that "pea" was still there, she saw her physician.
Stowe and her doctor have "a good relationship. We always have," Stowe says. "I can talk openly to him." After examining her, he told her he wasn't worried. "I am," said Stowe, who asked what the next step would be if he were worried.
It was a question she would ask more than once.
A mammogram, he said. So she asked for a mammogram. When the mammogram didn't show the lump, she asked for an ultrasound.
Stowe says that after seeing the results, her physician told her there was "something there" but it was little and he still wasn't worried. "I am," Stowe said. Told the next step was to see a surgeon, she asked for a referral to Yakima. It was September when the surgeon called to say he had reviewed the films with a radiologist. He wasn't concerned at that point, he said, but wanted to see her in six months.
"What if I told you it was two and a half inches long and an inch and a half wide?" she asked. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said.
"The next day I sat in his office and he looked me right in the eye and said I did the right thing by speaking up and not waiting six months," Stowe says. He scheduled a biopsy. Stowe knew the technician couldn't share results. But Stowe remembers what she said: "I know you know what's going on. Continue to trust your gut."
On Oct. 3, Stowe learned she had an aggressive, rapidly spreading form of breast cancer. "We need to move," the surgeon said. An oncologist echoed that same urgency. Both feared Stowe's cancer may have spread. Before they could operate she needed a PET scan (a full body scan) to see if her cancer had metastasized.
The procedure is expensive. When the insurance company dragged its feet, Stowe pushed for approval. "I told them, 'I have an aggressive cancer, need surgery but can't have it until I have a PET scan. I need a scan NOW," she says.
She got it. Friday the 13th, the day she learned her results, proved lucky. The cancer hadn't spread. The following Monday Stowe had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and, as a precaution, doctors also removed 26 lymph nodes. All but the two contained in the tumor were clear.
Six rounds of chemo followed, then 35 rounds of radiation. "They did the full court press on me," says Stowe who is on tamoxifen, a hormone therapy drug prescribed to prevent a recurrence.
Stowe says her experience shows why breast self exams and self advocacy, whatever your medical concerns, are both vital.
"Doctors can say what they want but you're the one who walks around in your body every day," she says. "You know when something is wrong. Listen to our body. Being an advocate for yourself is important. If something doesn't feel right speak up. Don't let anybody tell you, 'Oh, it's nothing.'"