How I Found My Cancer

Cancer is a terrifying disease for many reasons, one of which is that it can be hidden in plain sight. The National Institutes of Health report there are hundreds of different types of cancer, meaning there are hundreds of different types of symptoms, too.

We talked to 11 cancer survivors about the strange (and strangely normal) ways they discovered their diseases and what they recommend you look for. The moral of all these stories is clear: You know your body best, so if anything feels off, get it checked out immediately.
My dental hygienist found my cancer during a routine tooth cleaning
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“‘Hey, how long have you had this bump on the roof of your mouth?’ the dental hygienist asked as she cleaned my teeth. ‘What bump?’ I asked. I hadn’t noticed it, but it was a good thing she did as they sent me to an oral surgeon who diagnosed me with PLGA, which stands for polymorphic low-grade adenocarcinoma. (A warning to other women: I learned that this, and some other types of oral cancers, can be caused by HPV, an incredibly common sexually-transmitted disease, so make sure you’re always practicing safe sex.)

“I had to have surgery to remove all of my soft palate and half of my hard palate. Basically, if you were to look at your mouth in the mirror, it would be everything from just in back of your teeth on one side gone, and everything at the back of your mouth including your uvula (that little hangy-down thing). I now wear a prosthetic device that hooks to my teeth and covers the hole left by surgery so I can eat and speak normally.

“My message? Don’t skip your biannual tooth cleanings! Dental hygienists are your first line of defense as they’ve been trained to spot oral cancers and pre-cancerous conditions. Mine literally saved my life!” —Jo Adams, 40, Dallas, TX

I Thought I Spilled On My Shirt But It Was My Breast Leaking Green Fluid
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“When I was 34, I thought I had spilled something on my shirt. That night as I changed out of my clothes, I had to peel off my shirt as it stuck to my skin. I finally realized that it wasn’t me spilling something but that I was leaking a green fluid from my nipple. I felt fine and tried to ignore the leaking. When I finally did see my doctor three months later, she gently chastised me for waiting so long to be seen. She then pulled out her personal cell phone and called the best surgeon in town. They made an appointment for me to be seen first thing the next morning in his office. We did a battery of tests and I was eventually diagnosed with DCIS (‘ductal carcinoma in situ’).

“At the time, I didn’t even realize—or want to realize—that my surgeon told me I had cancer. I remember the hospital staffer crying with me as we filled out paperwork for my next surgery. Cancer makes you face your mortality. It makes the big things really important and the little things hardly exist. My kids were constantly on my mind. I had to have strength and I was determined to be there for them. Yet, as a realist, I also planned my funeral with my husband as pillow talk. I felt a need to be kinder and more patient with others.

“I had a partial mastectomy, seven weeks of localized radiation, and took medication for almost four years. I am currently cancer-free, but statistically I am now more likely to get the same cancer again bi-laterally (i.e., on the other side) or to grow another type of cancer. That’s a heavy burden to bear.

“I want other women to know that when it comes to breast cancer, there’s no such thing as ‘too young.’ Listen to your body. If you suspect something—or if you have green stuff leaking out your nipples—get checked sooner than later!” —Meghan Hall, 38, Ridgecrest, CA

Related: 4 Signs of Breast Cancer That You’ve Never Heard of Before

I Thought My Knee Pain Was From Ballet But It Was a Tumor
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“I was a ballerina all my life. When I was 16, my knee started to feel brittle and I assumed it was from overuse. I had flown to a special dance class in Salt Lake City and ended up having to sit it out, icing my knee and watching the class, as I was in so much pain. A quick trip to a doctor there got me a diagnosis of a cyst. But two months later, my knee was growing and getting worse, and within a week of going to an orthopedic surgeon I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and getting chemoherapy. It was such a shock going from an athlete to cancer patient virtually overnight.

“I endured a year of chemo and a limb-salvage surgery. I’ve now been cancer-free for eight years, and I’ve started a support website and Instagram to help others with cancer who are struggling in their survivorship.” —Sofia Holub, 24, Denver, CO

(Kick-start your new, healthy routine with Women’s Health’s 12-Week Total-Body Transformation!)

I Was Inspired By Angelina Jolie To Get Genetic Testing Done
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“I’ve always felt a little connection with Angelina Jolie as both of us lost our mothers to ovarian cancer. So when she went public with her cancer gene test results and prophylactic surgeries to have her breasts and ovaries removed, I asked my doctor about getting the same test. She said, ‘Yeah, only rich people can get those tests.’ When the Affordable Care Act was passed, I discovered that I was covered so I immediately had genetic cancer testing and found out I too have BRCA1, one of the genes associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, just like Angelina. Because of this, I went through intense screenings all summer and decided to have my ovaries removed as a precaution last August.

“Even still, in November I had a second breast MRI and found a tiny spot on my left breast. It was so small it would not have been detectable by a mammogram or manual exam. I was biopsied, and it was cancer. I have now been diagnosed with stage 1, grade 3, invasive ductal carcinoma triple-negative breast cancer.

“A lot of people think that Obamacare is only about insurance, but there are also other things it mandated, including genetic testing as preventive care. Without it I would not know I have the cancer gene, much less actual cancer. Thankfully now I’m getting treatment and my prognosis is good.” —Garian Vigil, 47, Boulder, CO

I found out I was pregnant and had cancer at the same time
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“Last September, I noticed a spot on my stomach that had changed from light brown to black, but being young I wasn’t too worried about it. I did make an appointment to get it checked out though and was shocked to learn it was stage 1b melanoma. I was shocked because I don’t tan, and that part of my stomach is never exposed to sunlight. They referred me to the Cancer Center at Stanford Hospital and scheduled me for surgery right away. It was then I got the next biggest surprise of my life—they discovered I was also pregnant. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. There was never a thought in my mind about giving up this blessing so I decided to go ahead with the cancer surgery and do my best to keep the pregnancy. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful surgeon who got us all through this even though she had to operate so close to my little girl in the womb. Thankfully, she successfully removed all the cancer and I made a complete recovery.

“Now I tell everyone how important sunscreen is. No matter how busy you are please always take that extra five minutes and put it on. I used to laugh when my grandma would remind me to wear it, but there is nothing funny about skin cancer.” —Hilary Shepard, 38, Aptos, CA

Related: 5 Women Reveal The Surprising Ways They Learned They Were Pregnant

A Blood Clot Saved My Life
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“A couple of weeks before my 28th birthday, I noticed something that looked like a big, red bruise on my calf, except it didn’t change color over time. After five days it still hadn’t gone away so I called the hospital health line, and they told me to get to the ER as fast as possible because I could be at risk of an embolism (when a blood clot dislodges and moves up to the heart or lungs). At the ER, my resting heart rate was 150 so they rushed me in. They scanned my chest for the embolism but instead discovered a tumor as big as a large mango pressing up against my heart. I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it had already spread to my lungs. The blood clot in my leg ended up being nothing of concern, only a small clot in a superficial varicose vein, but the tumor could have killed me and I didn’t even know it was there.

“In hindsight, I was really tired and easily out of breath when doing exercise but I chalked it up to being out of shape and the stress of a new job and house. Thankfully, the blood clot got my attention because there really isn’t a good way to check for the type of tumor I have.

“Being told you have stage 4 cancer at 28 is a bad surprise I would not wish on anyone. Facing my own mortality daily is not what I had planned, but life rarely goes as planned. Fortunately, I got good treatment and have now been in remission for almost two years. Now I tell everyone to listen to their gut. You know your body, and if you feel something is not right—a lump, a pain, intense fatigue—get it checked out.” —Nathalie Sempels, 30, Quebec, Canada

Watch a hot doctor explain why that stubborn bruise won’t heal:​

I Thought I Was Choking On Food But It Was Actually a Thyroid Tumor
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“One day out of the blue, I had a choking fit. One minute I was sitting there normally, the next I started choking really violently, to the point where I was struggling to breathe and my young son was crying with panic. I’d been feeling poorly for quite a while but as a single mom, it can be hard to prioritize my health. But the choking incident made me realize something wasn’t right and I made an appointment to see a doctor. Three weeks later, the doc diagnosed both me and my son with celiac disease and me with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a disease of the thyroid gland. I went in to a specialist to have my thyroid scanned and that was when they found the cancer. It was papillary thyroid carcinoma.

“It was so surreal getting three huge diagnoses like that in the span of just a few days. I went through a lot of emotions at that time; I was terrified of dying but I also didn’t want to scare my son so I did my best to keep it together. I ended up having surgery to remove my thyroid completely. Almost two years out and I am now getting the hang of my ‘new body.’ I have to take thyroid medication for the rest of my life, but I have a great practitioner who is working with me to heal all my symptoms and I’m feeling better now than I have in years.” —Lesley Beshaw, 37, Queensland, Australia

Related: The Symptoms Of Colon Cancer That Every Young Woman Should Know

I Almost Passed Out From a HUG
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“When I was 26 years old, I started to notice some changes in my breasts but I figured they were side effects of a new birth control pill I’d just started. But then I started having pain in my right breast and one day, when my husband hugged me, I almost passed out from the pain. I knew that kind of pain from a simple hug wasn’t normal so I made an appointment to see my doctor. She did an exam and told me that I had an infection and that I didn’t have to worry as it was for sure not breast cancer. But, since I have a family history of breast cancer, she said I should cover all the bases and get a mammogram done anyhow.

“During the next two weeks, I would be told many times, by many professionals, that I was too young to have cancer. One doctor actually cancelled my mammogram because he thought it was a wrong order because of my age. In the meantime, the antibiotics did help the infection and I started to feel a bit better. But as the infection started to go away I began to feel a huge lump. Then I finally got my mammogram done and I knew something was up when the tech got really quiet. The next day, I had a biopsy and 72 hours after that, I had an official diagnosis of breast cancer.

“As the cancer had already spread, I had to have six surgeries and six chemotherapy treatments, but I recovered well and have now been in remission for over a decade. I still have some residual pain from the chemo, but every day I’m just so happy to still be around that I can’t be mad about it. I wish every girl knew that there’s no such thing as ‘too young’ for breast cancer!” —Mary Smith, 41, Lodi, CA

I Slept Funny And Woke Up With a Sore Neck
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“One morning, I woke up with a sore neck from sleeping on it funny. As I tried to massage the tightness out of it, I noticed two small lumps on my neck that were down by my collar bone. I thought it was random and didn’t give it too much thought but a couple of months later I was in the doctor’s for my yearly checkup and figured I’d ask about it. He thought it was just swollen lymph nodes from an infection and put me on antibiotics. I took them but within two months I had seven lumps that ran up the entire left side of my neck. My doctor then referred me to a specialist who biopsied one of my lymph nodes. The verdict? Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 2a.

“I had surgery and chemotherapy and I am happy to say I’m now 16 months in remission and all my checkups are looking great! If I hadn’t woken up with a crick in my neck I might never have noticed the first lumps and waited a lot longer to get treatment.” —Jessica Rowley, 35, Nibley, UT

Related: 7 Brain Tumor Symptoms You Need To Know About

My Best Friend Had a Breast Lump So I Did a Self-Exam On a Whim
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“I was never one to do regular breast self-exams. I was in my thirties and didn’t even think breast cancer was a possibility. But then one day my best friend found a lump in her breast and started freaking out about it. It was enough to make me finally check my own and, surprisingly, I too found a lump. Hers turned out to be nothing major but mine was breast cancer. I went through treatment, doing eight rounds of chemo and 33 rounds of radiation.

“Unfortunately, my breast cancer returned last year, in the same breast. So I decided to have a double mastectomy. I’m doing well now but I’ve learned just how important breast self-exams can be—mine saved my life! I was blessed to catch things early. Breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence.” —Rose Judkins, 39, Minneapolis, MN

My Doctor Found a Mole on My Hip During an Examination For My Head
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“When I was 42 years old, I made an appointment at the famous Mayo Clinic to get checked for a neurological problem. While they were evaluating me for that, the doctor just happened to notice a suspicious-looking spot on my hip and recommended I get it checked out. I was extremely shocked to find out it was melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer. I had two surgeries—one that removed the obvious culprit off my hip, and a second one that went deeper. It took about six weeks to really recover.

“These days I have no evidence of the disease, but that doesn’t mean I’m totally in the clear. Even though I did not have chemotherapy, my body turned on itself and I now have an autoimmune disease. Honestly, the hardest part was the memory of watching my sister die of the same cancer 15 years earlier—and feeling guilty that I survived when she did not.” —Diana Raabe, 49, New York City, NY

Source: How I Found My Cancer

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