Local nurse stresses importance of self exams after being diagnosed with breast cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, one out of eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. 

Most cases involve middle-age and older women with the median age being 62. But, a very small number of women under the age of 45 will get the diagnosis. 

A local nurse became a part of that group when she found out she had breast cancer in her mid-30s.

"I am the poster child of early detection, early treatment," said Emma Perry. "And, because I got diagnosed at Stage-1A, the chances of it coming back are much less."

Perry is the palliative care coordinator at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 at the age of 35 after discovering a lump in one of her breasts during a self-check.

"I went to my doctor, she thankfully ordered a mammogram," Perry explained. "When I had my mammogram, they found some interesting changes, some indications that I could have early breast cancer."

A biopsy showed Perry had stage-0 cancer in one of her breasts. Genetic testing, done because of her young age, revealed she has the BRCA-2 gene, putting her at a higher risk for certain cancers.

"So, [doctors] elected to do, and, of course, I was happy to do it, a radical double mastectomy," said Perry. "Just because, you know, better safe than sorry."

Testing of the tissue from Perry’s second breast showed she had stage-1A breast cancer. Because of her age and genetics, she went through six months of preventative chemotherapy. 

But, amid these life-changing discoveries came a huge silver lining. Perry began dating her partner, James, and found love that lasts to this day.

"And, he called his boss at the time and told his boss, I have to take Wednesdays off because I have to take this girl to chemotherapy," Perry said. "And, his boss let him! And, he did. He took me to every single chemotherapy. And, so that was an unexpected blessing."

During her entire cancer fight, she continued to work as a nurse caring for others.

"I may not have been feeling productive that day, maybe I was feeling sick and awful and gross, but at least I was there, helping another person," Perry explained. "And, that to me is the beauty of nursing in general, but especially hospice nursing and palliative care nursing. For me, it was immensely important, immensely important to go and help other people. Not just work, but help other people."

For Perry, part of helping other people is urging women to do their self-breast exams, every month.

"To me, doing your self-checks are paramount," Perry stressed. "To me, finding a lump, going to your doctor and saying, ‘hey I found something’ and having the doctor check saved my life. Saved my life!"

Perry has been cancer-free for seven years now, and is seen by her doctors every six months to make sure she stays healthy.

In addition to monthly self-checks, annual mammograms are recommended for most women starting at the age of 40.