When Sarah Dickinson began to feel a burning sensation in her right breast, she was just two weeks pregnant with her first child. She assumed the change was due to her quickly changing hormones and began treating it with a heating pad.
“It was on and off, mainly in the evenings,” the 37-year-old recalls. “It would take my breath away—the intensity of the burning sensation would just knock the wind out of me.”
But the burning sensation continued, so Sarah began bringing it up at her prenatal appointments with her obstetrician. Because of her age, she was considered a high-risk pregnancy and went to the doctor often.
“I saw four different providers and told each one about the burning,” she says. Sarah is a clinical trial manager for a cancer research program, so she brought up the possibility of breast cancer to each doctor, but they all blew it off, saying, “breast cancer doesn’t hurt.”
Each time, the doctors simply did a manual breast exam and then told Sarah that the burning sensation was just her milk ducts preparing for breastfeeding.
“I never really thought I had cancer. It just made sense to me that it could be an explanation.”
As Sarah’s pregnancy progressed, so did her mysterious symptoms. On top of the on-and-off pain in her breast, her nipple, which was already somewhat inverted, began to turn dark purple and would look puckered whenever she experienced the unidentified pain.
“It was always just as intense, and I was always told that it was my milk ducts coming in, and that breast burning is common in the early stages of pregnancy,” she says. “It made sense to me—and I had never been pregnant before.”
At five months’ gestation, Sarah saw a new ob-gyn, who sent her for an ultrasound of her breast, just in case. The ultrasound found a cyst about a centimeter in diameter, but the results showed that it was completely benign. Sarah continued to have follow-up visits, but the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that, and after she had her baby boy, the pain stopped.
Sarah was less concerned about the possibility of cancer after the pain ceased, so she carried on without going to follow-ups, nursing her son, Fin, only on her left breast because he was unable to latch on the right.
But things weren’t as “fine” as they seemed. When Sarah was finally able to get back to the doctor for another ultrasound, the unimaginable happened.
“As soon as the ultrasound technician put the wand on me, the color drained out of her face,” Sarah says. “She brought in the doctor, who said, ‘It’s grown. There’s something else there we need to see.'”
Sarah was immediately sent for a mammogram and more ultrasounds, after which she learned stage I HER2-negative breast cancer.
“It just took my breath away that this was actually happening,” she says. “It’s frustrating to think that someone could have ordered an ultrasound sooner.”
Sarah’s oncologist thinks the cancer either occurred very recently or was there for a very long time but was aggravated by the pregnancy. Luckily, it was not an aggressive form of cancer, and it had been caught early enough to be very treatable.
Sarah underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and then another to remove her nipple and insert a port for chemotherapy. She then froze embryos before beginning chemotherapy and radiation treatment. But despite the good prognosis, Sarah still has mixed feelings about her journey to diagnosis.
“It’s a confusing feeling, because I know the doctors were doing the best job they could,” she says. “They did all of the normal things other than an ultrasound, but I do feel that I should have been sent for an ultrasound sooner. I kept bringing this up.”
But on the whole, Sarah is grateful for her life and happy for the way things happened.
“In a way, Fin saved my life,” she says. “Without the pregnancy, I never would have had that burning sensation. I feel like I really enjoyed my pregnancy, and this is happening on a better timeline for me. Fin is young, and he won’t remember this.”
Sarah’s story is a lesson to other women who have symptoms of breast cancer, however subtle or uncommon they may be. If you suspect something is amiss, don’t be afraid to ask for more testing or a second opinion. Nobody knows your body like you do!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?