Healthy and in her mid-30s, Amy Harper knew her chances of developing breast cancer were low as she conducted a regular self-examination one night at home in 2009. But her findings that evening nearly two years ago ended up saving her life. Harper was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after, at age 36 — far younger than the 50 years or older range doctors normally deem “at risk.”

Healthy and in her mid-30s, Amy Harper knew her chances of developing breast cancer were low as she conducted a regular self-examination one night at home in 2009.


But her findings that evening nearly two years ago ended up saving her life. Harper was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after, at age 36 — far younger than the 50 years or older range doctors normally deem “at risk.”


The Holland, Mich., woman immediately began treatment and today is in remission. The experience took her down a rough road riddled with fear, but she is thankful for the personal growth and for how she forever will hold a special bond with others facing a similar diagnosis.


Harper now carries an important message she forever will share: Cancer is never out of the question. Start self-breast exams early and keep an open mind.


“I didn’t want this whole journey to be in vain, to go through this and not try to persuade others,” Harper said.


Dr. Liberty Hoberman, a general surgeon who works with breast cancer patients and consults with others to determine their risk, considers Harper an example of what can be accomplished through proactive medical care.


“You have to be an advocate for your own health, you really do,” Hoberman said. “The more we talk about it and the sooner we get to any disease, the better.”


Hoberman groups breast cancer risk into two larger categories: factors that are preventable, such as lifestyle choices, and those that are natural, such as physical make-up and genetics.


Of all breast cancer cases, 85 percent occur in woman 50 or older. Woman who have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer are at an increased risk — almost double, if that person is a first-degree relative. If prostate cancer is part of a family’s background, that also comes into play.


“There was always the myth that dad’s side of the family doesn’t count. That’s not true,” Hoberman said.


She urges women to sit down with a doctor in their early adult years, as soon as a patient and physician relationship develops. A doctor can run through risk factors to determine whether hormone therapy or other early preventative measures could lessen chances of problems down the road.


The website breastcancerprevention.com is one of several that can help a woman to calculate her basic risk of developing the disease, based upon factors such as age of a mother at the time she gave birth.


Hoberman highlighted these factors, but emphasized the final report is one that should be considered only as a tool.


She urged woman to ask about the density of their breast tissue after having a mammogram; the denser the tissue, the higher the risk for disease. Those who have a strong family history and dense tissue can qualify for MRI testing that helps give doctors a much clearer picture of the makeup of a woman’s tissue.


If a woman’s risk factor is high, doctors might recommend hormone therapy, something that helps to decrease the body’s production of estrogen or block the receptors in breast cells, Hoberman said. If a woman begins taking this medication early on and continues for five years — often with limited, if any side effects — she could cut her risk of developing breast cancer in half.


Doctors can help to make sure a patient takes the medication correctly and for only the necessary amount of time.


Other lifestyle choices, such as regular exercise and a focus on healthy eating, also help reduce the risk of relapse or cancer development.


These days, Harper is around town proudly wearing a T-shirt she and her husband designed after her diagnosis.


The shirt shows a lady with pink boxing gloves and bears a message: “Fight like a girl.”


After all, she said, that’s what this battle is about.


The Holland Sentinel