In 2015, both word of mouth and doctor recommendations in the media circulate messages on how to prevent cancer: eat healthy, exercise and do everything in moderation. Until you hit 40 years old, focus on prevention.
Few guidelines account for the outliers, the one-in-a-million cancer cases. Simply put, these are the exceptions, not the rule. Healthy 20-something-year-old women are rarely diagnosed with breast cancer, but this was exactly what Dr. Lainey Kieffer of the Department of Family Medicine at UHealth faced.
“I was 28. Normally, mammograms don’t even start for women until age 40. Prior to that, you may go to a gynecologist, they may give a clinical breast exam, you may be at home and do your own self-breast exams. How would I know?” she said.
Kieffer, a UM alumna, nurse practitioner and director of clinical operations at the Department of Family Medicine, was diagnosed with multifocal invasive ductal carcinoma (mutliple tumors that have spread from the milk duct and invaded surrounding breast tissue) in 2012 after feeling a hard, pea-sized mass on her right breast during a self-exam in March.
“I’ve always been very aware of my own body. Breast self-awareness is one way to tackle it and know what your normal is,” she said.
Being a nurse practitioner and working in medicine equipped her with the knowledge to take the appropriate steps once she felt something irregular.
Kieffer scheduled an ultrasound and mammogram and later underwent a biopsy. Two days after the biopsy, Kieffer learned of her cancer and immediately knew she wanted to be treated at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Upon finding out, you know, the tight-knit family that I have, we went right into action and started making appointments and trying to figure out oncologists and surgeons and, right away, I went right for Sylvester,” she said. “Having it for an academic research university, I knew that it was exactly where I wanted to be.”
Kieffer said she was caught off guard by her diagnosis, considering she had no family history of cancer or health issues. She knew about cancer, but never expected to be a patient herself while still in her 20s.
“I did not know that women my age got breast cancer. I wasn’t really aware of it,” she said. “I knew it was possible, but never in my life did I think – not having a family history, exercise, healthy, felt great, never felt sick – that I could have cancer. It was a shock.”
Between the time she had her original mammogram and when she had the biopsy, Kieffer celebrated her engagement at her bridal shower.
“Leading up to diagnosis, I had met the man of my dreams and we were planning on getting married,” she said.
After seeing 25 to 30 doctors in a two-week period, Kieffer and her fiance at the time decided to move the wedding up by six weeks. They were married on May 5, nine days before her first chemotherapy treatments.
She had six months of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and six weeks of radiation. She spent a year on infusions and is now on maintenance therapy.
“Treatment is difficult, physically. But with a great support system, it was easy to get through,” she said.
Along with her close family, Kieffer credited her husband with being a consistent source of support throughout her treatment, on her good days as much as on days when she could not get herself out of bed.
“We had a discussion that if we could get through treatment as a married couple, that we could get through anything, because it was tough,” she said.
Now, she is coming up on her two-year anniversary of finishing chemotherapy. She is cancer-free. Her dark locks of hair have grown back.
“I’m happy. I’m healthy. I have a family. Life goes on,” she said.
Through experience, Kieffer knows the value of addressing even the smallest possibility of cancer in younger age groups. Early education, detection and self-awareness play a critical role in improving chances of survival.
“Make sure you’re checking your breasts every month and know what your body feels like. So if you feel something different or new, go see your doctor to have that checked out,” she said.
To share your breast cancer story with The Hurricane, email firstname.lastname@example.org.