Home Health News NBC's Kristen Dahlgren shares the unusual breast cancer symptom she nearly missed – TODAY

NBC's Kristen Dahlgren shares the unusual breast cancer symptom she nearly missed – TODAY

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As a correspondent for NBC News for more than a decade, I’ve reported on countless stories. Some stand out more than others, but there is now one for which I will be forever grateful. It’s a story I credit with saving my life.

It was November 2016 and I was just back from maternity leave. I was sent to Rochester, Minnesota, to interview a doctor at the Mayo Clinic for what I thought was a routine assignment. A research study from the U.K. had found that around 1 in 6 women diagnosed with breast cancer went to the doctor with a symptom other than a lump.

While lumps are still the most commonly reported symptom of breast cancer, this study identified other signs such as nipple changes, dents, dimples, pain or redness.

For the story I interviewed a woman who was diagnosed only when she insisted on a second opinion, after noticing a subtle change in the shape of her breast. It turned out she had stage 3 breast cancer.

“It’s profoundly important to be aware of your breasts,” Dr. Deborah Rhodes, an internist with Mayo Breast Diagnostic Clinic, told me. I remember thinking that the story would save lives.

I had no idea the life it would save would be my own.

Nov. 29, 201601:40

In September this year, breast cancer was the last thing on my mind. I’m in my 40s. I’m active. I don’t have a family history of anyone getting breast cancer early — and perhaps most importantly, in April I had just had a mammogram that was negative.

Then, my world was turned on its head.

On my 47th birthday, I was getting ready to meet friends when I caught a glimpse of a slight dent in my right breast. I had never noticed it before. I wasn’t great about regular self exams, but this time I paid attention.

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Beneath the dent, I didn’t feel a lump, but something I might describe as a “thickening.” It just felt different than everywhere else. I knew I needed to have it checked out, but life got busy.

The next day I was sent to cover a hurricane along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It would have been easy to put my own health aside and focus on work. My husband, however, wouldn’t let me, and I couldn’t get the study about unusual symptoms out of my mind.

My doctor wrote a prescription for breast screening and, in between live shots, I ran to the local hospital. With people evacuating in advance of the storm, they had an opening for a mammogram and ultrasound.

“Why not just wait until you get home?” the nurse asked. I said, “I just need to know.”

It still feels surreal, but I have always known I would share my story.Courtesy Kristen Dahlgren

Within days, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

Since then, my life has been filled with doctor appointments, chemotherapy and, yes, tears. In my darkest moments, I ask, “Why?” though I try not to dwell on that. I have too much to do.

It is not easy to talk about, but I have always known I would share my story. Often it still feels surreal, but I know there is power in knowledge.

If I hadn’t done that story, I might have ignored the change in my breast. I might have assumed a mammogram would have picked up cancer.

I have since learned they are only 87% effective and are less sensitive in women like me with dense breast tissue. I might not have gotten another mammogram for a while. I hate to admit it, but I had let years go between screenings in the past.

I try not to play the “what if” game too often, but I will say, I feel very lucky I got checked out when I did.

I recently traveled back to Rochester, Minnesota, and met up again with Rhodes. After collapsing in her arms in a puddle of tears and gratitude, we talked about what we want other women to know.

In between live shots in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, I ran to the local hospital for a mammogram and breast ultrasound. Courtesy Kristen Dahlgren

“If this story saved me, how many other women are out there that need this?” I asked. “This is more common than we appreciate.”

She answered, explaining, “In almost every case of a patient who has found her own breast cancer, she will tell me a similar story … ‘I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for, but when I noticed it, I knew it was important.'”

Rhodes detailed symptoms women should look for:

  • A dimple
  • Change to the contour of the breast
  • Any discharge
  • Redness
  • Itching and swelling

It may be nothing. Often, it is nothing. But a visit to your doctor is an easy way to make sure.

I am doing well now. I have amazing and optimistic doctors and more support than I ever knew. I have a friend, a breast cancer survivor herself, who comes to every chemo with me. My parents drive 10 hours every other week to help out and my husband has been my absolute rock.

I end 2019 full of gratitude, knowing there is a long road ahead, but hopeful that sharing my story might make a difference for someone else.

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