Breast Self-Check Leads to Cancer Diagnosis at Age 35

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Nicole walking in a wooded area; Breast Self-Check Leads to Cancer Diagnosis at Age 35

In April 2021, Nicole Knoll of Cedar Rapids, Iowa was doing her monthly breast self-check when she felt a hard spot about the size of a dime.

“I immediately realized this was a shift,” Knoll says. “It was unusual and different, and I just had this feeling. It was then I called my doctor and scheduled a mammogram.”

Noticing a Concerning Spot & Taking Action

At 35, Knoll was five years under the recommended age to begin annual screening mammograms. She was referred for a mammogram and ultrasound at UnityPoint Health – Cedar Rapids.

“I was nervous about how things were going to work. They told me everything that was going to happen before it happened,” Knoll says of the team. “They kept me in the loop the whole time I was there. I just really, really appreciated that.”

It was determined the spot Knoll felt was a type of benign cyst. However, another questionable area was found during the ultrasound and Knoll was referred for a breast MRI, followed by a biopsy. This particular spot was a stage two lobular carcinoma, a spider web-shaped cancer that likely would have gone undetected had Knoll not been proactive and went to her doctor at the first sign of a change.

“We encourage women of any age to know how their breasts normally look and feel,” Therese Michels, manager of St. Luke’s Breast and Bone Health, says. “Women should do self-breast exams at home, and if they do feel a lump or something concerning, they should reach out to their provider for further evaluation.”

Feeling Support by Coordinated Care

During the diagnosis process, Knoll met Mona Cook, breast cancer care coordinator at the Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids. A care coordinator is a patient’s constant point of contact throughout the cancer journey, from diagnosis through treatment and beyond. 

“Mona explained everything and answered my questions,” recalls Knoll. “She walked my husband and I through a breast cancer book and circled and highlighted things that pertained specifically to me. It was nice to have her as a resource throughout treatment to call or email anytime.”

Care coordinators also assess needs and set up referrals within the care team, including social workers, dietitians, exercise specialist and more. Cook connected Knoll with Matt Schmitz, cancer exercise specialist, and Barb Lorenz, oncology social worker.

“Matt gave me exercises to do during chemo that weren’t too extreme but just enough to keep me moving,” shares Knoll. “Barb would stop by during chemo and ask how I was doing. It was really nice to know I could talk to her if anything difficult was going on.” 

Knoll also used some of the integrative wellness services at the Community Cancer Center, including acupuncture and Reiki.

Watch for Warning Signs

Knoll, who is now cancer free following her treatment, has a simple message for other women who read her story: Know your body.

“Know what’s not normal for you,” she says. “It’s easy to dismiss things. Don’t be afraid to go in and get checked out. Early diagnosis was key for me. I don’t like to think about what would have happened if I waited a year from now.”

Talk to Your Doctor about Screenings

The right age to start mammograms depends on a variety of different factors. Talk to your primary care doctor to figure out what’s right for you. If there’s a family history of breast cancer, chances are high you may need to start screenings early.