BORGER, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — In May 2022, 38-year-old Caitlyn Rice was diagnosed with stage zero breast cancer. The wife, mother, daughter and teacher only had one thing on her mind after the doctors told her the diagnosis.

Early detection and diagnosis

“My first thought was I have two young children and I didn’t want to, you know, leave them without a mom,” said Caitlyn Rice, a breast cancer survivor.

Initially, Rice went in to see her gynecologist for an annual checkup and he recommended that she receive her mammogram early instead of waiting until she turned 40. Rice has a family history of cancer on both the maternal and fraternal sides of her family.

Traditionally, it is recommended that women start receiving mammograms at the age of 40, but depending on individual patient history, that can change, according to Dr. Anne Doughtie.

“For most women, the age of screening begins at 40, however with important family history or other risk factors that can be individualized,” said Dr. Anne Doughtie, Plastic Surgeon at Texas Oncology. “So, if you have first-degree relatives that can be as early as 10 years prior, sometimes we begin for young women, even with ultrasounds, diagnostic ultrasounds, and we will get a baseline mammogram if you’re over 30. But each of those screening programs begins at a certain time and then the importance of that is to continue annually so that that way, we can follow changes.”

Knowing the symptoms of breast cancer is an important part of early detection.

“Women can do self-examinations and men I should say, monthly that they’re in their own privacy and so if they did find something that was hurting, skin was changing, itching, there’s a lump or bump underneath the arm, obviously a massive concern or if the shape of the breast starts to change or become hot or red or angry or swollen,” said Dr.Doughtie. “These are all things that are needed to be evaluated beyond just a screening mammogram.”

Other symptoms of breast cancer include swollen lymph nodes, change in breast size or shape, and tenderness or pain in the breast and nipple, according to health officials at Texas Oncology.

The Journey to Recovery

Rice’s husband was with her when she heard the news. Immediately after learning of her diagnosis, Rice received a nurse navigator from Texas Oncology.

Dr. Doughtie stated, “the first person that they meet beyond a breast radiologist is our nurse navigator and this is a woman who takes the patient from their diagnosis and helps them establish their appointments with all of the other providers. She’ll go with them to each one of these and help us to communicate both with the patient and throughout the team and so our nurse navigators really accompany these patients through their journey and help them to understand maybe why we’re doing different things at different times and really go through an education process for the patient.”

Having a breast cancer diagnosis means different things to different people, it can be curable, treatable or terminal. Rice’s doctors shared with her that it was curable and treatable providing some comfort.

Rice’s treatment plan moved quickly. A week after her diagnosis, her doctors recommended a full mastectomy and reconstruction. The surgery took place a month after that, Rice had surgery and began the road to recovery.

With her cancer diagnosis being given at the end of May as school ended, Rice and her husband focused on telling their two daughters, ages 4 and 10. With a family history of cancer, her eldest understood the reality of having a loved one with cancer all too well.

Rice said, “my father-in-law had actually passed away from cancer last year, so my 10-year-old knew what was going on and she was pretty scared. We just sat down with her, she’s smart, we told her what was going on and we told her that I was going to be fine. But that I was going to have to have surgery and you know, she was going to have to help out with her little sister and just be brave.”

Rice continued, “She did pretty well, she did tell me she was sad and scared.”

Although her 4-year-old is still too young to understand everything, Rice and her husband still shared that she was sick, and her daughter wouldn’t be able to climb on her for a while.

For parents who might be struggling to find ways to share tough health information with their kids, Rice said it’s best to be transparent.

“Our experience was to be open and honest about it, don’t try to hide anything because that will just make it worse,” said Rice. “Try to keep it age-appropriate, you know older kids are going to understand more than little kids will.”

Rice also shared the news with her family and friends, which brought many emotions and words of encouragement. Her community came together during her time of need.

“My mom started crying because you know, her mother passed away from cancer when she was a small child, but they were all very supportive,” Rice said. “Saying anything you need, we’re here for you, and you’ll be fine”

According to Texas Oncology, caucasian women have a higher risk of developing breast cancer but the mortality rate from breast cancer is higher among African American women at any age.

Taking control of your health

Fear surrounding going to the doctor is normal but going and sharing your concerns could potentially save your life.

“If their bodies are telling them something, if they’re if they are actually experiencing a symptom in their breasts, such as a mass or skin change or discharge or having pain or lump underneath the arm, that fear can be relieved by having a clear mammogram to make sure it’s normal,” stated Dr. Doughtie. “And then otherwise, we will help them no matter what it is that is our job to help patients through that and so I think it’s normal to have a fear of coming in for a mammogram because there might be a diagnosis, odds are greatly in most women’s favor that there we’ll never have to deal with that.”

Although breast cancer cannot be completely prevented it is important for women to understand individual risk, complete self-checks monthly, and have clinical breast exams every three years, according to Texas Oncology.

Women can also try and have a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly, maintaining healthy body max, and limiting alcohol consumption.

Breast cancer survivor

Rice’s treatment plan was a success and when her doctors shared the news that she was cancer free, there was only one thing she could say.

“Thank you, Lord,” Rice exclaimed.

Rice is now recovering and back to teaching. At the beginning of the 2022 school year, she started teaching at a new school and began the year with a new sense of gratitude.

“I try to just remember to be thankful for everything that I have and not take anything for granted because I know that it’s pretty easy for it to be taken away, said Rice.”

For more information on breast cancer statistics, risk, treatment, and resources read the following fact sheet.