Just before she turned 40, Samantha Harris, Emmy-winning TV Host and bestselling author, had her first mammogram. Her results came back clear.
However, 11 days later, she felt a lump on her breast, prompting her to visit her OB/GYN who assured her it was nothing. A month after that, she saw her internist, who told her the same thing.
“[That] inner voice was just screaming at me to have this ‘nothing lump’ looked at by someone who looks at breasts every day and knows what to look for,” Harris told Healthline.
She sought out a surgical oncologist, who ordered two ultrasounds and a biopsy. Still, neither detected cancer.
“[This] is where we need to listen to our guts, but also find experts who listen to their guts. My oncologist said, ‘[The] biopsy said it wasn’t cancer, but I want to take it out anyway with a lumpectomy,’” recalled Harris.
A week later, in March 2014, the pathology report showed that she had stage 1 hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, which means the tumor grows and develops in response to the hormones estrogen or progesterone. About two out of three breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive, reports the American Cancer Society.
The fact that a mammogram didn’t detect Harris’ cancer isn’t unusual, said Dr. Jeffrey B. Hargis, breast medical oncologist at Norton Cancer Institute. While mammography is the best available screening tool for detecting all kinds of breast cancer, in most women, the test is not 100 percent accurate.
“You can have a palpable breast mass [and] imaging studies look normal, mammogram, ultrasound, three-dimensional mammogram, possibly MRI [look normal], but biopsy shows unequivocal breast cancer,” Hargis told Healthline.
Pushing to get answers set the course for early treatment for Harris.
“The biggest lesson I learned through my early cancer journey is that we must be our best own healthcare advocates and we need to know our bodies better than anyone else,” she said.
Undergoing treatment and recovery
Most cancers are treated with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and various drug therapies, depending on the tumor, how advanced it is, and its aggressiveness, said Susan Brown, MS, RN, senior director of health information and publications at Susan G. Komen.
“When a tumor is hormone receptor-positive, hormone therapy is part of the standard treatment plan, along with surgery, and sometimes, radiation therapy,” Brown told Healthline. “Each cancer is different, and each person is different, so personalized care is offered based on both medical and personal choices.”
Harris chose to have a double mastectomy and during the surgery, her doctor discovered that the cancer spread to her lymph nodes, which meant it was stage 2.
Based on her type of cancer and the fact that genetic testing did not show she is high risk, she decided against chemotherapy or radiation. However, she took tamoxifen for eight years, a medication that reduces the risk of cancer recurrence.
“From the time the cancer first began to grow until it was big enough for her to feel it, we worry about cancers that broke off elsewhere in her body,” said Hargis. “[The] wonderful thing that has saved lives by the thousands is [tamoxifen], which kills off those microscopic cells.”
Leaning into lifestyle changes and yoga
In addition to adhering to treatment, Hargis said diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices are important, including maintaining an ideal body weight, eating four to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and limiting alcohol consumption.
“We know alcohol is one of the very few things that a female can take besides hormone replacement therapy, that actually increases her risk of getting breast cancer,” he said.
As far as exercise, he said data shows engaging in rigorous pseudo-aerobic movement for four to five hours per week can cut risk of recurrence by about 30%.
While Harris was healthy before her diagnosis, after she learned she had cancer, she leaned into eating more healthily, exercising, and prioritizing self-care, such as practicing meditation and breathwork. However, yoga was her go-to.
“I had an incredible amount of anxiety that I had never experienced in my life after my diagnosis and feelings of overwhelm, and I wish I had immediately at that time had the tools that now I have developed as I moved into my healthiest, healthy life,” she said.
Now, when she feels stressed or anxious, she turns to breathwork, meditation, mindfulness, and yoga to calm her.
While she practiced yoga before her diagnosis, she said it was mostly for the extrinsic look of it.
“I loved the strength and muscle definition that you saw on people’s arms who were dedicated yogis and here I was on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ hosting and standing next to these dancers with incredible bodies, wanting to look as light and sculpted as they did,” said Harris.
After her journey with cancer, she realized that the lessons that yoga taught her, such as presence of mind, the ability to slow down and breathe, and embracing the mind-body connection, carried her through her toughest days.
“[But] also what yoga does is allows you to build that body strength that we need when we’re coming out of our recoveries,” she said.
Sharing yoga with others
To spread the benefits of yoga to the breast cancer community, Harris teamed up with Susan G. Komen and YogaWorks’ restorative fitness program YogaWorks Pink. The movement delivers free classes designed specifically for the breast cancer community.
“The program is tailored to you and meets you where you are to help you build core strength and lower body strength that we need to be able to move us around if we have limitations with mobility with our upper bodies after breast surgery,” said Harris. “I wish there had been a program around when I was coming out of my three surgeries in 2014.”
Classes are led by the lead instructor at YogaWorks and include modified poses and practices of yoga for every stage of treatment or recovery after surgery. While most classes are on demand, some are offered live weekly.
“[Usually] at the end of class, the instructor will hang on for a while and answer questions, and there’s also time to see other survivors and chat,” said Harris.
Participants also get full access to the entire YogaWorks platform, which has over 1,300 on-demand classes and more than 25 live classes every day.
People in the breast cancer community, including those with cancer, survivors, thrivers, caregivers, and family members can get the first three months for free. After that, people can receive a reduced rate, in which 25% of the proceeds go directly to Susan G. Komen.
When Harris became a national ambassador for Susan G. Komen in 2014, she learned that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.
The statistic ignited a passion to help others.
In addition to teaming up with Susan G. Komen, in 2018, she wrote the book “Your Healthiest Healthy: 8 Easy Ways to Take Control, Help Prevent and Fight Cancer, and Live a Longer, Cleaner, Happier Life.”
She also became active on Instagram and encourages those in the breast cancer community to reach out to her.
“I remember all the anxiety and fear, and you are overwhelmed with the information coming at you so fast and we have to learn and make decisions, so it’s important to have a community to lean on,” said Harris. “It’s the most rewarding thing to be able to share.”
Hopeful advancements in breast cancer
While Harris felt that mastectomy was right for her, Hargis noted that mastectomy isn’t always the answer for everyone, and in fact, breast conservation is the standard of care today.
Additionally, he said that being diagnosed at a young age like Harris is uncommon. The likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer between your 40th and 50th birthday is 1.5% and for women under 40, the number is under 1%, said Hargis.
“It’s a disease of older patients…The average age of breast cancer is 63/64 [and the] age group with highest incidence of breast cancer per year is 70 to 75,” he said.
Additionally, Brown said advancements in oral drug therapies and management of side effects from treatment, as well as the knowledge that not everyone with breast cancer requires extreme treatments, has brought about many improvements for those living with breast cancer.
“We continue to make advances in treatment due to ongoing research and the willingness of patients who agree to participate in clinical trials,” said Brown. “All of this new information gives us hope as we move toward the future to find a cure.”
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