About one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to Breastcancer.org.
In women under 45, breast cancer is more common in Black women than white women. Black women are more likely than white women to die from breast cancer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Bridgette Johnson shares her experiences fighting stage 4 breast cancer and her advice to all women to "listen to their bodies."
I was 35 when I first felt a lump in my breast. I remember constantly seeing signs in the doctor's office about giving yourself monthly breast exams. One day, I felt something that I hadn't felt before.
I went to a doctor who told me after examining my breast, "You have large breasts; it's probably just dense tissue. You're young. Don't worry about it."
Maybe I am being paranoid, I thought.
As I continued with my monthly breast exams, I noticed that whatever I was feeling in my breast was growing. I went to see a second doctor who told me the same thing: "You have large breasts; it's probably just dense tissue. You're young. Don't worry about it."
Now I knew I was being paranoid. There's nothing wrong with me.
Over time, I noticed this thing seemed to be getting even bigger.
I went to a third doctor, who gave me a breast exam and said, "There may be something there, although it may just be a cyst."
This time, I asked for a mammogram.
The physician ordered the test and the technician came into the room and told me, "We think we see something, but it's probably just a smudge on the machine. Don't worry about it. You're young. Come back when you are 40."
Wow, I must be very paranoid. There's nothing wrong with me.
Months later, I began to feel pain in my breast when I slept. I went back to the third physician and asked if I could get another mammogram. The doctor ordered the test again. This time, I was given a 3D mammogram, and two days later, my phone rang.
The voice on the other end said, "I am sorry to inform you, but you have breast cancer."
There was no paranoia. Something was wrong.
I was 37 and devastated. With my family and friends rallying behind me, I put on a brave face and started my journey. I quickly found a care team at Virginia Hospital Center (VHC) in Arlington, Virginia. My first few visits to the doctor's office were a blur as the doctor explained the surgery process. Based on how the tumor looked, the doctor told me, it was a stage 2 diagnosis.
The surgeon had to move quickly because my lump was fairly large. In September 2012, I went into surgery for a mastectomy. While in recovery, I learned that my cancer spread from my breast to my lymph nodes and my diagnosis was upgraded to stage 3. I had to undergo an aggressive treatment plan, which included several months of chemo and radiation.
The entire process was still baffling to me. I considered myself fairly healthy; I went to the gym almost every day.
I began to ask myself, "Why me?" But later decided to turn the question around and started asking, "Why not me?" This was the card I was dealt; now it was up to me to FIGHT.
In 2013, I completed my treatments. I was told that the cancer was gone and I could now continue to live my life. I never forgot about my journey.
I hosted a panel discussion with inspirational stories from other survivors and caregivers at VHC. I was invited to tell my story to a women's group at a church and I spoke at various breast cancer awareness events. My goal was to encourage women to listen to their bodies and, if something did not seem right, to request a mammogram.
When I reached my 5-year anniversary of being cancer free, I threw a huge party during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I was so excited that I made it to that milestone. Little did I know that excitement would soon change.
It was summer 2019 when I started to feel pain in my leg. At first, I thought it was workout soreness or maybe I pulled a muscle. I decided to see a doctor, who said everything seemed fine. "Just take some prescription-strength ibuprofen. You should feel better in a week or so." So I did just that and continued my normal routine.
However, I started to develop some swelling in my lower leg, too. I went to another doctor, who recommended physical therapy.
The therapist noticed the swelling and that the skin was glossy and recommended I get an X-ray, which, I was told, looked good and that I could continue therapy.
About a week later, I decided I would walk to a local restaurant and then walk home. After dinner, walking about a block, I called a friend who was in the restaurant and told her to come out and help me. I could not move. She called an Uber so I was able to get home. The driver helped me out of the car and some people who were standing in front of the building helped me get inside my apartment.
A few days later, I hobbled into the bathroom to put rollers in my hair. After I put the last roller on, I fell and it felt like a bone cracked in my leg.
I was able to call 911 -- the phone was in the bathroom with me -- and when I arrived at the emergency room, they took a CT scan of my leg. A doctor showed me the X-ray and I saw a big glob coming out of my femur.
I asked him, "Is that cancer?" and he responded, "Yes, it is."
I was rushed to another hospital to have part of my femur removed and a rod put in. Prior to the surgery, I was given another scan, this time of my entire body. When the results came back, I was told cancer cells were also in my spine and skull, and the cancer was at stage 4. I later learned these were breast cancer cells that travelled to these parts of my body.
I now had metastatic breast cancer.
Again, despite this devastating news, I still held tight to my faith in God and have not lost hope. I am back at VHC for treatments. I am also back in physical therapy learning to re-walk and gain strength in my leg. After a lot of hard work, I have moved from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. I hope to one day be able to walk on my own without assistance again.
After a recent scan, I learned there were no active cancer cells which puts me in remission. Although I have heard this wonderful news, I know that I cannot give up. I must stay in prayer, continue doctor visits, exercise and eat right in order to stay healthy and to hopefully remain at this status.
I am fighting the good fight and trusting God every step of the way.
If there are any words of advice I can give you, from my journey, it is:
1. Listen to your body… If something does not feel right, go to the doctor right away.
2. If you do not feel comfortable with your diagnosis, always get a second opinion. I would even recommend getting a third or fourth opinion until you feel comfortable with the information given to you.
3. You are your own best advocate. When in doubt, ask for an exam.
4. Find a good and positive support network. Smiling faces and tranquil spirits will certainly help make your journey much smoother.
5. You can do this -- even alone. Since the pandemic, I have become my own caregiver, and when people can help me, I am grateful. I have again put on a brave face and mustered up the strength to make my own meals, get myself to medical appointments, go on short walks for exercise, and so on. Situations may change in life, but please know you can do it. Even alone. Never give up. Keep fighting the good fight.
6. Most importantly, trust in God's love and never lose faith or hope!