Pushing for a mammogram at 25 paid off, breast cancer survivor says
Single mom remembers fighting misdiagnosis and inconclusive tests
DAVIE, Fla. – When Valerie Bunt walked into a room, most people stared. She attributed this to her DD cup bra, small waist and smile. Her breasts got her out of speeding tickets and often motivated men to be kind. She never thought one day they would try to kill her.
Bunt had a very difficult pregnancy. She was hospitalized after six months. Her life was filled with joy when Alyssa was born. She was breast feeding when she noticed her production dropped from normal to nonexistent. Her breasts started to shrink back to normal.
She found a small pea sized lump that her doctor mistook for a swollen milk duct. She was 25. Months later, the small lump had grown. She touched her breast and it felt like there were many other lumps. Although she didn't have a family history, she had a bad feeling.
Bunt, who lives in Davie, rushed into her stepmother's office. She laid down on the floor to show her the abnormal tissue and said, "Find me somebody who will pay attention to me and listen to me! Something is wrong!"
After a sonogram at Memorial Regional Hospital, she had another ultrasound, the use of frequency to create images of the inside of the body. The results were inconclusive. The radiologist finally ordered a mammogram, an X-ray picture of the breast.
"A nurse whispered, 'Insurance isn't going to cover that.' The radiologist said, 'I don't care. We will deal with that later.' Nobody wants to give a 25-year-old woman a mammogram," Bunt said. "You have to fight for it."
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Everyone agrees that mammograms save lives, but there is a controversy about the age when women should start undergoing the screening. Only about 7 percent are diagnosed before turning 40.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brest cancer screening guidelines vary among experts. The American Cancer Society recommends women start at age 45, but the American College of Radiology and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend they start at 40.
The mammogram detected the lumps that Bunt said felt like "the little rocks on a gravel road" in her right breast. That same day she had a biopsy, a procedure to remove a sample of the suspicious tissue for closer examination.
"There were so many little bumps. It wasn't painful. It was just noticeable," Bunt said. "It was close to the skin. My daughter helped me, because before I started breast feeding I really wasn't all that aware of my breast."
Bunt was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer, meaning the cancer was growing, but it was still contained in the breast. The most deadly stage is IV, when it has spread to internal organs or bones. She had a fighting chance.
"She was smart and felt that something wasn't feeling right," University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center's Dr. Carmen Calfa said. "She came for a second opinion and she was devastated."
Bunt wanted more children, so her first step was to meet with a fertility specialist, and she decided to freeze her eggs. Chemotherapy, which could compromise fertility, was difficult. She was hospitalized several times. Reality TV was her escape. Social media just made her feel alone.
"I was on that stage when friends were getting married and having babies," she said. "There was nobody in my news feed going through the breast cancer stage."
She had a bilateral mastectomy, surgery to remove both breasts. Since the cancer was so close to the skin of one of the breast, the plastic surgeon used muscle and skin from her back to recreate the right breast. The procedure is known as the latissimus dorsi flap.
"Alyssa was still a toddler who wanted to be held by mom. I was healing on both the front and the back of my body," Bunt said. "It was difficult for both of us."
Radiation therapy used to destroy cancer cells followed. She wore buttoned up shirts and ruffles to hide her chest. The baseball cap hid her short hair. During the reconstruction surgery, a plastic surgeon added a full C silicone breast implant.
"I am confident. I love my scars. Women transform in general, our bodies change, motherhood changes us, but no matter what women can be confident and love their bodies," Bunt said. "We don't live only to think about the way we look. There is so much more to life than that."
She said she shares the nightmare of her diagnosis January 2011 to try to save lives. Bunt, now 32, has celebrated eight of Alyssa's birthdays. The single mother works in her family's legal headhunting firm. Her doctor at the University of Miami told her she tested high for a likelihood of recurrence, so she is back in treatment to suppress estrogen levels.
She is devoted to making every second with Alyssa count. October is a fun month for them. It's full of mom-and-daughter events. This year their Halloween costumes are inspired on "The Devil's Storybooks," a children's book by Natalie Babbitt. They will be trick-or-treating with friends in Broward.
Alyssa also enjoys the breast cancer awareness events. She said the pink ribbon reminds her that she can always meet inspiring women like her mom and learn from them. She said it also reminds her that "women are strong and powerful, and can accomplish anything."
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