Breast cancer survivor urges self-advocacy, positivity

Kettering woman pushed for early mammogram because of family’s history.

Breast cancer can hit anyone at any age. And sometimes it strikes younger women who aren’t yet eligible for insurance covered mammograms.

Carrie Graf of Kettering was just 39 years old when she was diagnosed. But her breast cancer may not have been caught had she not insisted on getting a mammogram early. Most healthy women without a family history are not referred for mammogram screenings until they reach age 40.

Graf’s experiences will be why she’s gathering with family and friends to walk in Saturday’s Making Strides of Greater Dayton 5K Walk to raise awareness of breast cancer and money for research. The walk begins at 9 a.m. at at Day Air Ballpark.

“My aunt was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer four years ago,” Graf said. “My dad also passed away from brain cancer and there is cancer on both sides of my family.”

Still, that family history wasn’t strong enough for Graf’s insurance to agree to cover her mammogram before age 40. But Graf had a strong feeling and mentioned it during her annual visit with her gynecologist.

“My doctor said that unless I was feeling anything that wasn’t right, I wasn’t old enough to worry about it yet,” Graf said.

She pushed and agreed to pay for the screening out of pocket and had her first mammogram on May 5 of 2021. The scans looked clear except for one area of dense breast tissue, which required an ultrasound follow-up.

“I came in for my ultrasound the following weekend,” Graf said. “Everything was going well and then the tech started digging around in my armpit area on my left side and it hurt because there was a bump there.”

Graf said she thought this was just irritation from the underwire in her bra rubbing the spot, but during the ultrasound, something didn’t seem right.

“When I was done, they told me not to leave yet,” Graf said. “I went to see the supervisor in her office who told me they found some areas of concern.”

Within a few days, Graf returned for a biopsy and placement of tissue markers. Graf was told that she would have the results within a week.

“I saw the results in MyChart in three days,” Graf, who works as a dental hygienist, said. “Because of my job, I was able to pick out some key words.”

When she read the words “necrosis,” and “invasive ductal carcinoma in multiple areas,” Graff knew this meant cancer. Her gynecologist called the following day and confirmed the diagnosis of breast cancer.

Graf decided to ask her doctor for a referral to the Kettering Cancer Center so she could receive specialized treatment. Within a few days, she was sitting across from her surgical oncologist who explained her cancer was stage 1B - still early but there was a large enough area that a single mastectomy was recommended.

“I had my tubes tied after my third child,” Graff, who is mother to Owen, 13; Charlotte, 10; and Remy, 8 years old, said. “I told her without hesitation that I wanted a double mastectomy.”

Graf had researched mastectomy surgery and that same day met with a plastic surgeon about a newer type of reconstruction called a Diep Flap. The procedure involves using blood vessels, fat and skin from the lower belly to rebuild the breasts. Graf also knew there was a possibility she would need radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

“I was diagnosed on May 27 of last year and had my mastectomy surgery on July 19,” Graf said. “I stayed one night and was doing so well that I went home to recover.”

Surprised at how quickly she recovered, Graf focused on maintaining a positive attitude throughout, as her aunt had done before her.

“My aunt was given 18 months to live after diagnosis,” Graf said. “And it’s five years later and she is still here and healthy!”

Post-surgery, Graf saw her plastic surgeon weekly to have saline injected in the expanders for reconstruction. During that time she met with a radiologist who said that radiation didn’t seem necessary since the surgery successfully removed all the cancer.

Relieved, Graf met with her oncologist to discuss chemotherapy, which at first also seemed unnecessary. But testing revealed her tumor was aggressive and four rounds of chemo was indicated.

“I ended up having symptoms from the chemo,” Graf said. “Fatigue, bone pain and I did lose my hair.”

While Graf and her husband, Perry, had tried to be honest and open with their children throughout her cancer journey, Graf said her youngest struggled more, especially once she lost her hair.

“He started asking me more about death and dying,” Graf said. “But I explained everything and stayed very positive.”

As the one-year anniversary of the end of Graf’s cancer treatment approaches, she has returned to her full-time job, changed her diet completely and is focusing on a healthy lifestyle. She will continue to take medication for five years and decided to have a partial hysterectomy to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes, both sources of estrogen, which can cause cancer relapses. In April of this year, she had her breast reconstruction surgery.

“I participated in the Making Strides Walk last year,” Graf said. “I did it once before when I was in school but this time, it really meant something more to me.”

Graf plans to gather her family and friends again this year and walk in the annual American Cancer Society event.

“It means so much to me to be able to share this journey and educate everyone,” Graf said. “The biggest thing is that I want people to be proactive and advocate for themselves. Staying positive is key because if you don’t have a good outlook, it can make you sicker than you are.”

Making Strides of Greater Dayton 5K Walk

When: Rolling start 9 to 11 a.m. today, Oct. 15; Check-in and registration opens at 8:30 a.m., closes at 11:30 a.m.

Where: Day Air Ballpark, 220 N. Patterson Blvd., Dayton

More info: Stop at registration if you need to register members of your team or turn in money. Otherwise, teams can start their walk anytime between 9 and 11 a.m. Walk will be held rain or shine. There are two routes - a 1-mile walk and a 3-mile walk.

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