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Doctor shares unusual breast cancer symptom that led to diagnosis

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Like all women who have a regular mammogram to screen for breast cancer, Dr. Robin Hall was relieved when her test results were normal in January 2021.

The breast ultrasound was also good. Hall, a family doctor, always does this additional test because she has very dense breast tissue, which appears white on a mammogram – the same color a tumor would look like. So an ultrasound gives you a better look at what’s inside.

With no signs of cancer in those two tests, Hall looked ready for next year. But that summer, she began to notice that her right breast was getting bigger than her left.

The Doctor.  Robin Hall has been vigilant about breast cancer screening for 25 years.
The Doctor. Robin Hall has been vigilant about breast cancer screening for 25 years.Courtesy Mike Lewis Photography

“Most women are a little asymmetrical anyway. But then one morning I woke up and I wasn’t subtle anymore and I said, ‘We have a problem,'” Hall, 63, who lives in suburban Forth Worth, Texas, tells TODAY.com.

“I would never have dreamed that a few months before everything was fine and then it changed like this.”

The doctor knew that breast swelling was a possible warning sign, so she had another mammogram and it was yet normal.

But Hall could see the change, so she had another ultrasound and that’s when the radiologist finally found the tumor. The diagnosis: a very fast-growing breast cancer that was buried deep in Hall’s dense breast tissue.

Eight months after her normal mammogram and ultrasound, she underwent a double mastectomy in September 2021. Doctors advised removing both breasts because her tissue was too dense and because she was at a higher risk of getting cancer in the other breast. The tumor itself was 1.5 inches in diameter.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have captured it when we did, especially with how quickly it was growing and the size it had already reached in that short period of time,” says Hall.

Look for changes in the breasts

She encourages women to look in the mirror once a month to look for changes in their breasts.

“This is super important… You don’t necessarily need to feel a mass, but if you see that one breast is getting bigger than the other and it wasn’t always like that; or if you see wrinkled or dimpled skin; or if one nipple is pulling in and the other isn’t—anything that’s different about one from the other, even if you had a regular mammogram two or three months ago, you still need to get it checked out,” Hall says.

“Also, order an ultrasound, especially if you have dense breast tissue.”

About half of women age 40 and older have dense breasts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Former TODAY host Katie Couric is one of them and she routinely had a breast ultrasound for that very reason, she revealed this year when she announced that she had breast cancer.

If your insurance doesn’t cover a breast ultrasound, ask the radiology center for the cash payment price, advises Hall. It’s often not that expensive.

Journey from Doctor to Patient

Hall has been vigilant about breast cancer screening for 25 years – ever since she was 38 and felt a mass in her other breast. When she insisted it be removed, the lump turned out to be atypical hyperplasia, the step just before cancer.

This meant that her risk of breast cancer was about four to five times that of a woman without breast abnormalities, according to the American Cancer Society.

Hall has no family history of breast cancer and is concerned that others like her are lulled into a false sense of security.

“I can’t tell you how many women in my practice over the years — and I’ve cared for tens of thousands of patients over that time — say, ‘I’m not worried, we don’t have a family history.’ But what people don’t know is that 85% of breast cancer cases are sporadic, meaning there is no family history,” she notes.

“The two biggest risk factors for breast cancer are: #1, being female and #2, getting older. So, as we age, all women are at greater risk.”

Like a doctor listening to her own diagnosis, Hall remembers going into “let’s handle this” mode. Doctors don’t always make the best patients, and it was strange to go from being a doctor requesting treatment to being the person receiving it, she says.

Courtesy Mike Lewis Photography

As a patient, Hall was sometimes frustrated by the lack of communication and kindness in healthcare. She remembers recovering in the hospital after her mastectomy, when a nurse insisted that she get up and walk around to avoid developing blood clots. Hall was nauseous from the pain meds and said she couldn’t make it.

But the nurse “was told to get up and walk and she just wanted to do this task,” says Hall, noting that she ended up sitting on the floor to avoid passing out. “I think sometimes, when people are taking care of other people for a long time, they get a little burned out and forget there’s a person there… rule number 1: you have to listen to the patient.”

Today, more than a year after surgery and breast reconstruction, Hall says she’s doing well. She did not need to undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy. But there was a health setback this past Christmas — she got COVID-19, which left her with brain fog. It all contributed to a difficult year recovering from surgeries, general anesthesia and the coronavirus.

Now, she feels more like herself again. The doctor works part-time at the concierge clinic she founded, which allows her to travel and write a book.

“If I didn’t know and just got a regular mammogram and just trusted that, I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in now,” she says.

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