Facing Stage IV Breast Cancer at 32:
Six months after Carmen Hou gave birth to her healthy baby girl, Evelyn, in January 2016, she noticed two tiny lumps on her left breast. She and her husband thought they were related to breastfeeding at first. After an ultrasound revealed nothing out of the ordinary, it wasn’t until the following winter that Carmen experienced tiny shocks in her chest and upon returning to the doctors, tests confirmed her worst fears: she had breast cancer.
Further tests showed that the tumour had grown to five centimeters and the cancer had spread, escalating her diagnosis to Stage IV. What followed was rigorous chemotherapy treatment, a mastectomy of her left breast (during which surgeons removed 20 lymph nodes, 10 of which were cancerous). Yet the cancer remained active in Carmen’s body.
Two types of precision radiation, a drug trial, and admittance to BC Cancer’s Personalized Onco-Genomics Program (in which Carmen’s DNA was matched to the best treatment option possible) later, and Carmen is holding stable. The cancer isn’t gone, but neither are Carmen’s strength and optimism.
She’s found a supportive art therapy group through which Carmen has formed meaningful friendships. “It’s been a great outlet for my healing journey.” Her goal to travel somewhere new once a month may be on pause during Covid, but the Hou family previously travelled around the globe in an effort to fulfill Carmen’s promise to herself. Her greatest source of joy perhaps, though, is the precious time she gets to spend with Evelyn.
Carmen told Global News in 2019 that wondering whether she’d live long enough to see her daughter grow up wasn’t something that crossed her mind while she was pregnant. Cancer didn’t run in her family — and she was young, by breast cancer stat standards.
Carmen’s oncologist, Dr. Caroline Lohrisch, who’s also the department head of medical oncology at BC Cancer Vancouver, says that “Adding ultrasound to mammograms for dense breasts can help increase the detection rate in women (of any age) who have dense breast tissue. Younger breast tissue is generally denser (the breast is less fatty, which happens with age) and therefore the breast tissue can obscure a mass,” she says. “Fatty breasts are more ‘see through’ on a mammogram and cancers are easier to see if they are there.”
Lohrisch went on to emphasize in the article that “most women are not at risk for developing breast cancer in their 30s. However increased population-based genetic testing could identify women at risk from an early age, and in that population, MRI screening could lead to earlier detection and better outcomes.
“The challenge with that is the availability of the diagnostic tool. But maybe if we had very defined criteria for who should have it then you wouldn’t overwhelm that resource,” she said.
Through her experience, Carmen became a vocal BC Cancer Foundation advocate. She regularly urges women to take control of their medical health by going for regular checkups and performing self-examinations at home
“Listen to your body and if something doesn’t feel right then get it checked out,” she said. “If it’s still bothering you, then maybe ask again. Just noticing any changes and having that open communication with your doctor is really important for early diagnosis,” she told Global. Good advice for women of all ages.