Jessica Firestone’s year couldn’t have started better. In 2020, Firestone suffered a miscarriage. In 2021, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Her family was growing, but so was a mass inside her breast.
“I tend to do breast exams, but it honestly felt like a clogged duck. I didn’t feel an urge to get it checked out because I thought it was just milk. It should work its way through eventually. As months went on, it didn’t. Then it kept getting bigger,” said Firestone.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than a third of adults have missed their routine cancer screenings during the pandemic. A Colorado woman hopes her health journey will inspire people to be more conscious of their bodies, especially women of color.
Firestone was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. TNBC accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers.
“I spent my first Mother’s Day weekend with my newborn, alternating between ‘Oh, I have a long life left to live’ and ‘I should start making arrangements for the future,’” said Firestone.
According to the Breast Cancer Organization, Black women who are diagnosed with TNBC are 28% more likely to die than white women. They are also less likely to be treated with surgery and chemotherapy.
Firestone has no family history of cancer. The new mom is just 32 years old.
“They were giving me different options, asking ‘Do you want more kids? Because if you’d like more kids, you should probably go through the process of preserving your eggs,’” said Firestone. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”
Dr. Stephanie Miller is a breast cancer surgeon within the HealthOne system. She’s been treating Firestone.
“This is so scary because it falls out of all of our standard concepts,” said Miller. “Just because you’re young, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Just because you don’t have a family history, it doesn’t mean it can’t be breast cancer.”
Why TNBC disproportionately affects Black women isn’t clear. It could be anything from genetics to socio-economics.
“You worry about not just access to screening, but access to health care resources, and insurance and comprehensive resources to take care of women’s health. Those are true problems that we have in our country,” said Miller. “I think one would have to be blind to think we don’t have some degree of access problems within our country.”
Miller says many health groups are now recommending that Black women start screening at age 35, five years earlier than the suggesting age for white women. She says that age could be even younger depending on family history.
“If they have a family history or a first-degree relative, they should start screening 10 years younger than the age that relative was when they were identified with breast cancer,” said Miller.
Firestone will be recovering from a double mastectomy when her daughter celebrates her first birthday. Because they caught it early, she’ll be around for many more.
“I’m not that target group of women who you’d think gets breast cancer. I really want to put that out there, especially for new moms. I know you’re sleep deprived and so, so tired, but if there’s something there, please get it checked out,” said Firestone.