MARYLAND (WDVM) — It was the diagnosis Krish O’Mara Vignarajah never thought she would hear. On Mother’s Day of 2020, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, the former Maryland gubernatorial candidate, refugee advocate, and breast cancer survivor hopes the awareness for the disease to continue even after October is over.
Vignaraja initially postponed her mammogram due to concerns about the pandemic. Now, she hopes that other women, especially women of color, will learn from her experience if they consider passing up their routine doctor’s visits.
“During the pandemic, I had noticed a little lump and when my doctor’s nurse had called to cancel my annual appointment, I mentioned that I had detected something small. While they rescheduled my annual they offered a mammogram immediately,” Vignarajah explained. “And then two weeks later, thank God, I woke up and I had this very forceful thought that I needed to go into the doctor and just make sure there was nothing.”
Vignarajah says she knew immediately that something wasn’t right just from the look on the radiologist’s face. After her diagnosis, Vignarajah worked with oncologists at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. She explained as she looked into the treatment options, she was still in shock to have even been diagnosed with cancer. She stated that she knew that she was at higher risk after having her daughter at a later age. She even remembered being called a “geriatric mom.” But she never expected to receive such a diagnosis. Vignarajah explained that she believed she was a healthy person with no family history of breast cancer. She also did a genetic screening to test for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which came back negative.
“I had no idea that one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Early detection was the difference between having more drastic treatments and being able to manage it and, fingers crossed, that I put cancer behind me,” Vignarajah said. “So I really do think that you can’t just assume that you are immune, that you’re Superman or Superwoman, but that you too can fall victim to it.”
She was very outspoken and honest after her diagnosis, as she was about specific topics during her gubernatorial campaign. Vignarajah recalls one of her ads during her campaign where she is breastfeeding her daughter. She pointed out that in the ad, where her daughter was nursing was on her left side where the cancer was identified.
Now, Vignarajah and her doctor believe that breast cancer awareness goes far beyond the pink ribbons and the breast cancer walks and even more importantly, past the month of October.
“So we really want to think about the continuum from rest of prevention to living with cancer or beyond cancer and what different people can do to reduce the risk or to live longer if they do live with their cancer,” Dr. Vered Stearns, Director of Women’s Malignancies Disease Group at Johns Hopkins Medicine, explained. “Again, we have to think about it not just in the month of October, but year-round.”
Vignarajah chose to have one of her breasts removed in a surgery called a lumpectomy. While she did not need to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, she is currently receiving hormone therapy. She has this message for others who might still be putting off routine doctor’s appointments.
“Trust your doctor.”Krish Vignarajah, breast cancer survivor
“Trust your doctor, I should have known by the fact that the nurse while she rescheduled my annual, she immediately gave me the order for a mammogram that this was important,” Vignarajah said. “I think that there is an important signal that I may have missed for a couple of weeks. You know, your doctor knows how to balance the risks of you know, the pandemic, with the needs for routine screenings.”
According to the American Cancer Society, the average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer sometime in her life is about 13 percent. This means there is a 1 in 8 chance that she will develop breast cancer. But health officials believe that the disease can be detected early through screening and increased awareness.