Finding out that you have cancer is a shock for anyone. But the news was particularly surprising for Makiki resident Christa Wittmier, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in May.
“It broke my spirit,” said the 39-year-old writer for Honolulu's Nightlife Diaries. “I’ve never been around cancer. It’s never been in my family. I’m not even 40.”
Wittmier went to a doctor after she noticed changes in the shape of her left breast. She didn’t think it was serious and thought it was part of normal body changes as you get older. The cancer had spread to other parts of her body and she was given a 30-percent chance of survival.
“It seems so many people are getting breast cancer when they’re young, but no one’s talking to women my age about mammograms,” she said.
Wittmier lost her blond locks during her 20 weeks of chemotherapy. But she kept a positive outlook throughout the treatment.
New screening guidelines
The American Cancer Society issued new guidelines this week saying women should start getting annual mammograms starting at age 45 instead of the previous recommended age of 40. And they can have mammograms every other year beginning at age 55 instead of every year. Why the change? The society points to new studies that show the relatively high false positive rate that leads women to get painful, time-consuming tests that can cause anxiety and fear.
The announcement comes during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
So where does that leave people like Wittmier? She’s one of the less than 7 percent of breast cancer cases that happen in women under age 40 every year. Additionally, breast cancer in younger women tends to be more aggressive and their survival rate is lower than older women, according to WebMD.
What you should do
Talk with your doctor about your risk factors and whether mammograms at a younger age or more frequent screenings are right for you Also, see a doctor if you notice any unusual changes in your breasts.
Beating the odds
Wittmier isn’t letting cancer get her down. She’s made changes to her lifestyle to keep a strong body and positive outlook. They seem to be working.
Smoothies blended with organic kale, spinach, cucumber, fruits, coconut water, chia seeds, ginger, and tumeric provided healthy antioxidants to get her through treatment.
Here are Wittmier's advice for beating the odds:
Eat well. Stopped eating processed foods and cut down on foods with sugar. She now drinks freshly squeezed juices and smoothies made with fresh organic fruits and vegetables.
Reduce stress. She’s cut down on work, social media activities, and watching TV. She watches comedies on DVDs that make her laugh. She also meditates.
Exercise. She lifts light weights to strengthen and tone muscles and has started doing yoga.
Alternative healing. She’s done acupuncture and reiki.
Positive outlook. She surrounds herself with people and things that make her happy. “I’m surrounded by plants, animals, and delicious and nutritious foods. I have things that bring me joy, like photos of family and trips. It’s changed everything,” she said.
A little help from friends
Originally from Washington, Wittmier doesn’t have family in Hawaii. She’s blessed with a tight-knit group of friends who have banded together to create her support network. They take her to chemotherapy treatments, doctors’ appointments, and other daily chores.
“I was amazed at how endlessly positive she was and still is,” says friend Travis Watanabe. “She always was a fireball of positive energy, but even faced with something like this, she never stopped being the same vibrant person.”
Because she prides herself on her independence, it was hard for her to accept help from others. “I didn’t want to burden other people,” she said. “But people wanted to help – they just didn’t know how. Even people who I don’t know wanted to help me.”
Another difficult move was having to cut down on her multiple jobs. “I love my work and feel blessed that I can get paid for things I love doing. But this may be a sign to slow down,” she said.
In addition to being a nightlife writer, Wittmier worked as a DJ for local events in town.
Wittmier helped organize the annual Pow! Wow! Hawaii in Kakaako. Here she is with Hawaii Five-O star Daniel Dae Kim.
Wittmier surrounded herself with friends (even furry ones) for support during chemotherapy.
“I have a will to live. I think we’re all here for a reason and that’s to help as many people as possible and do the things you love to do,” she said.
Photos courtesy of Christa Wittmier.