By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
It is a colorful image depicting an egg carton full of bright yellow lemons. On careful observation, though, each lemon has a subtle flaw. Each flaw is meant to be a helpful illustration to women of typical signs and symptoms of breast cancer.
The eye-catching graphic comes from a set of new educational materials created by an international campaign called “Know Your Lemons.” The materials have recently shown up in doctor’s offices and clinics in Mesquite and the other northeastern Clark County communities. That is thanks to Mesquite resident Kirsten Pearson who has a particular interest in educating women in the importance of informed self-exams for breast cancer.
Pearson was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago. Since that time she has undergone radiation therapy and a double mastectomy. Her prognosis is now good. Doctors have told her that there is barely a 3 percent chance of the cancer returning. But it wasn’t always so positive or certain.
Diagnosed just the week before Thanksgiving last year, Kirsten and her husband Duane held off telling their family until after the Thanksgiving holiday. The couple has three young sons ages 11, 7 and 4.
“We tried not to let it affect Thanksgiving,” Kirsten Pearson said. “Plus one of our sons is a Thanksgiving baby so we didn’t want it to spoil his birthday party.”
But the weeks following were difficult for the family. Pearson explained that once the initial diagnosis was made, it took several weeks of testing, and waiting for results, for doctors to form a plan of action for treatment.
“That was a very hard wait,” Pearson said. “You’re just stuck for a while not knowing quite what you will be facing. There are a lot of unknowns and that can be a scary thing.”
Pearson underwent her mastectomy surgery the week before Christmas last year. She was only in the hospital for a day, but it took several days of pain and discomfort for her recovery.
“It was an emotional time,” she said. “My husband and I went back and forth about how much we should do for Christmas with everything being so uncertain. But we decided that this is even more reason to do it. We didn’t know what the future would hold so we decided to go big or go home. We weren’t going to allow it to disrupt our kids’ lives in that way.”
Pearson admits being very fortunate in her outcome because of an early detection of her disease. In her work as a pharmacist in Mesquite, she understood the importance of regular exams. Her awareness was even further raised by the fact that she has two aunts who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past.
“It is very personal to our family,” Pearson said. “So every October, during Breast Cancer Awareness month, we were all about wearing pink. We always had our boys help us in making pink pumpkins to raise awareness. But still, it was always something that happened to someone else. It is hard to realize that it is happening to you.”
At age 38 when she was diagnosed, Pearson was not yet in the age group recommended for annual mammograms. That is where the concept of monthly self examinations became so important for Pearson’s case. The lump in Pearson’s breast that tipped off her early diagnosis wasn’t discovered from a mammogram, or even from an annual doctor’s visit. Rather, she found it herself in between doctor visits and brought it to the attention of her doctor.
“Women doing self-examination on their breasts has become my biggest push lately,” said Dr. Edward Ofori, Pearson’s gynecologist in Mesquite. “Everyone has got to do it. No matter what age, they should not be waiting a year to see a doctor. They should be doing their own exams every month.”
Ofori said that the past year has seen an interesting surge in breast cancer diagnoses in his Mesquite office. Just in the first half of 2017, Ofori has had not less than 11 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in his office.
Perhaps the most alarming thing is the diversity of women in that group. For example, the usual age division didn’t seem to be a factor. Ofori said that three of the 11 women diagnosed were under 40 years old; one was even in her mid-twenties.
“The most striking thing is that only one of the eleven was a situationm where I actually felt the lump in an annual office exam,” Ofori said. “The other ten were found from self-examination, in between annual office visits.”
Furthermore, family history doesn’t seem to be a major factor in women who are diagnosed. Ofori explained that his office has equipment that can perform genetic testing to see if women are at a hereditary risk for breast cancer. He said that over the years, he has tested more than 200 women, most of whom have already been diagnosed with the cancer. Interestingly, only two have ever come back positive for a genetic link to the disease. The greater percentage had no genetic link, he said.
“So it really doesn’t matter whether you have a family link or not,” Ofori said. “Just because you have a clean family record, doesn’t opt you out of doing monthly self-exams.”
This message of early detection through regular self-examination is what Pearson is trying to spread to the women around her in the community.
“It is so simple,” Pearson said. “Yet it is surprising how many women don’t know the various signs to look for that there might be a problem. Even for me, there were signs and symptoms that I didn’t know to look for. So I am just trying to get the word out how important early detection is.”
Pearson has joined forces with the “Know Your Lemons” campaign to get that word out. The posters and pamphlets from this initiative puts in easy-to-understand terms, the various symptoms that women should be looking for in their monthly self-exams, she said.
Besides being a pharmacist, she is also a direct sales independent consultant for a skin care line. Pearson has been devoting all of the profits from this side job to this effort. She also has received financial support from Dr. Ofori and others in the community to help in the expenses of the informational materials.
“I really appreciate Dr. Ofori and all of the support that I have received from the community and from my family in getting this started,” Pearson said.
Her goal this year is to utilize those resources to reach out and bring awareness to as many women in the community as possible.
She ordered a large poster to be framed and placed in the waiting area of Dr. Ofori’s office. She also ordered 5,000 pamphlets that she is placing in other doctor’s offices and medical facilities all over town. All of that began distribution throughout the community last week.
Pearson’s hope is that the information in these materials might help to save lives through bringing early detection of the disease.
“If I can help somebody, even one person, to get an early diagnosis where they wouldn’t have otherwise, then it will all be worth it,” she said.