FRIDAY, Oct. 14 (HealthDay News) -- For Diana Rowden, life changed in various ways when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago.

During a routine gynecological exam when she was 38 years old, the doctor examining her breasts thought she felt something unusual.

"She didn't feel a lump," said Rowden, now 58 and living in Dallas. "She felt a thickening of the left breast. That was the first indication something might be wrong."

The doctor recommended that Rowden have a mammogram. She'd had a screening mammogram at age 35, so the technicians had a basis for comparison. "They could detect a change in the left breast," Rowden said. "From there, they recommended I have a biopsy."

Worry set in, she recalled.

"I had a friend who was diagnosed at age 36, so I was a little bit concerned," Rowden said. "But I wasn't freaked out. I just wanted to follow up and head off any problems."

This was back in the days before minimally invasive needle biopsies so Rowden had a surgical biopsy, during which they found no cancer but did find areas of abnormal cell growth that put her at high risk for developing breast cancer.

Rowden said she was given two courses of action: They could monitor her closely, performing quarterly breast examinations, or she could have a bilateral mastectomy to remove her left breast.

"I ended up opting for the surgery, based on a feeling that I needed to take care of it," she said. Her mother had died of uterine cancer four years earlier, and Rowden said she's certain that weighed in her decision.

Her instincts were more correct than she could have known.

During the surgery, doctors found a tumor in her left breast, in a different area than what had been biopsied.

"I was actually quite relieved," Rowden recalled of hearing the news that she did, in fact, have breast cancer. "I had basically felt like, well, at least I didn't have this surgery for nothing."

After the tumor was tested, Rowden said, an oncologist told her that she could have chemotherapy but it might not be of much use. "He said it wouldn't buy me much benefit because I had a particularly slow-growing tumor," she said. "He presented it as my choice. I decided not to have chemotherapy."

She has remained cancer-free. However, she explained, breast cancer altered the course of her life.

She had been a technical writer, working on software manuals that few people ever read. After her surgery, she became a breast cancer advocate and now works as the vice president of survivorship and outcomes for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a nonprofit group focused on combating breast cancer .

Among the most important advice she gives to women diagnosed with the disease, she said, is to slow down and take your time.

"It's not an emergency in terms of making a decision today," she said. "I think it's helpful to give people permission to do a little homework and think about the decisions they have to make."

More information

A companion article details advances in breast cancer treatment.