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Woman Was Denied a Mammogram at Age 30 — but Ended Up with Stage 4 Breast Cancer: 'I Was Failed by the System'

Woman Was Denied a Mammogram at Age 30 — but Ended Up with Stage 4 Breast Cancer: 'I Was Failed by the System'

Philecia La'Bounty was living her best Southern California life in 2018 — hiking, traveling, modeling part-time — until she felt the lump.

She'd been at the movies when she adjusted her sports bra and felt a "marble-size" lump in her left breast. When she got home, she asked for a second opinion from her boyfriend Brent Maggard, who agreed that something felt off.

La'Bounty was an administrative assistant at a family medical practice, so she asked the physicians there to take a look. They referred her to a free program near her home in Huntington Beach, Calif. for further examination, since, as a per diem worker, she wasn't covered by insurance.

Through an ultrasound, doctors found what they thought was a benign cyst. But La'Bounty wasn't convinced: "It was not normal for me," she says. When La'Bounty asked for a mammogram, the public program denied her request. "I was told, 'You're 30, you're healthy. You have no other symptoms, no family history of breast cancer.' " She asked for the paperwork to be resubmitted, but it came back again as denied.

RELATED: Katie Couric Reveals Breast Cancer Diagnosis as She Urges Others to Get Annual Mammograms

For the next several months La'Bounty tried to ignore the lump, but it kept growing. "It was massive — it was showing through my modeling dresses," recalls La'Bounty, now 35. She insisted on another appointment, and this time, a doctor who felt the lump ordered a a mammogram immediately.

30-Year-Old Learned She Had Stage 4 Cancer After Being Denied a Mammogram: ‘I Was Told I Was Too Young for Cancer’
30-Year-Old Learned She Had Stage 4 Cancer After Being Denied a Mammogram: ‘I Was Told I Was Too Young for Cancer’

Courtesy Philcia La'Bounty

"I went back to work, and within two hours I got a phone call and was asked to come back to the facility," she says. "The doctor had written the words 'breast cancer' on a paper with a referral to a breast center. I needed to get biopsied as soon as possible."

She had 8 biopsies and another mammogram over the next few days, along with a CT scan and PT scan. While awaiting the results, "I was having a lot of anxiety," she says. "I told Brent, 'I can't breathe. I just want to go to the emergency room.' " There, she learned why she was short of breath: She had tumors on both her lungs. The cancer had also metastasized to a lymph node in her armpit and her sternum. "I started sobbing," she says. "I didn't want to die."

Philecia La'Bounty, denied a mammogram eight months before she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer
Philecia La'Bounty, denied a mammogram eight months before she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer

Courtesy of Philecia La’Bounty, Instagram: @philecia | TikTok: @philecialabounty

What followed was months of being "poked and prodded," six rounds of chemo and an "endless cycle of feeling not well." She and Maggard had planned on having kids so they rushed a fertility treatment before she had surgery to remove her fallopian tubes and ovaries as a preventative measure. That threw her body into menopause. "It all happens so fast that you don't really have time to process it," she says.

La'Bounty was angry. "I did what you're supposed to do — and I was failed by the system," she says. She started sharing her story on TikTok to help other women. "Had I seen someone my age going through anything remotely close to what I was dealing with, I would have fought harder," she says. " If you feel something's not right, don't settle until you find out what it is."

To read more about Philecia La'Bounty's cancer journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

While her latest scans show no active cancer, "for right now, I'm on oral chemo for the rest of my life," she says. "I have chemo brain, depression, anxiety, hot flashes, fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain."

Philecia La'Bounty, denied a mammogram eight months before she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer
Philecia La'Bounty, denied a mammogram eight months before she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer

Courtesy of Philecia La’Bounty, Instagram: @philecia | TikTok: @philecialabounty

Through it all, La'Bounty says Maggard, 38, who works in the off-road vehicle industry, has been her champion. "Our life has been put on hold, from buying a house to having a family." Since La'Bounty was able to freeze some of her eggs, the couple, who have been together nine years, hope to find a surrogate. "I'll never be able to carry my own children," she says. "Cancer took that from me."

RELATED: Olivia Newton-John's 30-Year Cancer Journey: Inside Her Work to Champion Cancer Research and Wellness

But the couple won't give up. "He just keeps our life active and happy," La'Bounty says. "We don't lay down and die. We just keep trying to keep living the best we can."

These days she is using TikTok to encourage other women to advocate for themselves — "telling someone they can't have a test because of their age is asinine and unacceptable" — and to create awareness about the struggles of stage 4 cancer survivors. "I just answer people's questions as honestly as I can, but only what other survivors and fighters can handle, because I don't want to put too much out there and ruin someone else's day."

Overall, she is blown away by the support of others. "The community has been super amazing," she says. "It pushes me to be better and to keep posting because I get comments like, 'I'm scheduling my mammogram because of you,' or 'You've helped me get through this part of my chemo.' I've also had husbands say, 'Thank you so much for posting this because my wife doesn't want to talk about it, but you're giving me insight into how she's feeling.' "

She adds: "I beat cancer, but I will be dealing with this for the rest of my life."