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How To Save A Life...GET A MAMMOGRAM
Awareness and Early Detection Are the Keys to Surviving Breast Cancer
First, you should know, I am a breast cancer survivor, and thriver. I do not have medical training, and am writing this article about my personal experience. Second, if you think the capital letters in the title mean that I am yelling at you...you are absolutely correct. This message is just that important. Mammograms save lives! I am living proof.
I chose today to publish this article for a very special reason. Today was my mother's birthday. She would have been 74 years old. She died of breast cancer at the age of 43. I still miss her to this day. She was diagnosed in 1976, at the age of 39. By the time her cancer was found, it had already spread to several of her lymph nodes. She died four years later.
At that time, mammograms were only recommended for woman over 50 years old. In the thirty-five years since then, there have been so many advancements in both the ability to detect, and to treat this disease. Please do not think that because there is no history of breast cancer in your family, that you do not need a yearly mammogram. My mother was the first person in our entire family to get this disease. You also need to remember that only about 5% of cancers are hereditary, and in fact I do not carry the BRCA 1 or 2 gene mutations that are often found in members of families with multiple breast cancers.
Although I was also diagnosed with breast cancer at the relatively young age of 47, my story is a very different one. I get mammograms every year, religiously. Due to my family history, I had my first mammogram at the age of 27. This provided a baseline for my doctor to use to compare future mammography films to, as well as peace of mind for me.
In 2009, my mammogram showed calcium deposits. As the radiologist explained to me, when calcium deposits clump together, it can mean that there is cancer present. After the mammogram, I was immediately scheduled for a sonogram and an MRI. Both of those tests showed no abnormal findings. At the conclusion of the three tests, I was given two options: 1) to wait three months and then follow-up with another mammogram, 2) to have a breast biopsy.
This was a very easy choice for me. When there is the slightest possibility of cancer, waiting is not an option. I scheduled the first available appointment for the biopsy. It was an easy test, and really didn't hurt at all. I received my results back a few days later. I did, in fact, have breast cancer. Even though both the MRI and sonogram were clear, my mammogram detected the cancer at its very earliest stage.
I am very fortunate to have an incredible breast surgeon, who also happens to be a breast cancer survivor. She explained to me that she believed the cancer to be DCIS, cancer of the duct that had not yet spread. Much to my surprise, I did not worry, or lose any sleep throughout this process. In my heart, I always knew that I was going to be ok.
My doctor explained to me that I could have a lumpectomy (removal of the cancerous tissue only, leaving the rest of the breast in tact,) followed by radiation treatments, and five years of Tamoxifen (an oral drug that helps to prevent the reoccurrence of cancer in women whose cancer is estrogen receptive...as mine was.)
The other option was a mastectomy (removal of all of the breast tissue and nipple.) It took no more than a few minutes for me to know what my right answer was. I chose to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I scheduled my surgery for a few weeks later.
At the conclusion of the breast cancer portion of the surgery, my plastic surgeon took over. He put saline tissue expanders in place of the actual breast tissue. This all occurred during the same surgery. I spent two days in the hospital. By the time I got home, the vast majority of the surgical pain was gone. At that point, my biggest problem was that I was bored, and tired of sitting still. Note...the sitting still part is really important to the healing process.
The plastic surgeon filled my expanders with a small amount of saline once every few weeks, until they reached the desired size. I had a second surgery a few months later to remove the expanders, and put in permanent, silicone implants. This was a quick, out-patient surgery, after which I had absolutely no pain. A few months later my plastic surgeon "tattooed" on nipples in his office, and the process was complete.
Even though the vast majority of my breast tissue is gone, I see my breast surgeon every six months. I also have a sonogram and an MRI alternately, every six months. Because I chose the mastectomy, I did not need any radiation treatments, and did not need to take Tamoxifen. Because the mammogram detected my cancer before it had spread, I did not need chemotherapy either.
Not a single minute, of a single day goes by, when I am not extremely certain that I made the right decision about my treatment option. Losing my mother when I was 18 years old gave me the perspective I have today. I have two children of my own now, and I know how life altering it is to lose a parent. I made sure that I did everything I possibly could, to make sure that my own children did not have to go through that same pain, beginning with getting regular mammograms.
During my diagnosis and treatment, I was certain about two things...I was making the right decision, and I was going to be just fine! I was very proud of myself for being so strong, and truly not worrying. Making the decisions that I knew were right for me, aided in that process. I let go of the vanity part of the equation, and was able to find humor, and laugh at myself. I figured I was done having (and nursing) children. I did not need what had basically become marshmallow fluff stuffing inside of my breasts anyway...so what was I really losing. Heck, I was getting upgraded models. The most comical part of this whole process to me, was the fact that I am not someone who would ever choose to have breast implants. I am also 100% opposed to tattoos. Now I have both. How do you tell your teenagers they can't get tattoos when their mom has two of them!
If you are a woman, or man with a mother, sister, girlfriend, etc...make sure that the women you love get regular mammograms. I believe that in life, things happen for a reason. My reason was so I could share my story with others. If I meet you on the street someday, and in conversation I find out that you have not been getting regular mammograms...be prepared to get a long lecture from me. And trust me...the lecture is much more painful that the mammogram itself! :)
FOLLOW-UP NOTE: See my article entitled, "My Alien Mammogram and the Great News It Provided for Me." The link is immediately following this article.