Does that title sound overly dramatic? Perhaps to some it is. To me, it’s 100% truth. The very first mammogram I ever had detected something suspicious and I quickly learned how valuable early screenings are for women.
Several months ago, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Services or USPSTF (say that after a glass of wine!) changed the recommendation of when to start mammogram screenings. Despite the expertise of many medical practitioners as well as studies that have shown breast cancer mortality rates decrease with earlier detection, their committee of experts moved the suggested age to begin screenings from 40 to 50. Say what? Apparently the increase in false positives and over diagnosis were more harmful than beneficial in their eyes.
You want to get a survivor fired up? You just tell her something like this: “Oh, there are too many false positives and it’s really stressful for the person who has to go through that scare.” Or watch how she cringes when you say something like “Early mammograms really don’t detect the ‘harmful’ cancers.”
I had no lumps or reason to suspect that something was growing within my breast. In fact, I went as a walk-in for a mammogram at the prodding of my OB/Gyn because I had just turned 40. Their offices were next to each other so I literally left one appointment and walked one doorway over for the mammogram because it was convenient. I was moving from Iowa to Ohio the next week so I needed to knock out as many medical appointments as I could before the move.
When I received the follow up call to come back a few days later, I wasn’t terribly concerned. After all, the mammographer had assured me that many women get called back after their first mammogram because there’s no baseline for comparison’s sake. She also mentioned that many young women have dense breast tissue (thus making mammograms harder to read). I shuttled my kids (then 8 and 4 years old) off to the neighbor’s house and said “I’ll only be an hour.”
Three hours later, after the follow up mammogram and an ultrasound, I found myself face down getting a biopsy. They whisked me into the room and expedited services due to my upcoming move. My appointment was on a Friday and movers were packing up my house on Monday so there was no time to waste.
After the biopsy, I sat bruised and uncertain. I would have to wait a very long weekend to know the results. Still, I was young and in good shape. Certainly I was too healthy to get cancer. I was confident the results would come back negative. I didn’t know anyone my age with cancer. I was a mom. Moms don’t get cancer.
I’ve blogged about this before and I’ll say it again. Nothing prepares you for bad news. My mind could not comprehend the words I was hearing. The man on the other end of the receiver was telling me he was sorry. He had to share bad news. I took the phone call as I sat in my packed up office, fumbling to find something to write with as the doctor rattled off my diagnosis. As I was taking in this news, the men from the moving company were whizzing all around the house from room to room. There was no private place to curl up and hide. Instead, I scribbled down words that made no sense. After I hung up, I tried to make heads or tails of what he told me. What did he mean by “an area of micro invasion”? That can’t be good. What’s grade 1 mean? Is that a stage? It was as if someone had slipped me a math equation that I hadn’t studied before but I was being tested right there on the spot.
I won’t bore you with all the details. Certainly, I’ve written enough on this topic already (because, you know, it’s therapeutic!). What I do want to make abundantly clear is the significance of that first mammogram. I ended up with stage 1 ductal carcinoma. I had an area of micro invasion that had penetrated the duct –rather than in situ (considered noninvasive and where the cancer has not yet penetrated the lining of the duct). So mine was not a simple case. Luckily, after a lumpectomy and the removal of three lymph nodes, pathology showed the cancer had not spread.
Sometimes I can’t believe that this is my story. It could have turned out so differently. What if I hadn’t turned 40 and not been prompted to get a mammogram? With these new guidelines, I would still have another 8 years before a mammogram (I’m such a young 42 right now). Are you doing the math with me? That’s ten years for cancerous cells to travel from my breast tissue to other tissue, bones, or organs in my body. I shudder to think of the consequences in my life had I not had that early detection. I’m grateful that I sit here sharing my story with you rather than someone else sharing this with my sons after I’m gone.
Today, I will be getting my two year follow up mammogram post surgery (they start the 2 year monitoring clock following the first mammogram 6 months AFTER surgery). I get mammograms every six months so my “girls” are closely monitored now. I also get yearly MRIs. Time passes but it never gets easier. I will likely get sweaty palms and a case of scanxiety as I sit in the waiting room in a flimsy gown, waiting for my radiologist to read my scans/images. This is life after cancer. I’m ok with it. I go because I know that knowing SOMETHING is better than the surprise alternative.
Women, chicas, sisters, lady friends–do not put off your mammograms. Yes, I know they are mighty uncomfortable and getting your ta tas smooshed like a pancake is unpleasant, but do not delay. I strongly urge you to start screenings at age 40. I didn’t think it could happen to me. After all, the risk of breast cancer for women aged 40 is only 1.45% (you can read more statistics at breastcancer.org). Get the mammograms yearly and talk with your doctor if you are younger but have a family history of breast cancer.
I will remain a loud advocate for earlier screenings and cannot/will not squander this opportunity to use my voice. I don’t mind serving as a poster child for this issue and I will continue to share my story because a mammogram saved my life.