Last night, I heard a report on NPR which so enraged me that I thought I would go through the windshield. A new study is apparently questioning the efficacy of women in their 40’s having yearly mammograms (which, BTW, is recommended by The American Cancer Society). According to the geniuses behind this, only women at risk (i.e., those with dense breasts or a genetic predisposition to breast cancer) need have the test this “early.” They can sit back and wait for their fifth decade before submitting to this admittedly awkward procedure.
Well, let me tell you a little story: if I hadn’t had yearly mammograms in my 40’s, I would be dead right now. Not once, but twice. That’s D – E – A – D, TWICE. And not a lump was ever to be seen. Did I have a history of breast cancer among “a close relative – a mother, sister or daughter.” NO. I can go back to my great-grandmothers and tell you that not a one suffered from this malady. Did I have particularly dense breasts? I did have a history of fibroid tumors dating from my twenties, but most of them had shrunk in the ensuing decades. Therefore, I was the person the solicitous doctors would have spared from mammography. My only hope is that they would come visit me in a comfy corner of Mt. Sinai Cemetery, maybe on Moses Boulevard.
BREAST CANCER #1. The year was 2007, and I was 48. I breezed into The Breast Cancer Center in Bellevue, WA, expecting the same old boring result. Instead, there was a Stage 0 tumor in situ in my right breast. It was so deep it could not even be detected by the mammogram. The doctors noticed that something had changed (which saved my life) and it was via a subsequent ultrasound that the cancer was discovered.
There followed: surgery, and a radiation therapy called Mammosite, which blasts x-rays directly onto the tumor site via catheter. A mere five days, twice a day, and the catheter was removed. I returned to my daily life.
BREAST CANCER #2. The year was 2010. I was 51. Just a smidge past my forties, but, having had breast cancer, I underwent mammograms once a year – and, for at least two years, twice. Everything was hunky dory. There was virtually no chance that Stage 0 cancer would return. But my left breast threw me a curveball: this time, I had aggressive Stage 2 cancer (completely unrelated to the first), and what was worse, it had gotten into my lymph nodes. A visible lump? Nyet. Again, the mammogram was indeterminate and an ultrasound was required.
This time, even I could see the tumor floating on its black background of normal tissue. This time, I had the Full Monty of Therapy: Surgery (on both breasts, since scar tissue had developed on the right); chemotherapy (which put me in the hospital for six days), a year’s worth of Herceptin injections (since I was HER-2 positive); and thirty-five sessions of radiation – the real thing, delivered by a machine the size of a spaceship. Oh yeah, I went bald. Oh yeah, I am on the cancer med Femara for the next five years. But here’s the crucial point: I AM ALIVE.
Had I listened to the well-meaning doctors behind the current study, I would not be writing this. I would have left behind a very sad seventeen-year-old, two orphaned dogs, and a bunny. So I beg you, ladies, literally from the bottom of my heart: HAVE A FUCKING MAMMOGRAM. HAVE ONE EVERY YEAR, THROUGHOUT YOUR FORTIES, regardless of your doctor’s advice. If your insurance won’t pay for it, they are offered FREE or at low-cost through state Medicaid (as are pelvic exams and PAP smears). Please go to this web site, http://breastcancer.about.com/od/Free-Stuff-Cancer/tp/Find-Free-Mammograms.htm, and find the facility closest to you. These are not Third World clinics: the FDA inspects them annually.
This may be the most important advice you ever receive. I’m not saying that cancer treatment is a good time, but it does beat the alternative. Currently, one in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer. That figure is expected to rise to one in five. It’s not the automatic killer it used to be, provided there is early detection. Hey, I’m minus thirteen lymph nodes, but I can still write this blog! Do yourself – and the people who love you – a favor. Hair can grow back (mine is currently shoulder-length, and I started from a baseline of zero). But life is not renewable (reincarnation aside).
Listen to the American Cancer Society. Oddly, they know a little something about cancer. Even if you can’t stay cancer-free, at least be a Survivor. You get to wear a cool pink shirt at the Susan G. Komen Race For The Cure. And they even give you a medal.