Having a family history of breast cancer should make a woman very dedicated to having regular check-ups and yearly mammograms. However, sometimes in our busy lives we let things slide, especially when other things come up to distract us.
This was the case with my Aunt Maxine about four years ago. She had a family history of breast cancer that included her sister (my mother), and two aunts on her mother's side of the family. My mother survived, but the two aunts did not.
Aunt Maxine had a suspicious spot on her mammogram and was told to have a repeat mammogram in six months. However, she had a family emergency with one of her children and didn't take time to go back for the repeat mammogram. Those of us who are mothers can relate to this, because we put our children first. In her case though, skipping that mammogram was a grave mistake. When she did finally go back for her yearly exam and mammogram, she had stage IV, invasive breast cancer. She died in July of 2002.
I am giving this overview of my family history for a very important reason: women with a family history of breast cancer need to be very vigilant about having their mammograms and checkups every year, or even every six months, to be on the safe side. Even then, if there is any change from the last one, further testing should be pursued.
I had a mammogram in February of 2003 and there was a slight change from the previous year's film. I was called in for a repeat mammogram along with an ultrasound. Since nothing definite appeared on either test, the change was almost dismissed as calcification. However, having just been through a horrible year of seeing a close family member consumed by the disease, I was not satisfied with that conclusion. I explained this to the radiologist and he agreed that a biopsy should be scheduled "just to be on the safe side."
Sure enough, the biopsy results showed intraductal carcinoma in situ (early stage breast cancer) in the left breast. Although this was not good news, I was not shocked by it. I experienced fear and sadness at first but, in the back of my mind, I always had a plan for how I would deal with it.
I went to my family physician, who referred me to a great specialist at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. The specialist discussed my options with me, even though I already knew I was going to choose the more radical treatment. I had a total bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction on March 4, 2003, and although it was no cakewalk, I have no regrets. Every six months I return to my doctor in Dallas for a checkup and I am doing fine.
My message to all women is this: "Have your mammograms every year." I know it is not a pleasant experience but it is necessary to protect your health. Don't ever skip a repeat mammogram, and if you have a family history of breast cancer, consider having an ultrasound along with your yearly mammogram. If there is any change, don't let anyone dismiss it as "just calcification," because calcification may or may not indicate cancer.
Take charge of your own health and go with your instincts, be persistent and even pushy if you have to be. I was and it saved my life. With early diagnosis and treatment, a woman's survival rate increases. Just ask my mother—she's a 38-year survivor. And my message includes men, too, since roughly 1,450 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
Thanks for the opportunity to get the word out.
Mary Linda Drummond