Don’t postpone tests that could save your life

Published 2:36 pm Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m reminded of what a breast cancer diagnosis means to a family.

It’s not only devastating to the patient, it also affects everyone who cares about her.

My personal awareness of breast cancer began in October 1982, when my 52-year-old mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the years before her diagnosis, she had several benign cysts removed, so she wasn’t too worried when she found another lump. She had never had a mammogram before that, probably because it was a fairly new diagnostic tool, which was not available in Bainbridge at that time.

A biopsy, and then a modified radical mastectomy, confirmed that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. It later metastasized to other parts of her body, and she died at age 55, after enduring three years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

To say I have a family history of breast cancer is an understatement.

Each time I fill out the medical questionnaire when I have my annual mammogram, I list the victims in my family: My mother (terminal), three maternal aunts (terminal), and my sister (survivor). Thanks to early detection through mammography and annual exams, my sister has been cancer-free for 23 years.

With such a strong family history of breast cancer, it’s my personal responsibility to make sure I have my yearly physical exams with my doctor and my yearly mammogram, even if I have to appeal to my insurance provider to make sure they pay for the test.

The American College or Radiology (ACR) and The American Cancer Society recommend baseline mammograms for women between 35 and 40 years old. That first “baseline” mammogram is like a map to guide the radiologist in comparing future mammograms. Even small changes may be visible, which can lead to early diagnosis and treatment.

After age 40, it’s recommended that women have a screening mammogram on an annual basis; however, many insurance providers will not pay for annual routine mammograms until women are 50 and older.

A lot has changed in diagnostic technology in the past 26 years since my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Today, Memorial Hospital and Manor is an ACR accredited mammography facility, which also uses a digital computer-aided detection (CAD) system to assist radiologists in identifying abnormalities in mammograms.

According to the National Institute of Health, the patient’s chances for survival are dramatically higher if breast cancer is identified early in Stage 0 or I, which is confined to the duct or local area of the breast.

The five-year survival rate for breast cancer patients decreases from approximately 95 percent for cancers detected and treated at an early stage, to 36 percent for Stage III cancers where cancer has spread to surrounding tissue. The survival rate for late stage cancers that have spread to other organs is only 7 percent.

There is no question that early detection makes all the difference in survival rates, so why do people avoid the tests that could save their lives?

I’ve heard all the excuses why women postpone having mammograms such as “Cancer doesn’t run in my family” or “It hurts too much.”

Actually, family history is only one of the risk factors for breast cancer. Statistics indicate that at least 85 percent of women who develop breast cancer have no family history.

As for mammograms hurting too much, all I have to say is, “Mammograms are uncomfortable for only a minute, but chemotherapy or radiation treatments go on for months or years when cancer is not stopped at an early stage. Mammograms are a minor inconvenience compared to the treatment for advanced cancer.”

You choose which you would rather endure.

You can keep putting it off, or you can talk to your doctor about ordering a mammogram for you.

You could also come to Memorial Hospital and Manor’s Women’s Health Day Thursday, Oct. 30, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and take advantage of a free physical breast exam, which is useful in detecting breast lumps.

The hospital is also offering a wellness profile for $18, flu shots for $25, and free screenings, including physical breast exams.

A separate Community Health Fair for men and women will be held on Nov. 12 at the Bainbridge Mall.

For more information about health fairs and breast cancer, visit the hospital’s Web site, www.mh-m.org.

The Women’s Health Day is on Thursday, Oct. 30, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Memorial Hospital and Manor’s Kirbo Women’s Center.