Go Pink or Go Home
I generally try to keep things light in this space. You won’t often come across anything of real consequence here; my goal is to make you chuckle or roll your eyes. This month is an exception. I need your close attention because this is important.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I always try to use the month to heighten awareness, which is why I wear my breast cancer awareness bracelets every day. Putting all six of them on every morning is time-consuming, but their noisy response to my every move throughout the day seems to be a perfect way to get people’s attention.
My own dance with breast cancer began in the radiologist’s office. I was about to undergo a biopsy based on the results of the mammogram I had the day before.
“I have to be honest with you,” he said. “I feel certain we’re going to find some cancer here.” He showed me my mammogram films, which featured little black dots known as calcifications. Several years earlier, my doctor had ordered a biopsy because I had seven of them. This current mammogram showed a tornado-like conglomeration of approximately seven thousand calcifications. They were so dense they almost blocked the mass they surrounded. Even I could tell it was cancer.
I would have thought my first impulse would be to ask, “Why me?” But the question that came to my mind was, “Why not me?” I should have expected this. Several close friends and acquaintances too numerous to count were in treatment for breast cancer or counting their cancer-free years following treatment. Why wouldn’t it happen to me? It happens to so many.
I immediately went about the business of “battling” breast cancer, as they say. I sought advice from experts, and it is no coincidence that my oncologist and surgeon were the best in their fields. That is why I picked them. There were multiple surgeries, which gave way to chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy. I made Jell-O. I bought a wig. I started a file for the countless medical bills and benefit statements that took over my desk. It wasn’t fun, but it was doable. The whole thing took about six months and ended with a celebration that included pink champagne, pink rose centerpieces and lots of pink presents.
Last month marked the twentieth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, giving me the coveted title of twenty-year survivor. I used to look at long-term survivors as heroes; their success gave me hope for my own survival. While my oncologist reminds me, you’re never out of the woods–breast cancer can metastasize at any time–the likelihood of recurrence somewhere else in your body decreases dramatically over multiple years. That’s good news for me.
A routine mammogram revealed my cancer when I had absolutely no symptoms. There is some debate among health care experts about when a woman should start having regular mammograms. Some say they should start at age 40 and others say age 50. Having been diagnosed at age 48, I tend to agree with the American Cancer Society, which advises routine mammograms for all women over 45. Had I waited until I was 50, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column right now.
It’s estimated there will be almost 300,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the United States this year. On the outside chance yours might be one of them, do yourself a favor and schedule a mammogram today. Early detection is key to survival. Cancer treatment is no day at the beach, but it’s certainly superior to the alternative.
The global pandemic we’ve been living with for almost two years now has taken a toll on preventive healthcare measures. People are putting off screenings and tests, and doctors say our overall health will suffer as a result. Don’t let your breast health fall prey to COVID-19. Put on a mask and get that mammogram.
And men. Don’t think you’re exempt. While it is rare, breast cancer does occur among men. Alert your doctor to anything that doesn’t look or feel right.
A breast cancer survivor I know has a tee shirt that reads, “You’d better believe they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me!” So, there’s your chuckle. Now go schedule your mammogram.