How many women get breast cancer? Alarmingly, about 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12.4%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. On a positive note, breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. began to decrease in 2000, after increasing for the previous two decades. In fact, they dropped by 7% from 2002 to 2003 alone. One theory is that this decrease was partially due to the reduced use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by women after the results of a large study called the Women's Health Initiative were published in 2002. These results suggested a connection between HRT and increased breast cancer risk. Tragically, about 40,920 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2018 from breast cancer, even though death rates have been decreasing since 1989. These decreases are thought to be the result of advanced treatments, early detection through screening, and increased awareness.*
Early breast cancer detection saved my sister’s life so I know first-hand the importance of having regular mammograms and gynecological exams. Yet sometimes we allow our busy lives to get in the way of scheduling these very necessary screenings. I am no exception. How often do I need to have a mammogram? I have to admit that I have stretched out my screenings to 2 years and sometimes longer but I’ve always justified the delays because I was “just so busy”. In fact, just this year, I was past due for my mammogram and annual exam. Scheduling them had been on my To Do List for some time but I hadn’t gotten around to it.
Recently, because of my delays, I got the scare of my life. I’d like to share that experience in hopes of encouraging you to be diligent in following through with your cancer screenings. I will preface by saying that everything turned out ok and my story has a happy ending, but this was the most terrifying few days of my life.
Several days prior to making my appointments for the screenings, some weird things happened that made me think, “Is someone trying to tell me something?” I saw a video on social media about a young, seemingly healthy woman who was diagnosed with cancer. She was encouraging women to have their mammograms. Then a couple days later I got this random, automated phone call instructing me to call a phone number I didn’t recognize to confirm my appointment. They left no company name or doctor’s name so I looked the phone number up online to discover it was a mammography center. I thought to myself, “Ok! Ok! I get the hint.” so I made the call to schedule the appointment and had my mammogram the following Monday. Why in the world had I put this off? It was super convenient. The mammography center was 15 minutes from my house and mammograms don’t take much time, only about 20 – 30 minutes. Insurance even covered the entire cost of my mammogram. I could finally check that one off my list.
The next day, while sitting in the car line waiting for my son to get out of school I received a phone call that rocked my world. It was the mammography center instructing me that they saw something abnormal in the images of my left breast and a second mammogram and possibly an ultrasound was needed to clarify whether it was cancer or not. Immediately fear crept in because it had been 3 years since my last mammogram. I could picture this huge tumor that had 3 years to grow without detection. How could this happen? Why would I have breast cancer? I’m healthy! I exercise. I eat healthy. I take all the right supplements. I use chemical free products. I even use natural, aluminum-free deodorants.
They scheduled my second mammogram for Thursday. A doctor would be there to view the images, perform an ultrasound if necessary and give me the results before I left the office. Needless to say, that was the longest 48 hours of my life. I spent that 48 hours in constant prayer. I kept reminding myself that I would be ok no matter what answer I received on Thursday. I tried not to worry until there was something to worry about. I was at peace because God spoke so loudly to my heart that I was going to be OK. I wasn’t sure what that meant but I held on to it with faith and I waited.
Thursday finally came and the appointment seemed to take forever but after a second mammogram and an ultrasound, I was told that I had a 1-centimeter sized benign cyst in my left breast. It had gone undetected in my self-breast exams because it was directly behind my nipple. I perform regular self-breast exams, yet there was no way I could have felt the cyst. Only a mammogram could detect it in that location. Cysts are common in women during the menopausal years. This could be due to hormone fluctuations, caffeine intake, weight changes, and stress levels.
Thankfully there was a happy ending to this story. I was lucky because it could have gone either way. While having mammograms regularly would not have prevented the cyst from appearing, having a 3-year span of time between appointments sure raised my anxiety level while I waited on the results. I will not miss another cancer screening. I want to encourage you to be diligent in having all cancer screenings. It could save your life.