BREAST CHECK: Perhaps you've heard the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute can't agree on when a woman should have a mammography, or breast X-ray, done. ACI says have one at age 35, and then every year or two after age 40. NCI says start annual mammograms at age 50.
But don't get so twisted by experts disagreeing that you avoid the whole issue. Talk to a doctor about when to start, do monthly self-exams and, says 36-year old Tucsonan Teresa Ely, who battled breast cancer last year, "Be an aggressive health consumer."
Ely should know. Because of her family history--her mother had breast cancer--Ely began having regular mammograms at age 30. When she found a lump in her breast in October 1993 she went for a mammogram. It came back negative. Satisfied, she went on with her life, which included becoming pregnant with her second child in the spring of 1994. The lump started getting bigger. Two surgeons recommended it be removed but suggested waiting until after her first trimester. Her obstetrician didn't want to wait. Out it came.
"I was really surprised it was cancerous because so many people had told me it didn't look cancerous," she says, referring to at least three doctors. Her tumor turned out to be "very aggressive," and Ely opted for a bilateral mastectomy, having both breasts removed, because there was a 25 percent chance cancer could occur in her other breast. Having been a pediatric oncology nurse, Ely knew she'd need what she calls, "the big guns" of chemotherapy. Her six-month treatment ended in January. "And yes, you will lose your hair," she says, running her hand through a now lustrous crown of curly dark hair. Before chemo her hair was straight. Figure that out.
One thing Ely didn't have to figure out, thankfully, was what to do about her pregnancy. She miscarried before her surgery. But it was the pregnancy that may have saved her. After six months of inaction following the discovery of the lump, Ely was tipped off. "It grew like wildfire when I was pregnant."
Ely speaks knowledgeably about her bout with cancer and offers first-person advice: Do a self-exam every month. If you have a lump, she says, "be persistent, have it tested, have it biopsied, have it taken out. You can't watch these things. I thought because my mammogram was negative that I was okay." Many of the women Ely met in her cancer support group said they had physicians who said 'let's watch it,' some for months, years.
"You know how many women never do self-exams?" Ely asks. "Even people who know me don't do them. You always think it's not going to happen to you, especially young women. We think of breast cancer as a post-menopausal disease. But in this day and age when it's one in eight women (who get the disease), that's one at every lunch table."
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. But every month should be. Check 'em or find somebody who will, warriors.
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