Pink ribbons. Pink t-shirts. Pink bags. Pink hats.
We are all familiar with the pink takeover that sweeps the nation every October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month ramps up.
But with all this awareness why are women over 50 still not getting yearly mammograms?
It’s often a combination of fear—“Mammograms are too painful”—and denial—“It can’t happen to me.” There’s also, “I’m too busy to schedule one.”
However, the facts are one in eight women will get breast cancer, and mammograms save lives. In fact, two of Southwest Health’s own employees credit a routine mammogram for saving their own lives.
As a respiratory therapist at SH, Cathy Helbing understands that diagnostic screenings benefit her patients who are dealing with lung conditions, especially for diagnosing problems early. So she took her own advice.
“I started getting my annual mammogram at SH when I turned 40, and I’ve only missed one in 11 years,” Cathy says.
And she’s glad she’s maintained this dedication because in January 2013, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC).
IDC is the most common type of breast cancer—accounting for about 80% of all cases. The name comes from how the cancer starts and spreads throughout the body.
It begins in the milk ducts and then as it progresses, it spreads to the surrounding breast tissue, to the lymph nodes and can eventually invade bone tissue or other organs.
Being stage 2, Cathy’s lump still was fairly small and undetectable during her regular physical exam.
Cathy also has dense breast tissue, which in the past, has led to her needing occasional follow-up mammograms, but nothing was ever found. So, when she was called back after her mammogram in December 2012, she assumed it was the same situation.
“When they told me I had breast cancer, the first thing I felt was denial; I couldn’t believe it was actually happening to ME,” Cathy said. “This was followed by a rush of fear, and lots and lots of questions, so I’m glad I had a great support system at home and at work.”
To ensure all the cancer cells were removed, Cathy opted for a mastectomy followed by five months of chemotherapy. Her last treatment was in June, and she’s on schedule for reconstructive surgery later this year. “For the little time and discomfort that a mammogram requires, it is worth knowing you don’t have cancer or catching it early,” Cathy says.
Kaye Gempler has lived in Belmont her whole life. And throughout her 57 years, Southwest Health has played an important role in her life. It’s the hospital she was born in. It’s where she works as a certified dietary manager. And it’s where she had the mammogram that found her breast cancer in 2012.
A Gut Feeling
For almost 20 years, Kaye has come to SH every June to get a mammogram, except June 2012. Then in October of that year, she felt a sudden need to set her mind at ease, so she called to schedule one. And it turned out to be crucial she did because two lumps were found. After a biopsy, the lumps were diagnosed as pre-cancerous—abnormal cells were found in her milk ducts or lobules (the glands that produce milk), but they hadn’t spread to the surrounding tissue.
While this diagnosis meant Kaye didn’t have fully developed breast cancer, her risk of developing a more advanced stage was much greater. To eliminate this risk, she had two lumpectomies performed.
A lumpectomy is a surgical treatment that only removes the portion of the breast around the abnormal cells, as opposed to a mastectomy in which all of the breast tissue is removed. The goal of this breast-saving procedure is to remove the cancerous tissue while maintaining the appearance of the natural breast. Typically, a lumpectomy is followed by radiation therapy to further reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
Kaye followed this plan exactly with SHC surgeon Jason Klovning, MD.
“I felt safe with Dr. Klovning because he did an amazing job of explaining what the benefits of the lumpectomy would be and how it would be performed,” Kaye says.
If Kaye hadn’t been committed to yearly mammograms, her journey might have been completely different. Instead of pre-cancerous cells, she might have had a more advanced stage. And instead of a lumpectomy, she might have needed much more extensive treatment.
“Being scared of getting a mammogram is not worth dying of breast cancer,” Kaye says. “Not knowing or knowing too late is definitely worse than detecting it and treating it early.”
Thanks to taking charge of their health, both Cathy and Kaye were able to beat breast cancer. Now, they are able to get back to the things they enjoy. Cathy spends more time reading and loves watching her daughter achieve her degree in nuclear medicine. And Kaye has returned to the kitchen with her 11 grandkids, teaching them all how to cook and bake.