Breast cancer took my mom when she was 39 years old. I was 14. Since then I’ve lived in oblivion when it comes to prevention. At 28, I finally decided to get brave and run towards my fear – getting a mammogram and figuring out what I can do to write a different life story.
Mom was 35 when she asked her doctor for a mammogram. Her sister Peggy encouraged her to get one because their grandmother Lil was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s. But mom was denied. They told her that she didn’t need to worry about that until she was older.
Two years later, at age 37, mom discovered a lump. The diagnosis: breast cancer. For two years she fought hard – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and an unwavering faith. But it wasn’t enough to save her. At 39, she died.
It felt like a punch in the heart when my aunt recently told me the story of mom’s missed mammogram. It was hard truth to swallow, but just the fuel I needed to pursue one myself.
“Look there she goes
That girl is strange but special
A most peculiar mademoiselle
A beauty but a funny girl, that Belle”
The lyrics from the “Beauty and the Beast” song “Belle” cut straight to my soul as I get ready. It’s my brave girl jam. Because let’s face it, Belle slays in that film. She’s intelligent, brave and also happens to tame a ferocious beast. Hero. If Belle can do all that, I know I can handle this mammogram.
As I drive from my home in Rothsay, Minnesota, to my appointment at the Edith Sanford Breast Center in Fargo, North Dakota, I put on the best armor I know. I talk to God. I pray that it won’t be too scary, I will ask good questions and I don’t have breast cancer.
I arrive and dash across the snowy parking lot. I tell myself I’m Belle, marching up to the castle. Today I will face the beast (breast cancer).
1 in 8 women
But, as soon as I enter the hospital my bravery fades. Nerves take over. “You put the gown on backwards,” the nurse tells me. What? I’m supposed to wear it with the open part in the front? Talk about vulnerability central. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. I smile nervously and try not to expose “my ladies” as I twist the gown around.
I attempt to pull myself together for the next nurse. Dagny Oliver, an advanced practice nurse provider in the breast clinic, walks in. She seems great. Calm and knows her stuff. She tells me she’s been practicing for 30 years. The best part is her eyes. I see sympathy in them as I tell her about my mom’s breast cancer. This leads me to ask about mammogram protocol.
“We recommend starting screening at age 40 for women who don’t have personal risk factors or family history,” Ms. Oliver says. “And continuing annually after that.” But, my situation is different. “If the first degree relative (mother, sister or daughter) had breast cancer in their 30s, then we begin with a mammogram 10 years before their diagnosis,” she says. For me, mom was 37 when she was diagnosed, so I should’ve started at age 27.
I laugh inside – the story of my life, always running late. But, breast cancer certainly isn’t funny. I notice a sign on the wall. It says 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. I wonder how many cases are related to genetics?
“Fifteen to 20 percent of breast cancer that is diagnosed has a genetic relationship,” says Ms. Oliver. “A lot of people think that if they don’t have a family risk, they don’t need to worry. But around 80 percent of cases are random.”
Whoa. I think of all the women in my life that I love and am loved by. My sister, best friends, aunts, cousins, mentors, co-workers. All the women who have unknowingly patched pieces of my heart back together as I’ve attempted to navigate life without a mother. It would break me if any of them ever got breast cancer. (And this is not to exclude men, I know that they can get breast cancer too.)
But what can you really do to avoid the disease? What’s the most important thing people need to know about prevention?
“Maintaining a healthy body weight is number one,” says Ms. Oliver. “We know that women who keep their Body Mass Index (BMI) under 25 can significantly decrease their risk of developing breast cancer.” Naturally, I think of eating a healthy diet and exercising. “Women should be exercising 150 minutes each week,” says Ms. Oliver. She also says limiting alcohol intake is massively important. “That’s something women don’t seem to know.”
Healthy lifestyle. It seems like common sense. I think about how lately I’ve lacked motivation to run. Solo treadmill running in the winter is less than thrilling. I’m reminded it’s not a waste of time. Keep running. But I also wonder about other things like birth control?
“A recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association was eye-opening,” says Ms. Oliver. “They looked at all methods of hormonal contraceptives, not just oral contraceptives. And they found that it’s very small, but there appears to be some increased risk.” She recommends that women talk to their primary care practitioners about this if they are concerned.
I’m thankful there are people researching this stuff. Breast cancer is a complex animal. There’s one more burning question I have before the mammogram. Should I be worried about the radiation?
“I believe the benefit greatly outweighs the risk,” says Ms. Oliver. She explains that over time they’ve created better equipment and improved technology so there is ultimately less radiation. “We know that mammograms can help save lives by detecting breast cancer early,” says Ms. Oliver. “And they can help extend the lives of women who have advanced breast cancer.”
I think about mom. What if she’d actually gotten that mammogram when she was 35? Would she still be alive today? My heart would still be intact. Everything would be so different. I’ll never know. But, I do know my feelings are changing about mammograms. They are unsung heroes.
‘Not shy around here’
I’m finally ready. Bring it on, mammogram.
Ms. Oliver passes me on to the radiologist. A smiling face with a blonde ponytail and black tattoo behind her ear enters my room. “You ready?” she asks, with an enthusiasm I don’t expect. She’s just the kind of commander I want to lead me into this battle.
We enter the room and she explains that this will be a 3D mammogram. Each breast will have three different images taken. Less than a minute for each shot. These 3D mammograms are helpful because they give the radiologist better visualization of the breast tissue. It’s particularly important for women who have dense breast tissue because in those cases cancer is harder to detect.
“It’ll hurt a little, but it’s nothing you can’t handle,” she says.
I walk over to the machine. She tells me to slip one side of my gown off. Timidly, I peel it down my shoulder. “We’re not shy around here,” she says. I laugh and feel more at ease. She tells me to grip the handle in front of me. I squeeze tight and wish I was holding someone’s hand instead. But I take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m brave girl Belle today.
Next comes the squishing. Forgetting to breathe. And slight pain. Yet it’s definitely not as scary as I thought. Within 10 minutes it’s over. She tells me I should get my results in the next few days. I can relax. I’ve conquered this fear.
(The mammogram showed no breast cancer. Hallelujah! Hailey: 1, breast cancer: 0. The mammogram might’ve been scary, but now I’m at peace. I’m okay for now. Let’s hope I can keep that streak alive for as long as possible.)
Looking it in the face
Getting the mammogram didn’t completely wipe away my fear of breast cancer. Even if I get mammograms and follow Ms. Oliver’s prevention tips to a tee, I might still get the disease.
But maybe today wasn’t about slaying the beast. Rather, it was about looking breast cancer in the face. Asking questions. Seeking understanding. What I found was motivation to live a better life. I’ll get a mammogram each year. I set a monthly reminder in my planner to actually do a breast self-exam, not just think about it. And I know I’ll be working on other things too. Like eating less chocolate and getting my butt to the gym, even when I’m unmotivated.
I learned at a young age that life isn’t limitless. I’ve got a long list of things I’d like to do on this Earth before I go and there’s a woman up in heaven watching. So I’ve got to do all I can to keep that beast at bay. I believe there’s more important work that my love can do in the world. And I believe that about you too. I want that for you too.
Article originally published on Hailey Brenden’s blog, The Adventures of Hailstorm. Republished with permission.