We all do it. Scribble to-do lists. Mentally go over everything we need to get done. But when was the last time we appeared on our own list? Our August survivor Olga L. Morales reminds us to make our body a top priority.
Upon a routine physical, Olga’s doctor discovered she hadn’t had a mammogram in five years or more and immediately scheduled her for a mammogram and ultrasound.
Like Olga, many of us dismiss routine screenings if we feel okay or otherwise have no reason to suspect anything is wrong. However, as we have discussed here many times, despite popular belief, less than 15% of women with breast cancer have a family member with the disease. So while a family history can increase someone’s personal risk factor, the absence of family history does not remove any threat of the disease.
If you drive you probably know every year you need to get your car inspected. Or if you’re a cyclist or pedestrian, at least once a year you likely check your bike tires or monitor the soles of your sneakers. These are subtle check-ups we conduct automatically and naturally, to make sure we have means to travel safely and comfortably. Yet too often our own bodies take a back seat in our journey, so let’s jump in the front seat and take mammograms for a spin.
Mammograms are x-ray exams of the breast that use a machine created to look specifically at breast tissue. Since the x-rays are taken at lower doses than regular x-rays, the machine uses two plates that essentially flatten the breast in order to spread the tissue apart and capture the best x-ray images through the tissue.
Who & When?
The American Cancer Society released new guidelines in October 2015 increasing the age to 45 to begin annual mammograms for women with an average risk. Women ages 40 to 45 are now encouraged to undergo a mammogram only if they wish (and after speaking with their doctor) and women 55 and over can go every other year instead of annually (though if they want to go annually they can). In a woman’s later years, mammograms are still recommended as long as she is in good health and expected to live another 10 years. For women at an average risk, ACS suggests beginning annual mammograms between 40 and 44 if desired though not required, noting that women should be aware of the benefits and risks.
Well, women are actually exposed to a small amount of radiation during a mammogram and this exposure can, in time, increase the risk of breast cancer. While the medical consensus is that the increase in this risk is minimal, an annual mammogram is typically not recommended from too early an age. For women 45 to 54, it is encouraged to get annual mammograms and for women 55 and older, the frequency can drop down to every two years, though annually is fine if they choose.
Why get one at all?
According to ACS, women who have regular mammograms are more likely to have breast cancer detected early and therefore less likely to need aggressive treatment and more likely to be cured. Although, they also note that even mammograms have their limitations.
Should I consider other screening?
Mammograms can miss some cancers, and further tests will be needed to determine if something found on a mammogram is actually cancer. All women getting mammograms are encouraged to discuss all of the benefits, limitations and risks with their doctor. For women at a high risk level, the norm is a bit different. For these women, annual MRIs are encouraged in combination with the yearly mammogram, starting at 30. Some examples that may put a woman in this category are having the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or a first-degree relative (like a parent, sibling or child) with these gene mutations, or having had radiation to the chest area between the ages of 10 and 30. Again, it is vital to discuss your level with your doctor as MRIs are typically discouraged unless there is high risk and as mentioned before, for the average woman even mammograms are generally not recommended before 40.
For Olga, a spotting on her mammogram led to a biopsy which determined she had Stage 2 breast cancer. Two months later her treatment began with surgery, four rounds of chemotherapy, and 25 days of radiation.
“Not fun, but I always kept positive with a big smile,” she recalled. “Now one year later I am cancer free and encouraging everyone to get their mammograms done.”
Olga credits her optimism, faith, and support from loved ones in helping her beat her diagnosis. Now on the other side of it, she embraces tranquility at every bend. One of her favorites is the nature trail at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Environment Center.
“The serenity here makes me feel that life is beautiful and full of surprises, and to enjoy every moment in life.”
Olga learned so much during her journey, spiritually and physically.
“Don’t take life for granted, live to the fullest and always take care of yourself.”
And remember to get your mammograms! Before we go, we send our warmest birthday wishes to Kamilah Brewington, our May survivor who beat breast cancer not once but three times!
Until next time, keep up with us on Instagram @eyeofthesurvivor, and always keep your Eye on Strength!