Column

Oliver: Don’t let excuses – or pandemic – get in the way of getting mammogram

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

If you are a woman of a certain age, you’ve heard the reminders to get a mammogram.

Of course, the guidance as to how often this should be done seems to fluctuate, but the point is that we’ve been told that we need to get them.

“I’m too busy for that.” “I feel all right, so I’m sure I’m fine.” “I’ll get around to it.” “Ugh, I don’t want to do that. I’ve heard it’s painful.” “Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family.” “I’m not overweight and I eat healthy, so I don’t have to worry about it.”

Sound familiar? They do for me, because I said every one of those things to myself.

Then came the day last year when I found myself making an emergency trip to the doctor for a different female issue and the nurse practitioner said in a voice that had an ever-so-slight note of panic, “Do you know that you have a lump on your right breast?” Um, no. Say what?

I remember being in shock, so much that I probably failed to react much at all.

So when the nurse practitioner handed me a folded piece of paper with the order to get a mammogram, I took it and didn’t give it another thought. After all, I had other tests I needed to do first.

My sense of dread increased when I looked carefully at that mammogram order. It wasn’t for a screening mammogram. No, this was for a diagnostic one to take a closer look at that lump.

That mammogram led to an ultrasound and another shocker. “The lump most likely is malignant.”

“Malignant” is not a word one ever wants to hear. And, of course, I remembered all the times I should have gotten a mammogram and hadn’t. How long had this thing been growing? What am I going to do now?

What I did was what I needed to do. The lump was biopsied and found to be cancer, although a slow-growing one. An MRI revealed some suspicious calcifications in my left breast, which required yet another biopsy.

In the end, I had double-lumpectomy surgery to remove the tumor and determine the status of those calcifications. Although I didn’t require chemotherapy, I did have to do a month of radiation treatments on my right breast.

Now I’m on a five-year course of medication that suppresses my estrogen levels to prevent a tumor from coming back. Or at least that is the idea.

This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the U.S., 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. That was just a statistic to me until I became one of 12% of women to have to deal with it.

This month, we’re going to hear the reminders again to get those mammograms. I have mine scheduled for December. I’ve already had two MRIs so far this year, both of which have come back clear. I no longer can afford to put things off.

Some women might be tempted to use the pandemic as a reason to delay their screening. Please don’t.

I can attest to the great lengths the folks at the Northwestern Medicine Gavers Breast Center and Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital Cancer Center go to to keep you safe. I’ve been to both since the pandemic started.

I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that my cancer was found when it was. There’s no telling what would have happened had I continued to make excuses.

Don’t be like me. Please don’t wait. Get your mammogram.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

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