A mother and cancer caregiver expresses her frustration over the lack of breast cancer screening in young women and explains how catching cancer early saved her daughter’s life.
I remember sitting in my doctor’s office after I returned from almost a year supporting Adrienne, my daughter, during breast cancer treatment and her asking me how I’d been. I didn’t quite know where to start. I had come in because I was experiencing a lot of physical side effects like sleep disturbances and hypervigilant anxiety as a result of my body’s stress response having been at warp speed for too long. I felt the odd sensation that always happened when my face would go blank and I would tell the story like a robot, because it was still too close, and I knew if I let the emotion into the room, I might end up curled in a ball on the floor sobbing uncontrollably. When I was done, she quietly asked me how old Adrienne was and I said 28. She lowered her head, shaking it slowly back and forth as she said, “And they won’t test woman under 40.” She shared with me that she had a niece who had been diagnosed with advanced metastatic breast cancer at 31 and had not lived to see her 33rd birthday because it wasn’t found until it was too late.
Adrienne found the lump that led us down the cancer path during a regular self-exam. The location, close to the outer part of her breast, made it possible for her to determine that it wasn’t a normal part of her breast tissue. Between the initial doctor visit and the first surgery, Adrienne’s tumor went from stage 1 to a stage 2. In six weeks. I keep thinking about what would have happened with her very aggressive cancer had it been back closer to her chest wall where it wouldn’t have been so obvious.
I have a lot of emotional contexts related to what happened to my daughter, but what terrifies me is that but for luck of location, instead of hugging her hello when she visited last weekend, I could have been holding her hand as she took her last breath. And there is such frustration because although the survival rate for breast cancer diagnosed at stage 1 is 99%, we don’t test for it.
When I was in my early 20s, my annual physical began to include a test to detect cervical cancer because cervical cancer typically develops slowly over a number of years, and if caught early, can be curable. Regardless of whether or not a young woman had symptoms of disease it was recommended to check it out just in case. I never questioned the wisdom of the test despite its unpleasantness because it could potentially save my life.
I simply cannot understand why we don’t do the same for breast cancer. Breast cancer is not a disease restricted to a woman’s age any more than many of the other health conditions humans are regularly tested for. Breast cancer kills more women annually than diabetes and yet blood sugar levels are analyzed with every physical.
None of us wants to acknowledge that a young woman full of joy and enthusiasm for life could have a secret enemy within. Adrienne first noticed the lump a full two months before she decided to get it checked out, because denial is a very powerful thing. I can’t help wonder, though, if mammograms were a part of a regular checkup, would her cancer have been discovered even earlier because it would have been NORMAL for both she and the medical system to look for it? That maybe she could have avoided the lifelong impact of the treatments that were needed to address the aggressive nature of her disease because at stage 1 not all of them would have been necessary? That we could save young women like my daughter from the pain of discovering that treatment has potentially taken away their ability to have children?
The only reason I can think of is cost. And that just isn’t good enough.
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