When Barbara received her breast cancer diagnosis, she joined two of her aunts in fighting the disease.
My family has a history of breast cancer. Two aunts on my mother's side battled the disease.
My Aunt Lissa was diagnosed late — well into stage four — and she passed away within months of the diagnosis. My Aunt Gerti was luckier. The cancer was caught during a routine mammogram at stage two, and today she is in her 80s and looking great.
My aunts are the reason I get a regular mammogram every year, despite the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommendation to start at 50. And they are also the reason I got one last year. I almost didn't. I'd had a mammogram each year for eight years — since I turned 40 — and every one had been completely clear. Also, I was busy. Like so many other women who skip their mammogram year after year, I had too much to do: it was Christmas and my family was in town. Yet the thought of my aunts nagged at me.
Sure enough, once I had the mammogram I received a notification to come in again. I knew from my previous work with Cancer Services at Intermountain Healthcare that callbacks often turns out to be calcifications or other benign issues, so I wasn't worried. The radiologist recommended I get a biopsy, so I added that to my long list of to-dos.
As my biopsy appointment neared, my initial calm was replaced by nagging anxiety. One of the worst things about breast cancer isn't the diagnosis — it's the waiting before you get the diagnosis. You agonize over the what ifs: What if I have breast cancer? What if I have to quit my job? Fortunately, the radiologist was able to get me in for a biopsy that day, and I received my results the following day. I suspect my radiologist, Brett T. Parkinson, MD, saw the look on my face and ordered the results STAT. If he hadn't, I would have waited an entire weekend.
When Dr. Parkinson and I talked about the pathology report, he explained I had a small mass — .7mm. It was invasive, but it would spread slowly and was very treatable. "Here's your next step," he said. "Let's talk about the surgical consult. Here's what your pathology says and what it means." Some people think that having empathy means physicians should sugarcoat what's happening to you. The truth is, patients just get confused when you try to make it lighter. We want honest answers about what's going on with our bodies and what it all means for us. Whatever degree of certainty your physician can offer is very comforting when your future is comprised entirely of unknowns.
And there are so many unknowns. Even though I listened closely to my consult, and even though I work in the medical field, I had so many questions. I had been rocked by my diagnosis and could only remember snippets of information here and there. Despite that, I didn't want to bother my physician with my questions. And looking to Google for an answer was like opening a doomsday device. You only encounter the worst-case scenarios.
Luckily, the coordination of care I received was incredible. Dr. Parkinson helped me come up with a plan immediately, explaining information even if he assumed I already knew it. Within two weeks, I'd gone from my mammogram to surgery. Intermountain also has nurse navigators who work with the physicians and the patients every step of the way. My nurse made sure I was scheduling consultations with my oncologist. She'd leave me messages, reassuring me that someone was checking up on me. Having that level of empathy from the radiology suite and beyond made all the difference in my treatment.
Following my surgery, I was relieved to find out my cancer was at stage one. Because of my mammogram, we caught my cancer while it was still treatable. Had I skipped screening that year, we may have caught the cancer the next year, but who knows how fast the cancer would have spread by then? The truth is, the earlier you detect cancer, the easier it is to treat and the better your quality of life throughout the whole process. So why not take advantage of a tool when it's offered you?
I received another tool during the course of my treatment, one just as important as the life-saving screening that caught my cancer. Every physician I had worked together to consider the quality of my life. I received fast results, information when I needed, and a helping hand that made sure I wasn't alone. They considered the entirety of my health. They not only cared whether my body was healthy or that the cancer was gone, but that I felt safe and comfortable and that I had peace of mind every step of the way.
By Barbara Ohm, health care administrator at the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray, Utah