Volunteering at Evangelical’s Thyra M. Humphreys Center for Breast Health, Tamara Normington calls numerous patients to remind them of their upcoming mammograms.
“Some people are happy for the reminder. Others hang up so quickly, it feels like they are slamming the phone on you,” she said. “Some say it is just the center’s way of trying to get more money from them.”
In those situations, Normington has felt compelled numerous times to share her story over the phone.
“I am here today because of my mammography,” she tells them. “It saved my life.”
‘My life is changing’
Last summer, Normington went in for her yearly mammogram on her anniversary.
“It helps to have it on a set day that you can remember vs. some arbitrary date,” she said. “As I walked in, I remember saying to myself that today, my life is changing.”
However, after receiving an ultrasound and mammogram, the staff told her she was good to go.
“I said to myself, ‘Great, I was wrong!’” she remembered.
A couple of days later, she was asked to come back in — they found something and needed to investigate. After some tests and a biopsy, she was diagnosed with a Stage 0 breast cancer, which carries a near 100-percent survival rate when caught that early.
“Tamara’s case is the perfect example of why we encourage all women after age 40 to receive yearly mammograms,” said Dr. Bradley Mudge, of Evangelical. “In her mammogram from the prior year, everything was fine. A year later, we found this cancer at its earliest stage.”
Early detection greatly increases the odds of survival, Mudge added, those with Stage 1 breast cancer have, on average, survival rates in the mid to upper 90 percent. Each successive Stage higher, the survival rate drops.
The recommendation is that all women receive a yearly mammogram at age 40, but that guideline changes for those with a family history of breast cancer, those with the BRCA gene mutation, patients with dense breast tissue or those with any other increased risk.
“Overall, the mammogram isn’t painful. It can be somewhat uncomfortable, and there is some pressure, but the technologists walk you through each step of the process,” said Evangelical spokesperson Deanna Hollenbach. “It also takes very little time for a screening — it’s a quick in-and-out event and doesn’t take a large part of your day.”
Stages of treatment
Normington — whose mother is a breast cancer survivor of nearly 30 years — said she handled each stage of the process as well as she could.
“The biopsy was easy for me. They laid me on a table on my stomach, and my breast hung through an opening,” she said. “It wasn’t painful — it was like getting an anesthesia needle. It obviously can be different for each person based on where the lump is in the breast and other factors.”
As treatment progressed, she needed a lumpectomy, where doctors surgically remove the tumor.
“It was in-and-out, same-day surgery, and they provide medication beforehand to help with anxiety and any potential pain,” she said. “The hardest part for me were the limitations. I was used to doing 15-mile bike rides regularly during radiation, but that schedule changed. I was restricted from lifting and sore for about two weeks.”
Another difficult process for Normington involved the emotional roller coaster she experienced during the process.
“First, you are shocked you have it, then angry and upset you have it, and then for me, I was happy because my cancer was so treatable, and then guilty that others have it so much worse,” she said. “Going into some of the radiation therapies, it was very sobering. There were people there fighting for their lives. When you have cancer, you look at things differently.”
Developing a database
Women who have dense breast tissue may require 3D mammography or other scans that look at the breasts more thoroughly.
“Our mammogram technicians say that seeing a tumor in a dense breast can be like trying to find a snowball in a snowstorm. The dense tissue shows up white in regular mammograms, and so do potential tumors,” said Hollenbach. “Meanwhile, in an ABUS (Automated All-Breast Ultrasound), the tissue is black but abnormalities are white. There is more contrast, and that test can let them get closer to the chest wall with three different looks at each breast, which gives a better view.”
Regardless of the individual, doctors can find a way to effectively test for breast cancer, and the yearly mammograms are important not only to catch abnormalities early, but also to develop a series of images to compare to in the future.
“The importance of coming back year after year is that they keep a long history, and compare images as they are done to the history they have on file,” said Hollenbach. “It helps create a database that can help save your life if something new does pop up.”
There are so many reasons why someone should get regular mammograms. Normington was shocked to learn a number of her friends didn’t do it. Since her own cancer situation, several of them have gotten tested and a few were found to have cancers of their own.
“If I could give anyone advice, make sure you get your mammography and colonoscopies when you are supposed to. It can completely change your life,” she said. “If you are nervous, staff will walk you through it or talk to someone who has been through it. Keeping up with these can improve — and even prolong — your life.”