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Hope and health: Gifts of ‘Pinktober’

No matter what I say, she doesn’t want to hear it. I beg, I plead, I cajole. It doesn’t help. She’s not rude, not mad, not put out — even though I sound kind of bossy. She’s just stubborn and very nice about the whole thing. She could be anyone in the world, but she happens to be someone I love very much. This is one of those things where we don’t see eye-to-eye. I wish we did.

“Please, please go get a mammogram? I’ll go with you,” I plead with her, hoping each time we talk about it that she will change her mind and do it. Make an appointment. Go get the screening.

“Roni, when you got cancer, we were all so afraid, so terrified you were going to die,” she says. “I just couldn’t take it if I got that kind of news myself. You’re the Pollyanna. I couldn’t lose my hair and go through all of that. I don’t know how you made it.”

I tell her I made it because my family and friends prayed nonstop. I made it because I trusted the medical process. I made it because I wanted to stay alive to see my daughter grow up, get married and make her own beautiful way in the world. I held photos of my daughter in my trembling hands while I lay on the radiation table. No matter what side effects came up during treatment, I told myself, “Bring it, baby. I’m so glad to be here.”

I tell her now, “Get the test and you’ll know; get the test and if, IF there is anything to find, it can be found way early and you wouldn’t HAVE to go through chemo and radiation and all the rest. There’s so much they can do when they find it early — IF there’s anything to find. Most of the time, there is nothing at all. Please go.”

I’m a Stage II-A breast cancer survivor-thriver. I’m alive today because a mammogram saved my life a few years ago. I didn’t put it off. I got my screenings every year, painful and annoying as they were. I did it without much thought because … well because you’re just supposed to.

One day, the screening found a grape-sized tumor that I had never felt myself. It was a scary, comet-shaped tumor that my doctor never felt, either. Between one screening and another, it made a stand way up high in my armpit. Who the hell checks their armpit? I’ll tell you who: cancer survivors who once got that kind of news — they make sure to check their armpits for the rest of their lives.

But the thing with mammograms is — they can find cancer far more accurately than a human can alone, even when they DO check their armpits and their other parts.

It’s all still very vivid in my mind, that journey. I’m working on a book about it, but every time I start back into it, I feel like I have fallen over backwards off the top of the Grand Canyon and I don’t have a parachute, a net or a superhero cape. I am, however, very gratefully alive.

They say cancer survivors commonly experience post-traumatic stress disorder after treatment. Yep, sounds about right, memories that revolve and shift like a kaleidoscope, flashes of events that come and go.

One that really stands out is the day I walked up to a brightly canopied check-in table at my first “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” event. I’d had two surgeries and was about to begin seven months of chemo. I was shaky, but determined to walk the 5k with all my friends. One, Aleta, had bought us all “Team Roni” shirts and I felt very loved.

It was in October and pink was everywhere I looked. Pink shirts, pink hair, pink boas, pink shoes, pink shorts, guys in pink, baby strollers with pink streamers. Yes indeed, Pinktober was in full bloom.

I moved up in line and got to the table only to see that they were handing out medals for breast cancer survivors.

Doubt surfaced and I said, “Oh, I must be in the wrong line.”

The volunteer before me looked into my eyes, which were rather haunted on that day, and she said to me, “The day you were diagnosed, you became a survivor. Here’s your medal, honey.”

Tears welled up in my eyes and I took the medal with grateful hands and a hopeful heart. We smiled at one another and I stepped away, thankful for that woman and blessing the many gifts of Pinktober, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

That medal hangs in my car to this day and it goes with me everywhere.

I’m a survivor and I believe in early detection. I believe in it with all my heart because it saves lives.

And yet I know that not every woman feels as I do, not every woman is willing to even get a baseline mammogram screening.

The most common reasons given are as follows:

Fear of radiation from the test.

Cross this one off the list. The best breast imaging health technologies today offer digital mammography, which uses a very low and safe dose of radiation. It also provides sharper, clearer images. According to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, studies show the benefits of mammography outweigh the risks from radiation exposure, especially for women ages 50 and older.

Too busy to get a mammogram.

Nobody’s that busy. The average screening takes less than 20 minutes and can find breast cancer in a person who doesn’t have any warning signs or symptoms. It’s worth the peace of mind to make that appointment. Now.

Mammograms are painful.

OK, you’ve got me on that one, but please go anyway. Everybody experiences some level of discomfort, but it’s not the same for every woman. Plus, the digital imaging machines are MUCH better than what we had before.

I was in four different clinical trials by the time I completed my first year of treatment, and one of them was to evaluate new screening machines. On my personal smash-o-gram scale of 1-10, with 10 being too damned painful, I gave the digital gizmos a four — and a real high five for being a major improvement. Trust me, you’ll be fine.

Can’t afford a mammogram.

Medicare, Medi-Cal and most insurance companies cover the cost of mammograms. Many health insurance plans cover yearly mammograms with no out-of-pocket costs (co-payments or co-insurance) for women ages 40 and older.

Want a free or reduced-cost screening? Call the Komen Breast Care Helpline at (877) GO KOMEN (877-465-6636) Monday-Friday, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET and 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. PT to find low-cost options in your area.

And in October, many imaging centers offer mammograms at reduced rates. Find a certified mammography center in your area at the FDA website (fda.gov).

Those are just for older women.

Hey, who’re you calling old? The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammography screenings for women ages 40 and up. If you have a family history of cancer, or any other high-risk factors, you might need to start getting screened at an earlier age. Talk to your doctor.

Too afraid they’ll ‘find something.’

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Pretty much everyone knows SOMEONE who has been through cancer of some kind. About one in eight U.S. women are diagnosed with breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes.

The ACS is big on education and they say most mammograms do NOT lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer.

Getting called back after a screening mammogram is fairly common, ACS tells you on its website. It doesn’t mean you have cancer. Often, it just means more pictures or an ultrasound need to be done to look at a certain area more carefully.

You can find a lot of good information from ACS here: cancer.org/latest-news/if-youre-called-back-after-a-mammogram.html .

Getting called back is more common for first mammograms (or when there is no previous mammogram to look at) and in mammograms done in women before they reach menopause.

In my mind, it’s simple — getting a mammogram is a vital step in taking care of yourself. Remember, you’re important in this world. You matter. People love you and you want to be around for yourself and for them. You owe it to them and to yourself.

One ACS slogan tells us they are fighting for “A World with More Birthdays.” What could be better?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a call to make —she needs me to remind her about all of this.

The American Cancer Society’s national cancer information specialists are available to help you with any questions, patient services, resource requests, or cancer information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For assistance, visit cancer.org or please call (800) 227-2345.

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