October 18, 2022 By Claudia Dolphin
When the calendar turns to October, I am reminded of many things. The leaves suddenly show their glory and usher in autumn. The air temperature begins its unwelcome plummet (sorry, a little dramatic, but I hate the cold). And the parade of school buses returns to their daily routine, inevitably impeding my shameful lead foot.
Perhaps the one routine I am most conscious of is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s the time of year when women wear pink, tell their war stories, and encourage us to prioritize screening. With a mother and aunt having their own middle age run-ins with breast cancer, I make screening a non-negotiable yearly task. Despite being inured to this annual routine, I never imagined it would happen to me.
Here’s my story.
It was March 2017, and I was 53 years old. I have three daughters and my middle one was about to graduate from college. I headed over to South Shore Health, mildly annoyed at the prospect of having my non-abundant breasts squashed in a vice grip. I kept reminding myself that I had given birth to three kids and survived- this was a walk in the park by comparison. After it was over, I asked to see my images. I am the daughter and daughter-in-law of physicians, and I learned a thing or two about X-rays from them along the way. One of the assessments that are done when evaluating mammogram images is to compare this year’s set to last year’s. Another is to compare the newest ones to each other. What the radiologists are looking for are changes from year to year, and asymmetry. Your breasts are supposed to look the same.
I saw with my own eyes that my right breast had changed over the course of the year. And it did not look like its partner to the left. I left knowing the follow-up call was coming and wasn’t surprised to receive it the next day.
To evaluate the abnormality, I would be having a needle biopsy. This is a procedure done under local anesthesia that removes a small amount of the suspicious cells for microscopic evaluation. It is an anxiety-provoking procedure, and I was glad to be in such capable hands at Dana Farber South Shore, just six miles away.
I can’t remember exactly how long it took for the results to come back, but I don’t think it was more than a few days. I was greatly relieved to learn that I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Ductal carcinoma in situ is the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in the breast. It is considered the earliest form of breast cancer and has a low risk of becoming invasive. According to the American Cancer Society, this is a stage 0 cancer with a 98% cure rate.
Of all the possibilities, I got the best bad news. I would avoid chemotherapy altogether and undergo both breast conservation surgery (lumpectomy), radiation, and five years of a daily regimen of tamoxifen. Tamoxifen is a drug that interrupts the uptake of estrogen into the fat cells of the body. Without access to estrogen, the cancer cells can’t multiply.
None of these treatments had any noticeable side effects. Except for experiencing hot flashes, the whole process is best described as mildly annoying. I sometimes feel like a cancer imposter because I didn’t really suffer like so many others. By the end of that summer, I was back to living my life as before.
I consider myself to be lucky. But I also feel that prioritizing my health contributed to the early detection of cancer that was still in its infancy. This is exactly what screening is intended to do. Had I waited or ignored the annual reminder, this article could have been very different.
If you are overdue for your mammogram or negligent in getting one (talk to your doctor about when you should start), please do this little exercise. Go look in the mirror. Remind yourself of who relies on you, who loves you, and who would be devastated if you weren’t on this side of the earth. Most cancers today, when detected early, can be successfully treated. Screening, while unpleasant, is easy to do. You are worth it, and your loved ones will thank you.
Claudia Dolphin is a health and medical writer who resides in Hingham. She has been married to Peter for 32 years, with whom she shares three adult daughters and two golden retrievers.