Archive for November, 2009

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Breast Screening Blunder

November 20, 2009

She is 39 years old, a wife, a daughter, mother to three beautiful children.  She is also a breast cancer survivor.  Debbie found the lump herself, doing a routine breast self-exam–something she had been practicing for only a few months.   She had a mastectomy and is now 7 years cancer-free. 

Ilene was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 42.  A mammogram found a tumor the size of a golf ball in her right breast.  It was so deep, she had never even felt it.  It was Ilene’s first mammogram–something she only scheduled after two years of  prompting from her doctor.     After aggressive treatment, Ilene is alive and well–a 12 year breast cancer survivor. 

As a breast cancer awareness, prevention and screening advocate for nearly 20 years, I could give you dozens more stories just like those, which is why a recent report by the US Preventive Services Task Force is so upsetting.    This panel suggests changing the screening guidelines for breast cancer that have been so effective in saving women’s lives.  The standard guidelines from the American Cancer Society call for yearly mammograms starting at age 40.  The panel believes screening mammograms should start at age 50, and then only be done every other year.  The reason they give?   While some 15 percent of women in their 40s detect breast cancer through mammography, other women experience false positives, anxiety, and unnecessary biopsies as a result of the test.

WHAT?!?!  

You want to take away the most effective screening tool for 15 percent of all women in their 40’s so other women don’t have anxiety?!?   Ilene can’t believe it:  “I know I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t had that mammogram.  Anxiety doesn’t kill you.  Breast cancer can if it’s not caught early enough.”

The panel further suggests that breast self-exam is unnecessary and women shouldn’t be taught to do it…but statistics show 80% of cancerous breast lumps are found by women themselves.  Women like Debbie:  “I wasn’t always faithful about doing my breast self-exams.  I shudder to think what might have happened to me…to my children…if I hadn’t found that lump.”

Some medical experts contend the panel’s report is strictly based on cost-effectiveness:  “With its new recommendations, the [task force] is essentially telling women that mammography at age 40 to 49 saves lives; just not enough of them,”  said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the  American Cancer Society. 

According to The Society of Breast Imaging, “Since 1990, the breast cancer death rate in the US that had been unchanged in the preceding 50 years, has decreased by 30%, primarily due to screening mammography.”  The group also disagrees with the panel’s recommendation to screen only women who are at high risk:    “Only 10-25% of breast cancers occur in high risk women.  Not screening the others would miss 75-90% of breast cancers.” 

Women like Jane, who kept putting off her mammogram, even when she had a lump so large and so sore she couldn’t raise her arm.  When her co-workers finally dragged her to the doctor, it was too late.   When she was dying, she said to me, “Chrys, promise me you will tell my story to other women.  Tell them not to be stupid like me so they don’t end up dead like me.” 

Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the United States. This year, nearly 200,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.  The medical community and the American Cancer Society agree we should stick with the current guidelines: monthly breast self-exam, and yearly mammograms starting at age 40.    Because of those screenings, more women are catching breast cancer early, and more women are surviving the disease.   

Just ask Debbie or Ilene.  I wish the members of the task force had listened to their stories and met their families before they decided their lives weren’t worth the cost nor anxiety of a yearly mammogram or breast self-exam.

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It takes a village

November 10, 2009

I was the guest speaker this week for the Henry County Retired Teachers and met a fabulous group of former educators.   Since I truly believe “It takes a village to raise a child,” I thanked them for their years of service to young people and I began to think about all the teachers in my life who helped shape me into the human being I am today.     

I wondered whatever happened to my first grade teacher, Mrs. Trebilcock?  For many of us, our first grade teachers are special.  They set the tone for the next dozen or more years of our learning.  Mrs. Trebilcock was special.  She was just the right mix of strict and fun, challenging us to do our best but always available with a hug if we needed one.   When the prized music box I brought for show and tell fell off the desk and shattered on the floor, it was Mrs. Trebilcock who helped pick up the pieces of glass, and my heart. 

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Canny was special too.  I was in an accelerated learning program that year and Mrs. Canny made learning fun, teaching us to use our critical thinking skills by playing bridge and taking us on field trips to art museums and historical sites. 

Junior High offered me an incredible science teacher, Mr. Bogger (pronounced bo-jer), whose enthusiasm for chemistry literally bubbled over like our test-tube experiments gone wrong.   Even kids who didn’t get good grades in any other subject tried their hardest to impress Mr. Bogger.  Mr. Gregory was the history teacher who made the mission of the “Enola Gay” come to life for me, and Ms. Holzer was the Home Economics teacher who was determined to teach me how to thread the bobbin on the sewing machine.   My projects weren’t blue-ribbon material, but her encouragement helped me feel great about my accomplishments, and gave me the courage to try new things. 

In high school, my English teachers Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Mathews instilled in me a love for reading and writing that I treasure still.  Mrs. Susan helped me navigate the world of algebra, trigonometry and functions.  “Killer” Hiller assigned me history projects that sent me into the streets of Old Town Alexandria and Washington DC mapping the city and looking for examples of federalist architecture.  I learned how to write an exceptional research paper in his class.   Mr. Aiken, my choral director, pushed me to develop my vocal talent, and encouraged me to perform in numerous shows and state competitions, sometimes driving me there himself if I needed a ride. 

Those teachers, and so many others I didn’t name here, helped me not only to learn facts and figures, but to apply that knowledge to help solve real-world problems.  They helped me develop my confidence, courage, and self-esteem.  They used their talents to develop me into a better person.   I’m so thankful they were part of my village.