The mammogram is the easy part.
Push, pull, squeeze, and you’re done.
The hard part is the next day… waiting, and hoping the phone doesn’t ring.
The best part is a few days later, when that letter comes in the mail: “Your mammogram test results are normal.”
Whew, that’s over with for another year. No worries, and it’s even easy to forget about monthly self-exams — at least for a few months.
And why not? Mammograms are a wonderful tool for catching breast cancer in its earliest and most treatable stage. Most women schedule year exams at about the same time, which also include a hands-on check by their gynecologist or primary care physician.
With two medical opinions putting her in the clear, it’s that time of year when a woman can relax and not worry so much about being vigilant herself.
Cheryl Lychwick is living, breathing, laughing, smiling, proof that there is no substitute for a woman knowing her own body and trusting her own instincts when something doesn’t feel quite right.
“I found my own breast cancer two months after a clear mammogram, and one month after my doctor exam,” she says.
Lychwick was 45 years old and taking a few night classes when her world changed. At home for the evening, she was seated at the family’s breakfast bar, hunched over her books and papers.
“I was leaning up against it, studying, and I felt something,” she recalls. “I leaned back, and I thought, ‘No, that was probably nothing.’ I leaned forward again and I felt it. I thought, ‘There’s a lump there.’ ”
That was April 1998 — two months from her mammogram and one month since her routine exam, both of which had found nothing unusual.
Lychwick called her local physician and was originally scheduled to come in to the office the following week. Instead, the doctor called her back the same day and made room for her to come in that day.
“He said, ‘I’m a little nervous that you found something so quickly when you just had your exams,’ ” she recalls.
Indeed, it was the speed with which the lump showed up that concerned the physician the most. After an office exam that day, she was scheduled for what was to be an outpatient surgical biopsy just a few days later.
“The first thing I remember hearing when I woke up from the biopsy was, ‘Cheryl, you have cancer.’ And then I heard the doctor telling the nurses that I needed a room of my own.”
Those are words that never leave the memory.
Lychwick underwent a lumpectomy, followed by almost three months of chemotherapy and about two months of radiation.
She has now been cancer free for 16 very sweet years.
Woman’s best friend
One of the surprising developments on the research frontier is the use of specially trained dogs to sniff out the tiniest amount of cancer cells. At the University of Pennsylvania, researchers team with dogs to isolate and identify chemicals within cancer cells. Right now, the dogs are adept at identifying early stages of ovarian cancer.
Practical application, with sensors developed from what scientists learn from their canine friends may be years away, but Marilyn Meier already has a dog to thank for helping find her breast cancer.
“I had a little dog — it was a little miniature pinscher — that in the evening liked to crawl up in my lap and cuddle,” she explains. “He liked to get under my arm and, with his nose, push my elbow up and cuddle, and I noticed that started feeling uncomfortable.”
Initially, Meier thought perhaps she was “just being silly.” After all, a friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and, of course, that was weighing on her mind.
Fortunately, her dog’s persistence prompted Meier to do a quick check of her own.
“I could feel something there, and I immediately called my doctor,” Meier says.
Initially, Meier got an appointment to come in a week to 10 days later, but the doctor sensed her concern, and urged her to come at the end of the day.
“I’ll see you, but I have a meeting, so it will have to be short,” she remembers the doctor telling her.
But, as it turned out, the doctor not only made time for her at the last minute but also gave her all the time she needed.
“I always felt that it played out just the way it was supposed to,” she says. “I got there at the end of the day, his meeting had been cancelled, and so it wasn’t such a rush.”
Meier was scheduled for a mammogram, and then compression mammogram right at the questionable area of the breast.
After a biopsy confirmed the cancer diagnosis, she met with her doctor again to consider her options.
“He spent about two hours talking to me about all the possibilities,” Meier recalls. “He recommended a lumpectomy followed by radiation. I didn’t have to go through the chemo.”
Meier was 50 years old when she was diagnosed in 2005. She has been cancer free since.
Facing life’s challenges
Anyone wanting to choose a profession that could lead to a long life might want to consider becoming a Roman Catholic nun or sister. Countless studies have shown not only that sisters live longer but are also healthier.
Various studies point to a predominance of positive emotions, the fact that nuns work in professions (teaching, health care) where they are on their feet a lot and remain active, and that they have work that is done with purpose.
But while sisters may have longer life expectancies, that doesn’t mean they are immune from life’s challenges.
Sister Mary Gertrude Keefe — Sister Trudy, as just about everyone calls her — is a two-time cancer survivor.
Sister Trudy was 53 years old when she was diagnosed with uterine and cervical cancer. (Women who have not had children can carry a higher risk of both uterine and breast cancer.) She underwent both chemotherapy and radiation treatment using implanted radioactive seeds prior to a hysterectomy.
Sixteen years later, in 2001, Sister Trudy discovered a discharge in her bra that sent her in to see her physician. After a biopsy, she opted for a single mastectomy and has done well since.
At 82, Sister Trudy still works and still embodies that peaceful outlook that may influence the impressive longevity of nuns. After 29 years as a teacher, Sister Trudy went back to school to train as a hospital chaplain. She has now worked as a chaplain for 32 years, including several years at Trinity Regional, now Unity Point Hospital in Fort Dodge.
In addition to offering spiritual guidance to people of all faiths and a compassionate ear to people of no faith, Sister Trudy particularly enjoys her work in the Reach to Recovery program for breast cancer patients.
Whether a woman is 18 or 80, she says a diagnosis of breast cancer carries personal consequences to which only fellow survivors can relate.
“Certainly, it’s a greater challenge at 18, but even at 80, there are still ups and downs that will come,” Sister Trudy says. “Regardless of age, you’re still a woman, and you still have feelings. They need to have the right to talk about it.”
Lending a hand
When it comes to breast cancer, every woman has a stake in the fight. Lynda Lowery and Dawn Wesley are young women who have thankfully not had to fight that battle for themselves, but they do take pride in being active fundraisers for women who face such a diagnosis.
Both women are active in the “Annual Angel Ride to Save the TaTas!’
Wesley was hooked when she learned the funds go directly to services that touch the lives of patients. The money has been used for wigs, scarves and even gas cards to get patients to treatment or to cover insurance co-pays so treatments can proceed.
Lowery is inspired by the women she has met along the way.
“We’ve met so many wonderful people who have had breast cancer,” she says.
R.N. Patty Grossnickle cares for such people every day as nurse coordinator at Trinity Cancer Center.
As a health care professional, Grossnickle’s advice to women is clear. Do monthly breast self-exams and have annual mammograms beginning at 40, or even younger if determined by a physician that a woman is at higher risk for breast cancer. Self-exams should start decades earlier.
“You should be doing self exams in your 20s so you know the changes,” Grossnickle explains.
Cancer, at any stage and any age, is a frightening diagnosis, but one that is not without hope.
“It’s a catastrophic word — cancer — whether it’s stage 1, stage 4, the word still has the same impact,” she says.
Walking the cancer journey with a patient and working toward a great outcome makes it all worthwhile.
“If you can hold their hand and make them feel better, you feel like you make a difference,” she says.
Thankfully, there are women such as Lychwick, Meier and Sister Trudy who can share stories of life after cancer.