That was the first thought that ran through Shannon Poulsen’s head when her doctor diagnosed her with stage 3 breast cancer last January.
Shannon had found a large mass in her breast the October before, but she wasn’t even 40 yet, and she’d had a fairly recent mammogram, so she didn’t think it was a big deal. “I thought it wasn’t anything to worry about, because it was big, and when you think of breast cancer you think of a nodule or a small lump,” Shannon says. She figured it was just something hormonal that would go away on its own.
Shannon decided to get another mammogram in January, and after her results came in she was told to return for an ultrasound. After the ultrasound, the doctor didn’t even let her off the table. “They did a biopsy right there,” she remembers. Just two days later she got the call that would forever change her life.
Screening Saves Lives
Let’s be honest: if you could do anything you wanted today, your first choice wouldn’t be getting a mammogram. It might be scuba diving in Fiji. It might be eating pasta in Venice. But getting your boobs squashed by a giant X-ray machine? Not exactly bucket list material.
However, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in every 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. That is a scary high number. And that’s why breast cancer screening is so important. Especially considering the fact that thanks to medical advances, when breast cancer is detected early, the 5-year survival rate is 99%.
The Recommendations Have Changed
Most of us have been told since our first visit to the gyno that we should be doing breast self-exams to help with early cancer detection, so you might be as surprised as I was to learn that this isn’t recommended anymore — at least not as a form of cancer screening. Why? According to the Susan G. Komen organization, “A meta-analysis combined the results of the two largest randomized controlled trials on BSE [breast self-exams]. It found no difference in breast cancer survival between women who did routine BSE and those who did not. And, women who did BSE had more false positive results, leading to nearly twice as many biopsies with benign (not cancer) results as women who did not do BSE.”
That doesn’t mean you should give up on self-exams completely, however. Johns Hopkins Medical center states: “Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”
Sound contradictory? My take on it is that BSEs can be good, because they may help you catch a lump early on, but they should never take the place of an actual mammogram. As much as you may not want to hear it, you gotta get the squish. If you are interested in BSEs, the American Cancer Society has a page that can teach you the proper way to do one (click here for their tips), or get a five-step guide from BreastCancer.org by clicking here.
Who Needs a Mammogram?
Your risk for breast cancer increases as you age. According to Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, Vice Chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, “Women ages 50-74 benefit most from screening.” The Task Force recommendations (which are still in draft form) say that if you’re under age 50 and without any increased risks for breast cancer, you should talk to your doctor about your risk and whether or not you need to start mammograms.
Just Plan on It
Regardless of your age, RIGHT NOW is the time to start thinking about breast cancer screening. Talk to your doctor and make a plan for when you will start getting regular mammograms. Need a reminder? The non-profit National Breast Cancer Foundation has a program called Early Detection Plan to help remind you of steps you can take to detect breast cancer early and get treatment as quickly as possible. Check it out at Earlydetectionplan.org.
Shannon was only 38 when she learned she had stage 3 breast cancer. Her mass was 2 ½ inches long, and the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent months of chemotherapy. She was sick. She was scared. She was exhausted. Her hair fell out. But just before this article was published, Shannon and her family got some much hoped for news.
“I’m officially a cancer survivor!” she says. “I’m officially cancer free!”
And now Shannon’s goal is to reach out to other women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer to help them through, and to encourage women to get screened. “If I had gone in [for a mammogram] earlier we may have caught it earlier,” she says. “If I can help one person to go get a mammogram done, it’s so worth it.”