Last month was breast cancer awareness month. It was difficult to go anywhere without seeing pink ribbons and hearing that 40,000 women die each year from breast cancer.
Last week the U.S. Task Force released their screening recommendation for breast cancer, stating “The USPSTF recommends against teaching breast self-examination.”
Unlike their recommendation for getting mammograms at age 50 instead of 40, they recommend against doctors teaching women how to perform breast exams, at any age, because of the possibility of overtreatment.
Four months ago, while taking a shower, I found a lump in my breast. I immediately felt the blood drain out of me. I knew there was a problem not because I was overreacting, but because I’d been doing monthly self-exams for a year. I’d finally listened to my doctor who taught me that by doing them regularly, my subconscious would learn the terrain of my breasts. In a sense, my subconscious found the lump.
Three weeks later I was diagnosed with stage II invasive lobular carcinoma. I almost didn’t get the lump checked. I was 44, don’t drink or smoke, I’m not overweight and don’t have a family history of breast cancer. No way could I have breast cancer.
As I write this, I sit here bald from undergoing chemotherapy and receiving a double mastectomy. Do I feel overtreated? No. I know I’ve saved my life.
If I didn’t perform a self-exam and waited until I was 50 before getting mammograms, it really wouldn’t matter because I would be dead before my 50th birthday. I caught my cancer early, and with treatments I have a 90 percent chance of surviving. If I’d waited, it would have become stage IV breast cancer. The chances of surviving stage IV breast cancer are not good.
I’ve seen media coverage of the report all week and it concerns me that women will stop, or never start, breast self-exams. I’m sure some women breathed a sigh of relief hearing they no longer had to worry about examining their breasts. To say women should not learn or perform an exam that is free and simple is a dangerous message.
Thousands of people cannot afford mammograms because of cost or lack of health insurance. For many, a self-exam is their only option, and it is impossible to perform one correctly if you don’t know how.
Medical experts and organizations that agree with the report advocate that women be “aware” of their breasts, and not perform a formal exam. I don’t know how to be “aware” of my breasts, only how to examine them. They say doing a formal breast self-exam can cause anxiety and stress. Why are we saying our emotions are more important than our safety? I’ll take stress and anxiety over missing a tumor any day.
By performing my self-examination, I will live to see my 7- and 9-year-old daughters graduate from high school and college, attend their soccer games and weddings, not because I waited and avoided overtreatment, but because I acted soon enough.
Hildreth Stafford, a television producer, lives in Decatur.
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