At 35, I had my first mammogram. It was clean as a whistle. At 36, I was diagnosed with three cancerous tumors in my right breast, two of which were larger than 2.5 centimeters. None of the three tumors were detectable by mammogram - even after I was diagnosed and the radiologist knew where to look. And one of them was not detectable by any means until following my double mastectomy, my breast was dissected in a pathologist's lab.
By the time my breast cancer was caught, it had already spread to my lymph nodes.
Seven years later, I am alive and well. But no thanks to mammograms.
When the US Preventative Services Task Force published its new mammography guidelines suggesting that women not seek regular mammograms until age 50, I was aghast. At first. My immediate impression was that this would serve only to empower insurance companies to deny coverage for women who wished to have mammograms before age 50. Most breast cancer survivors that I know are furious. Many women are saying that the government has effectively sentenced something like two percent of all women under the age of 50 to die of breast cancer.
I understand why all of that is being said. It certainly sounds like angling on the part of the insurance lobby. It certainly sounds like there will be women out there who might have benefited from a mammogram will now be denied a mammogram (unless they chose to pay out of pocket) at the risk of not finding a tumor before it is too advanced to eradicate with surgery and/or chemotherapy. But then I remembered that my own breast tumors, all three of them, were undetectable by mammogram. And I remembered how my breast surgeon told me that women under the age of 50 tend to have dense breast tissue that makes mammography less effective, or as in my case, ineffective.
I found my breast cancer purely by accident. I was soaping up in the shower when my hand stopped on a hardening in my right breast. It was immediately apparent to me that something was different, that something had changed, that something was wrong. I sought medical attention and was in treatment within six weeks, which included my surgeon studying the occult nature of my tumors by putting me through several failed attempts to see them via mammogram.
I wish I could say that a mammogram had saved my life. I wish I could say that a mammogram had caught my breast cancer early. But the technology failed me. And I know that I am not the only one out there with this experience, particularly among young women who are at high risk (as I was). I am not saying that young women should not be entitled to mammograms if they want them. But young women need to be cognizant of the need to know their own bodies and to seek help if they discover something that wasn't there before, something that doesn't seem quite right.
What saved my life wasn't a mammogram or even regular self-exam. Ultimately, I was only able to discover what was discoverable when it was discoverable. The new guidelines may seem stingy and obtrusive. But ultimately, it is up to every woman to pay attention to her body and to seek medical help when something seems not quite right.