Are you at high risk for breast cancer?

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 17, 2008

Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I would like to share my story with you. Last fall, I walked into Walmart facing a display of “pink ribbon” blankets.

I felt like something was physically pushing me toward the blankets. I looked up to God and said, “Oh no. I don’t want anything to do with the ‘pink ribbon!’”

Having watched my mother suffer and die from breast cancer, holding her hand when she took her last breath, I have always been afraid of the “pink ribbon.”

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The following week, I scheduled my annual mammogram but cancelled twice, due to illness. Meanwhile, a friend and breast cancer survivor, came in to my store to share with me her plans of having reconstructive surgery.

I told her that I would seriously consider having prophylactic surgery and reconstruction to prevent breast cancer, and she recommended that, because of my family history, I should see our local oncologist Dr. Jack Rodriguez.

He made me aware of the statistics of having the preventive surgery, which would reduce my chances of getting breast cancer by 90 percent. I decided to have the surgery. I was prepared to do whatever it took to save my life, including mortgaging my house or having the surgery overseas, so that I could be here for my children and live to see my grandchildren.

In preparation of scheduling surgery, I had my mammogram, which came out clear. Dr. Rodriguez told me that I had very dense tissue, which does not show up on a mammogram. I have had mammograms every year since I was 28 years old, and had never been told this before. So, I had a breast MRI, which showed masses in both breasts.

Next, I had an ultrasound, which showed two suspicious areas in each breast. I was then referred to Dr. Phillip Ley in Jackson. Dr. Ley could not see clear images on the ultrasound, so he took my breast MRI scan to Baptist Hospital to study and still did not find anything conclusive.

I told Dr. Ley, “They are coming off. I will not go through this torture again.” He agreed to do the surgery, but wanted to do “random biopsies of the areas that were suspicious.”

Three days later, Dr. Ley called me and said, “You win. They are coming off, and so are your lymph nodes on the left side. You have noninvasive ductal carcinoma in situ!”

I had breast cancer.

On May 29, I had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. Fortunately, because the cancer had not spread outside of the ducts to my lymph nodes, no treatments were necessary.

Had I not been drawn to the “pink ribbon” blankets, the illness that prevented my annual mammogram, my dear friend and breast cancer survivor’s recommendation to see an oncologist, my own persistence, and the “random biopsies,” I would still be walking around with breast cancer like so many women are today.

In preparation of my first visit with Dr. Rodriguez, I wrote a letter informing him of my family history and fears, closing with these thoughts, “Who knows, we may all be wearing T-shirts that have a pink fleur-de-lis dominating the pink ribbon, creating awareness to those who are at high risk!”

I have started the “De lis” pre-breast cancer awareness campaign, for high risk candidates to create awareness of the latest statistics as well as what categorizes them as “high risks” including: a family history of breast cancer, testing positive for the BRCA 1 or BRCA2 gene mutation and having dense tissue or fibrocystic disease.

One out of every six women in this country will have breast cancer, the numbers are rising and the ages of some are as early as their 20s. Men can also have breast cancer.

For those who are at high risk, there are three choices; prophylactic surgery and reconstruction to reduce their chances by 90 percent, take a drug such as tamoxaphen to reduce their chances by 50 percent or wait until they get breast cancer.

Someone asked me, “Why would you have a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction if you don’t have breast cancer. You could be killed in a car accident tomorrow.”

I replied, “If I knew that I had an 85 percent chance of being killed in a car accident tomorrow, I would stay at home.”

In my lifetime it is doubtful that a cure will be found, so until then we have to take a proactive stand and do whatever it takes to protect ourselves from this deadly disease.

If you are at high risk, in addition to your mammogram, insist on having a breast MRI, and if needed, have an ultrasound.

It is expensive, but it could save your life. Perhaps someday, health departments in this country will be equipped with mammogram, breast MRI and ultrasound machines.

In closing, I would like to add something that I was asked by a friend when I shared my plans for this campaign and the fact that I care enough about others to stand up for them. She asked,” Why do you care about the others?” I replied, “I just do.”

May God give all of you the strength and courage to stand up to cancer.

I have designed T-shirts with the De-Lis logo, and Sandijams for children in support of the De lis Campaign which can be purchased at Sandi’s Fabric Outlet, 175 U.S. 61 South, Bellemont Shopping Center.

Sandra Doherty is a Natchez resident.