HEALTH PRO­FES­SION­ALS

Sur­vivors talk about the dis­ease, push­ing for early de­tec­tion

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY RENEÉ NOVELLE Reneé Novelle is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor en­joy­ing beau­ti­ful South­west Florida.

PEO­PLE AND PLACES MAK­ING OUR LIVES BET­TER

The last words I heard were, ‘ You have breast can­cer.’ ” Brid­get Howard’s ex­pres­sion still re­flects the pain of her di­ag­no­sis. “I didn’t hear any­thing the doc­tor said af­ter that.” Eyes flushed red with re­strained tears, the 37-yearold sin­gle mom thought im­me­di­ately of her then 7-year-old son. “He was still get­ting over the di­vorce and be­ing sep­a­rated from his dad, so it was a double whammy for him ad­just­ing to all of this.”

In re­cent years, the na­tion has been pink-washed in a flood of ef­forts meant to raise breast can­cer aware­ness and pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion on the dis­ease. But it’s easy to throw out the statis­tics, never think­ing it could af­fect some­one in your com­mu­nity―or even your own fam­ily. Un­til it ac­tu­ally hap­pens. Breast can­cer in mod­ern Amer­ica af­fects hun­dreds of thou­sands of women ev­ery year―in­clud­ing the nearly 41,000 who ul­ti­mately lose their bat­tle com­pletely. And even in South­west Florida, Howard’s ex­pe­ri­ence with the dis­ease is but one of thou­sands. “I think my sit­u­a­tion was a lit­tle dif­fer­ent be­cause I felt a lump. But I felt it two years prior,” she says.

Though Howard had been com­plain­ing to her physi­cian about it since she was 35, he ig­nored her symp­toms and de­nied her a mam­mo­gram, she says. Fi­nally, her pain ne­ces­si­tated the exam. “It’s hon­estly not as bad as you think,” Howard says of the mam­mo­gram myth. “That’s the big fa­cade, that it’s painful. Child­birth is painful. Mam­mo­grams are noth­ing com­pared to that.”

What fol­lowed her di­ag­no­sis was a double mas­tec­tomy and four heavy rounds of chemo­ther­apy that left her strug­gling to function. “The first one kicked my butt; I was in bed for al­most a week,” says Howard, who lives in Fort My­ers. Her hair soon be­gan fall­ing out and she re­al­ized she would have to wear a wig. “I went to my sis­ter’s house and we shaved my head. My dad wanted his shaved; I cried shav­ing his.” Tears threaten to flow again at the mem­ory. “I learned how to put makeup on with no eye­lashes or eye­brows. You don’t re­al­ize how much you miss your eye­lashes, un­til you don’t have them.”

The age issue that may have pre­vented Howard from get­ting an ear­lier mam­mo­gram seems to be a hot topic th­ese days. Though re­cent rec­om­men­da­tions from the United States Pre­ven­ta­tive Ser­vices Task Force sug­gest start­ing mam­mo­grams at age 50, many highly re­garded or­ga­ni­za­tions― the Amer­i­can Col­lege of Ra­di­ol­ogy, the So­ci­ety for Breast Imag­ing and the na­tional Com­pre­hen­sive Can­cer Net­work― each main­tain that mam­mo­grams should be­gin

at 40. In fact, the Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety re­ports that one in eight in­va­sive breast can­cers are found in women younger than 45. “I was 37 when I was go­ing in for chemo treat­ments, an­other lady there was 30 years old,” says Howard, who still ap­pears shaken by the discovery. “She had a baby. That’s the only rea­son she found it … she was breast-feed­ing. Rec­om­men­da­tions say­ing women shouldn’t get screened un­til 50 scare the crap out of me.”

Tina Gil­bert, di­ag­nosed just af­ter turn­ing 41, agrees. “When I hear the rec­om­men­da­tions of age 50, it makes me cringe. I can’t imag­ine what my life would’ve been like if I’d waited un­til 50 to get a mam­mo­gram,” she says.

Prior to her di­ag­no­sis, Gil­bert con­sid­ered herself ac­tive and nor­mal in ev­ery way. And af­ter years working in the med­i­cal industry, she as­sumed she was well educated on dis­ease. “I’m your nor­mal, ev­ery-day per­son who never re­ally thought it’d hap­pen to me,” the Cape Coral woman says. Af­ter her di­ag­no­sis, Gil­bert en­dured six surg­eries. “No one ever tells you what could go wrong. And I had just about ev­ery­thing that could go wrong hap­pen to me,” she says.

Still, Gil­bert has found a sil­ver lin­ing. “I was able to in­ter­act bet­ter with my pa­tients … I try to calm them and re­mind them I’m still here. That’s why we stress early de­tec­tion, be­cause we’re ob­vi­ously not go­ing to pre­vent breast can­cer at this point. But if we can catch it early enough, you may not have to go through all that.”

One health agency striv­ing to lessen can­cer’s im­pact is Ra­di­ol­ogy Re­gional Cen­ter, a Lee County physi­cian-owned care firm. Among its pro­grams, it pro­vides a mo­bile mam­mo­gram ser­vice to screen busy work­ers and those in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. “The mis­sion of the [Mo­bile Mammo] coach is to make sure that women are tak­ing care of their own health, be­cause early de­tec­tion does save lives,” says Re­nee Palin. She is the pro­gram's di­rec­tor, and be­lieves some women skip an­nual vis­its when sched­ules get too hec­tic. “If you are a ca­reer woman and you can barely make your an­nual phys­i­cal with your pri­mary care doc­tor, adding on that an­nual mam­mo­gram may be just too much in your schedule.”

But ev­ery statis­tic and health ex­pert rec­om­mends an­nual check­ups. “Skip­ping that an­nual mam­mo­gram could al­most be a death sen­tence,” Palin says. “It’s amaz­ing to me the num­ber of can­cers we de­tect at their ear­li­est and most treat­able stage.”

It was the Ra­di­ol­ogy Re­gional Cen­ter team that first dis­cov­ered Marie Spring­steen’s can­cer in 2012. “I started get­ting mam­mo­grams when I was in my early 20s,” she says. “We found it very early and were able to get it treated;” adding that early de­tec­tion helped in avoid­ing more se­ri­ous con­se­quences. It was also the cat­a­lyst for her non­profit pro­ject, the 4 Words Foun­da­tion, which pro­vides ed­u­ca­tion and fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to pa­tients with any type of can­cer in South­west Florida. “I think our abil­ity to re­main alive now is so much greater than it was many years ago. So I don’t see breast can­cer any­more as a death sen­tence,” Spring­steen says.

Gil­bert agrees. “You won’t think of your­self down the road as ‘I have breast can­cer.’ It will be ‘I had breast can­cer.’ It will be­come a mem­ory.”

Brid­get Howard (above) says doc­tors de­layed di­ag­no­sis for pos­si­ble breast can­cer. At age 37 she un­der­went surgery and chemo­ther­apy. Son Colt made the jour­ney with his mom. The Ra­di­ol­ogy Re­gional Cen­ter Mo­bile Coach (be­low) helps those with busy sched­ules.

Tina Gil­bert (left) was di­ag­nosed with can­cer at age 41. Hus­band Mark was there ev­ery step. 3-D mam­mog­ra­phy (mid­dle) is less painful than other pre­ven­tive treat­ments. Dr. Mary Kay Peter­son (right) is di­rec­tor of Women's Imag­ing at Ra­di­ol­ogy Re­gional Cen­ter. Early can­cer de­tec­tion helped Marie Spring­steen (be­low). She's the founder of the 4 Words Foun­da­tion in Cape Coral.

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