Oct. 10--As a patient navigator for The Cancer Center at Blue Ridge Healthcare,
Dolly Wilson, RN, MSN, knows too well the value of regular mammograms and early
detection of breast cancer.
Her experiences working with patients at all stages of the disease has shown the
devastation women endure from diagnosis to treatment, and sometimes, to death.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 232,340 new cases of
breast cancer in women will occur in 2013, and 39,620 of those patients will die
of the disease. However, statistics show that the death rate of breast cancer
patients has been slowly but steadily declining, which researchers attribute to
better early detection.
Part of the reason early detection has improved in the last several decades,
stems from the work of the Susan G. Komen for a Cure foundation. The
organization began after Nancy G. Brinker lost her sister, Komen, to breast
"Komen came about because of the fact that her sister had breast cancer and she
saw her sister go through cold waiting rooms, long periods between suspicion and
biopsy and then between biopsy and surgery and treatment," Wilson said. "She
feels if her sister had had shorter intervals between all those steps that she
would have had a better chance at survival. She vowed to her sister that she
would make sure that this didn't happen to other women."
Because of the Komen foundation's efforts, it is now part of the American Cancer
Society's and the National Cancer Institute's standards that hospitals have to
meet to be accredited, Wilson said.
The Cancer Center at BRHC, meets that accreditation, Wilson said.
"That means we meet that criteria and that criteria includes making sure that
when a patient has a suspicious mammogram, that the days between that and the
diagnosis and the biopsy and the surgery are short. We also have certain
standards that are based on what the results are of those biopsies. Depending on
the results, it is like a road map as to what a patient will have next."
The earlier breast cancer is detected, Wilson said, the better chance of having
less treatment and the better chance of survival.
"Early detection could possibly help a person avoid having all of those
treatments or less treatments," Wilson said. "Sometimes they could just be put
on Tamoxifen or a pill that would help reduce the recurrence of breast cancer."
This is why Wilson stresses the importance of having mammograms annually at the
age of 40.
"A lot of times, a mammogram will find it a lot smaller than you will be able to
feel it," Wilson said. "Many times, it's a period of about two years before you
would actually feel a lump that a mammogram would actually pick up. So it could
be about the size of your thumbnail before you would actually feel it.
"At that point, the person would have to have more different treatments to get
rid of it. It could be spread to the lymph nodes and even to the bones."
One of the many reasons Wilson says women avoid having mammograms, is fear.
"One of the biggest fears I have seen out there as a breast cancer nurse is that
patients often don't have a mammogram is because they say that it hurts, or
they've heard that it hurts," Wilson said. "That's a common misconception. Now
that mammograms are digital, 90 percent of women say they don't hurt. If they do
hurt, it's because the person didn't speak up."
Wanda Harris, RT-R, at The Cancer Center agreed that communication is key to
making the process more comfortable.
"The role of a mammographer is to provide the best quality mammogram for the
radiologist to make a diagnosis," Harris said. "Compression is one element that
is vital in accomplishing this goal. Unfortunately, the fear that some women
have in regards to compression may keep them from having a mammogram. Good
communication and understanding is important for both the technologist and the
patient in achieving the best mammogram possible."
Since insurance companies generally only cover mammograms in those after the age
of 40 unless there is a proven family history, Wilson says it's even more
important for women in their 20s, 30s and early-40s to do breast self-exams.
Having breast cancer at such a young age often indicates the possibility of a
much more aggressive form.
"If it's estrogen driven, it actually will cause it to grow faster," she said.
"If you're younger (and are diagnosed with breast cancer), that would be an
indication that there is a possible genetic mutation that would be involved that
would cause it to be more invasive. That would mean more family members would
possibly have it, which would mean the younger you are, that it's going to be
In addition to early detection, Wilson said there are other key factors for
women to consider, such as a healthier lifestyle.
"I have often heard the comment 'it seems like everything causes cancer, so why
should I even try' and 'you're going to die of something so I might as well do
what I want.'" Wilson said. "The view that everything causes cancer and nothing
can be done is a major obstacle to cancer prevention.
"It's no wonder that consumers are confused. Individual studies taken in
isolation can be profoundly misleading."
Wilson said that while the parameters of what constitutes a healthy diet have
been known for decades, an unhealthy diet still ranks high on the list of what
can increase a person's chances of contracting various diseases.
"There's evidence that eating lots of fruit and vegetables compared to meat can
have protective effects against cancer and others diseases," Wilson said. "We
all have to make choices regarding health risks. Decreasing your cancer risk
begins with your own personal choices."
According to the American Cancer Society, one-third of cancer deaths are linked
to poor diet, physical inactivity and carrying excess weight.
"Making a healthy lifestyle change can go a very long way toward becoming one
less statistic in the war against cancer," Wilson said.
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