Diane Barnes, my mother, of West St. Louis County, received an abnormal mammogram in October 2005, but waited six months until she learned she had breast cancer.
The scenario may happen more often than you think. It's a common practice; doctors tell me the results are usually fine, but it was an eye-opening process for my mother, who now wants other women to learn from her experience and take control of their health.
With no serious health issues and no known family history of breast cancer, my mom wasn't concerned when she was asked to come back for a closer look after an abnormal mammogram in October 2005. Doctors took another, very close look. She had another mammogram and an ultrasound, but nothing was apparent other than what was considered "dense breast tissue." There was no lump to be seen or felt, but the tissue was different than previous mammograms.
Like many women, my mom was told to come back in six months. She did. In May 2006, the 61-year-old mother of three had a biopsy and was diagnosed with invasive ductal breast cancer.
"Absolutely, totally surpised. I was expecting them to say the little blip they saw was nothing," my mom recalls.
But what was even more shocking to my mom was that she had waited six months with the cancer growing in her body for that diagnosis.
"I didn't anticipate there being any issue at all. It never crossed my mind that this could be cancer. You know, you have mammograms on a preventative schedule since you turn 40 and never any problems, never any issues. I was thinking, if it was (really) something, they would have known back in October, which is a naive way think."
A lumpectomy was performed shortly after by Jovita Oruwari, an oncologic breast surgeon with Mercy Clinic St. Louis Cancer and Breast Institute, which is located in West St. Louis County.
Surgeons determined the cancer did not spread to my mother's lymph nodes. My mom began radiation and took five years of Femara, an anti-estrogen cancer drug that is a form of chemotherary. As of today, she has successfully completed treatment for breast cancer and still sees Oruwari, who reviews her annual mammograms.
In September, we celebrated my mom's 67th birthday and are so grateful for her amazing doctors and the radiologist who pushed for the biopsy, even though nothing alarming was ever found on the sonogram.
"I feel very fortunate that the cancer I experienced was not an aggressive one and I had that six months to be still be living," my mom now says.
However, it's always haunted her a bit that she waited six months for the cancer diagnosis.
In my mom's case, it was, in fact, a slow-growing form of cancer and in talking with doctors, we learned the tissue actually appeared in her mammograms as far back as five years. However, it was simply more apparent in the new digital mammogram than her films in the past.
Her surgeon and other physicians say the six-month waiting period is pretty standard. Oruwari tells Patch, there are several reasons why a subtle change is not enough to push a radiologist to push for a biopsy right away.
"Six months was the amount of time that was figured out in medicine that things don't go horribly wrong," Oruwari explained. "And we know that because that's been studied in a lot of women."
However, Oruwari said the six-month guideline isn't always her recommendation and she encourages women to take control of their health. In hindsight, my mom wishes she had done just that and hadn't waited six months for the biopsy.
Check back to Town and Country - Manchester Patch for more on the six-month guideline, what Oruwari recommends for women and the changes my mom has made to be her own health-care advocate.
*NOTE: Gabrielle Biondo has been the editor of Town and Country-Manchester Patch since its launch in November 2010. She is telling her mother's story as part of Patch's coverage of Breast Cancer Awareness month.