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Breast cancer survivor stories: ‘A mammogram saved my life’

Editor’s note: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the Chicago Sun-Times invited breast cancer survivors to share their stories. We’ll share these first-person accounts throughout the month.

There have been times since my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer when I have met women who will not get mammograms for one reason or another. My response is always the same — a mammogram saved my life. That and the very astute nurse practitioner who ordered it.

I had thought I felt a lump, but she did not feel anything. Because I was close to the recommended age for getting a baseline mammogram, I went ahead and had my first one.  There was no lump but there was something suspicious.

Twenty-six years ago this fall, at age 38, I was diagnosed with breast cancer that was detected in microcalcifications in an area about the size of a dime. The surgeon’s nurse said there were little specks within that dime-shaped area. To help me understand she said it looked like someone had sporadically dotted the surface with a ballpoint pen. 

The initial biopsy included having a dark-blue dye injected in my breast in what was called a “localizing” mammogram. Looking at the original mammogram a doctor inserted a hollow needle at the site of the microcalcifications and then a mammogram was done to see if the needle was indeed close to the site. The first insertion did not pinpoint the exact location. The first needle was removed, another inserted and a second mammogram was done. This time the positioning of the hollow needle was correct and the dye was then injected at the site.

During ambulatory surgery, the surgeon excised all of the dyed tissue. That was the only way at the time to deal with something so microscopic.

It was my misfortune to be one of the 20 percent of women whose microcalcifications were malignant. At my post-surgery meeting, the surgeon told me that my microcalcifications would not have formed a palpable lump for three or four years. 

In 1988 my treatment was fairly aggressive for such early stage breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy in my second surgery to “stage” the cancer — thankfully my lymph nodes were negative. Surgery was followed by 35 radiation treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy over a period of six months. 

Since 1988 I have had more mammograms than I can count and my reaction, no matter how uncomfortable the procedure, is always the same — a mammogram saved my life.

Jo Ann Casey, Chicago