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Keys to Early Breast Cancer Detection

Regular self-examinations and mammogram screenings are the key to early detection

Five years ago, while reaching under the sink, Melissa Taylor banged the left side of her chest on the cupboard door. It hurt. A lot. But two weeks later, it was still painful. And she could feel a lump.

Thinking it might be a hematoma, she decided to have it checked out. A visit to her gynecologist led to a visit to the Breast Care Center at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.

Initially, her physician, Brett Parkinson, MD, imaging director of breast care services at the center, thought it was most likely a benign tumor commonly found in the breasts of young women. However, an ultrasound was inconclusive.

Dr. Parkinson determined that the best, safest course of action was a biopsy and performed one right away. Two days later, Melissa got the bad news. She had breast cancer. She was only 24 years old.

"I was in shock," she recalls. "Everything became a big blur."

Melissa was visiting Chicago when she got the news. Almost immediately, she returned to Utah to begin treatment. An MRI detected no signs that her tumor had spread, so a lumpectomy was performed. Sentinel lymph nodes from her underarm were also removed and checked for diseased cells. None were detected.

After surgery, Melissa learned she had Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC). IDC is a type of tumor that typically forms in a milk duct and passes into the surrounding tissue. It is considered an aggressive form of breast cancer. Almost immediately, Melissa began chemotherapy and radiation therapy to keep the cancer from spreading.

"It was awful. I had to crawl. It even hurt to blink. Noises outside the house were almost too much to bear," she recalls.

After eight rounds of drug infusions and seven weeks of radiation, she was finally finished with treatment. Her hair, eyebrows and fingernails grew back; her life slowly began to return to normal.

"I know it sounds weird, but after the initial shock, I just knew that everything was going to be OK," she says. "Inside, I knew that I could handle it, that I could fight it and not let it get me down."

And that's what she did. To take her mind off of her own pain, Melissa focused on helping other cancer patients and ailing friends cope with illness. She says she didn't want to just sit around thinking "poor me."

A Better Way for Women.

Helping others is also the focus of Dianne Kane's life. As nursing director for oncology services and breast cancer programs at Intermountain Medical Center, Alta View Hospital, LDS Hospital, and Riverton Hospital, Kane is a registered nurse and breast cancer survivor who uses her understanding of the fear, the sadness, and the challenges of a breast cancer diagnosis to make treatment easier on women.

"When it happens to you, it's different," she says, noting that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. "You are no longer a nurse. You are the patient, and you need someone to talk to. As I traveled through my course of treatment, I made notes of the things I thought were excellent and the things we needed to improve."

Intermountain offers a unique multidisciplinary breast cancer treatment program that is unlike any other breast cancer program in Utah. It brings together a team of radiologists, pathologists, medical and radiation oncologists, nurses, surgeons, social workers and genetics counselors to review individual cases.

Together, these specialists discuss the best options for each patient and come to a consensus on treatment. The suggested plan is then presented to the patient in one of two ways - either by several visits to her doctors, or all at once in a multidisciplinary Breast Cancer Clinic.

The clinics take place every Thursday morning at the Jon & Karen Huntsman Cancer Center at Intermountain Medical Center. Women meet individually with specialists to discuss their diagnosis and proposed treatments. Kane says it provides an excellent opportunity for women to ask questions and make sure they truly understand their diagnosis.

Additionally, each woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer at the center is assigned a "nurse navigator" whose main focus is to guide each woman through the often-confusing maze of doctors, tests, surgeries and treatments.

Kane says the program has a patient satisfaction rate of about 98 percent. She recognizes that not everything will be perfect for every patient, but having a navigator as an advocate helps women feel empowered.

"We do it because it's the right thing to do," she says. "The benefit of the team approach is unmatched and the patients feel like they are working with the team, rather than having someone making decisions for them. They appreciate the security of knowing they are not alone."

The Breast Care Center at Intermountain Medical Center also houses state-of-the-art technology. When Melissa came in for her ultrasound, she was able to have her biopsy during the same appointment. If needed, she could have also had a mammogram, or even walked down the hall for an MRI.

First Line of Defense is Self-Examination.

These tests are necessary for an accurate diagnosis, but Dr. Parkinson stresses that a woman's first defense against advanced breast cancer is self-examination.

"Vigilant women who discover their lumps on self-exam, and don't hesitate to seek immediate medical attention, are diagnosed at an earlier stage than those who ignore their symptoms," says Dr. Parkinson. "And cancers that are detected with a screening mammogram, before they can be felt by a woman or her doctor, have a cure rate of around 98-99 percent."

A recent task force said women could wait until age 50 to begin the screening, but Dr. Parkinson - and the American Cancer Society - don't agree. They recommend annual mammograms beginning at age 40.

"Some healthcare professionals are telling women they should be 'breast aware,'" he says. "What does that mean? Watch your cancer grow? It's ludicrous!"

Dr. Parkinson says that Melissa was smart to call her doctor as soon as she found a lump, even though her age and symptoms didn't sound any alarms. His mantra is "any lump, any age, needs to be investigated." It was that kind of persistence that saved Melissa. "One mistake we make in modern medicine is assuming common diseases don't strike in uncommon age groups, he says. "That's just not so."

Intermountain Healthcare has mammogram centers throughout the Salt Lake Valley for your convenience. Mammography centers are located at Alta View Hospital in Sandy, Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, and Riverton Hospital in Riverton. To make an appointment at the closest mammography screening center, call (801) 507-7840.

Article Reviewed: July 18, 2012
Copyright © 2015 Healthy Magazine

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