When it comes to breast cancer, early detection key to saving lives

Having spent my career treating and helping patients diagnosed with breast cancer, I’ve seen first-hand the toll it takes on the patient, their family, and loved ones. As I walk my patients through the process and explain step-by-step how we’re going to approach their care, it’s difficult to alleviate the anxiety that they’re feeling. After all, it is one of the single most challenging conversations they are going to have. There’s another side to it, however.

There’s bravery. Once the shock of the diagnosis wears off, they step up to face this disease head-on. There’s hopefulness when they receive the news that they’re cancer-free. Above all, there’s love, as family members and friends passionately rally in support of the patient.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and while we’ve come a long way since we first began recognizing this month of remembrance and support in 1985, there’s still one message we cannot restate enough: Early detection saves lives.

Breast cancer remains the most common cancer diagnosed in U.S. women, affecting one in eight across the country, but survival rates increase drastically when it is detected in its earliest stages. There are numerous reasons why a woman might put off receiving their screening mammogram, ranging from financial concerns to worries about the uncomfortable screening process, or even just disregarding getting screened because they feel healthy. However, we’re working to break down those barriers, assisting patients in finding financial assistance, and creating a tranquil environment for our patients so that they feel emotionally supported and physically comfortable throughout the screening process. 

More than anything, we’re encouraging all women to begin annual screening mammograms at the age of 40, no matter what. This is the best way to ensure you detect breast cancer early and treat it effectively. For those who have a family history or detect lumps in your breasts, it’s important to begin those conversations and possibly start those screenings even earlier – like right now.  

So, as a physician who’s seen the heartache of family members and loved ones who lose their mother, grandmother, daughter, or sister to breast cancer, I urge you to think about all the important women in your life over the age of 40. When was the last time they had a screening mammogram? Do they receive it annually, or can they be a bit flakey about it? If so, what’s holding them back, and how can you help?

This October, I urge you to call them, start the conversation, and reiterate the importance of early detection as we honor survivors this month, and remember those who lost their lives to breast cancer. It might not be an easy conversation, but it could prevent even more difficult conversations down the road. To easily schedule a screening mammogram, visit northernlighthealth.org/scheduleamammogram.

Suzanne Hoekstra, MD, FACS, is the Breast & Lymphedema Program Director at Northern Light Mercy Breast Care.