I have lived in or near Mendocino County since I was five years old, and I care deeply about the health and well-being of our community. As a women’s health nurse practitioner, I spend a lot of time talking with patients about prevention and early detection, because these are our greatest tools for healthy outcomes.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and since it started in 1985, we have made incredible advances in detection and treatment. But even so, cancer is still scary. Here’s how it often goes.
To detect breast cancer, mammograms are the gold standard, either done as a bi-annual screening or because you discover a lump in your breast. If the radiologist sees something concerning on your mammogram, you’ll be referred for an ultrasound. If the ultrasound doesn’t resolve those concerns, your doctor will likely ask for a biopsy (getting a tissue sample) so a pathologist can determine exactly what’s going on. If, heaven forbid, the biopsy comes back positive for cancer, then it’s time to talk to an oncologist and, likely, a surgeon. Together, you and your medical team will develop a treatment plan.
The good news is that today’s medical treatments are more effective than ever before, and you don’t have to leave Mendocino County to get treated. We also have the wonderful Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County (CRCMC), a non-profit organization whose vision is that no one should face cancer alone. CRCMC provides patient navigation, health education, practical support such as wigs and prostheses, as well as the emotional and social support that’s so important during the cancer journey. All of CRCMC’s services are free.
Although treatment has come a long way, prevention is still better. Some people are at higher risk than others, including women who never had children, didn’t breastfeed, have breast implants, smoke, or drink alcohol. But the biggest risk factor is family history, especially immediate family and especially if that family member was diagnosed before the age of 50.
In that case, we recommend genetic testing to check for the presence of genes that impact a person’s chances of developing certain types of cancer. Medical advances have made the testing simple and convenient: it’s an at-home saliva test that you drop in the mail, and many insurance carriers cover it if you have a family history of cancer.
If you cannot avoid cancer, you’ll want to catch it as early as possible and that’s where regular mammograms come in. In their earliest iterations, mammogram machines were a little like torture devices, and that is still the perception some women have. But the latest technology is not your mama’s machine! Sure, they can be a little uncomfortable, but they are FAST: in just six seconds we get a series of clear, three-dimensional images akin to a CAT scan. Plus, nearly every insurance company covers the cost of mammograms starting at age 40 – earlier for women with family history and other risk factors. For people without insurance in California, programs like Every Woman Counts and the Breast and Cervical Treatment Program (BCTP) will cover most or all of the cost of preventive screenings and treatment.
Many people are afraid of finding something and they avoid mammograms because of that fear, but treatment is so much less invasive when caught early, and health outcomes are so much better. Please don’t delay! The younger a person is diagnosed with breast cancer, the more aggressive the cancer tends to be. Mammograms can provide peace of mind, and they can also save your life.
I see a lot of women in my line of work, and some of them inevitably get breast cancer. But in my thirty years of working in medicine, I’ve been astonished at the improvements in cancer detection and treatment. Today, we have higher survival rates than ever before and a better understanding of how to care for ourselves, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, too. These days we approach cancer treatment with a lot of optimism. So, if you’ve been on the fence about scheduling a mammogram, or if you haven’t had an annual well-check in the past year or so, let this Breast Cancer Awareness Month be the nudge you needed to make it happen.
Carolyn Wyatt is a women’s health nurse practitioner at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.