Mammograms save lives. Despite several controversial studies over the last couple of years, there is no question in my mind or that of most other health care professionals that annual screening mammography for women over age forty has completely revolutionized the treatment of breast cancer. Those studies can’t claim that people regularly receiving mammograms don’t have better rates of survival or cure from their disease–they claim, with mixed success, that providing a large population of women with mammographic screening is not cost effective. What price a life, you ask?
When I began performing surgery for patients with breast cancer in 1982, the typical patient presented with a mass she had felt herself. By the time she came to me for surgery, her cancer was often in a relatively advanced stage. Surgery involved complete mastectomy, usually with the removal of large numbers of her underarm lymph nodes, too often leading to disability and disfigurement. This was followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Worst of all, survival rates in this group of patients rarely reached 80% for the five years following surgery.
Fast-forward to my current practice. Over 90% of women referred to me for surgical treatment of newly discovered breast cancer are now presenting with a lesion found on their annual screening mammogram. Almost all of these lesions are about the size of a pea or smaller, having been discovered years before they grew to a size that could be felt on examination. These early cancers have not spread to the patient’s lymph nodes or anywhere else in her body. There is no need for mastectomy to achieve a complete cure from this early stage of cancer. Indeed, I can reassure patients that equivalent cure rates for such small cancers can be achieved by a small lumpectomy and a sampling of one or two lymph nodes, a procedure that takes less than an hour. The patient is home later that morning and experiences minimal discomfort. Newer forms of radiation therapy permitted by such early diagnosis expose only the localized tissue and can be achieved in five days, rather than the whole breast radiation therapy over 4 to 6 weeks required in the past. Most significant of all, this minimal therapy now provides cure rates well over 90% in these early stage patients.
All of this revolutionary success in the treatment of breast cancer has been made possible by earlier diagnosis due to routine screening mammography. So don’t buy the hype–there is no controversy amongst practitioners over mammography: A mammogram once a year can save your life.
But that’s not what this post is about.
Let’s talk about what happens after: After that excruciating moment when I tell you that the biopsy showed cancer. After the discussion of what we need to do, how soon we can do it (“Sorry, not yesterday”), what happens after the surgery. Surgery for the treatment of breast cancer is safe, straight-forward, and relatively painless. To be honest, surgery for breast cancer is the easiest operation I do. Patients usually are surprised by their rapid recovery. They come back to my office a couple of weeks after surgery feeling great. Over the next several months, I see the patient as she completes her recovery and any additional therapy that’s recommended, usually a short course of radiation therapy and a daily estrogen-blocking pill. By six months after her diagnosis, she’s feeling great and has her life back. And then reality sets in:
The reality being that you are not really convinced you’re cured of cancer until the moment you die of something else.
We’ve moved from a paradigm of the valiant patient bravely battling her cancer to the successful breast cancer survivor–who now must live forever with her diagnosis. It’s not a battle with cancer. Battles are fought and won, and then we can move on. You don’t just fight cancer–you survive cancer, and then you live with having had cancer. This is a burden that few who have not experienced the diagnosis, or lived with someone who has survived cancer, can appreciate. It doesn’t matter how great you feel, or how many times the doctors say that you’re doing great, or how great your spouse or friends say you look–you worry. You worry every day. Because you remember feeling pretty darn great just before the doctor told you that you had cancer.
Of course, we all worry about getting some disease or another. We worry about that dark mole on our arm that might be a little bigger, particularly after we hear of a young friend recently diagnosed with melanoma. We worry about heart attacks, because we get chest pain every time we eat Taco Bell or palpitations at the gym. It’s not the same. It’s not the same because you’ve never been told by the doctor that the biopsy is positive, that your worst fear when you walked into the office was true. You’ve heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? This is Post-The Test Was Bad And You’re Totally Screwed But Now You’re Finally Better Stress Disorder. And it’s every bit as bad. Maybe you didn’t experience faceless bad guys shooting bullets at you in Iraq, but you experienced some pretty heartless machines shooting xrays at you every day for a couple of months, or smiling nurses apologizing as they stabbed the needle in your vein for the third or fourth time, or watched the strange colored fluid dripping into your body knowing that in 24 hours you’d be doubled over the toilet vomiting because that’s just how this stuff works. Cancer sucks, and it doesn’t stop sucking just because everyone tells you that you’re cured.
Sure, they say you’re cured. But you don’t really believe it. You don’t believe it because we keep sending you for more tests and more mammograms and more CAT scans and more PET scans. If there were a PUPPY scan or a CUTE FUZZY BEAR scan, we’d send you for that, too. If I’m cured, you keep wondering, why do we keep looking for it? And every time you have to go for the test, it’s an opportunity to relive that special feeling you had that time when the test came back bad. You relive that feeling for the week before you take the test, while you’re in the machine trying to breathe during the test, and for every single second until the doctor calls to tell you that it’s okay. This time, you think. It’s okay this time. The elephant steps off your chest–but he doesn’t leave the room, he just steps behind you for awhile. Until the doctor says that it’s time to do another test. And there is always another test. If I’m cured, you think, why do we have to keep looking?
So here we are: Surviving today. The test was good. Enjoy it. You can run faster than any old elephant.