Mmmograms do save lives

Phoebe Dunbar talks about her breast cancer experience

On this sunny morning I’m eating healthy stuff, the berries, organic grains trying to do my part about being responsible for one’s health. Here is my story about breast cancer.

It’s early September (2011).  I am down at the Sunriver Community Allotment Gardens  harvesting food for the food bank with my pals. “Oh no,” I call out. “My mammogram appointment up Sooke is in 10 minutes. I don’t think I’ll go, cause my t -shirt is dirty,” not to mention my hands. Good ol’ farm dirt.

To make a long story short I do go after encouragement from my friends… oh who cares about the dirty t-shirt.

Within four working days I get the call – you need more imaging at VGH. Right away I got the first biopsy. There was no guessing at this small lump – however I was hoping there might be and prayed that I would fall in to that 94 per cent category – there won’t be anything wrong, just a lump.  Dammit, I was in the 6 per cent.  And thank goodness I did this biopsy and more imaging, the tumour would never have been detected by me or my doc, it was too small.  But, after several  medical consults a mastectomy soon thereafter was done, as well as numerous excisional and node biopsies. We needed GOOD pathology tests.

It took a long time to get the oncology consultation. I only got it Dec. 1 at the cancer agency. I had been triaged as not urgent. Everyone took their time to get it “right” in the health care system.  I do not believe for a moment anyone took unnecessary action.  Even now, a day after the visit to the oncologist, they will seek a second opinion on the pathology testing.

I am lucky, it could be way worse. This grade three tumour, even though removed swiftly, still had some run away “brat” cancer cells. I will now live with cancer. I am told there is no cure.  Yes, there is treatment, and the science of forecasting “reoccurrence” is still very much on the edge of a frontier. It’s like a lesson in mathematics – probabilities. That is okay.

I found the cancer agency to be incredibly honest, candid and not recommending any procedure that may be viewed as unnecessary —  not even chemo, after all it only reduces your risk of reoccurrence or mortality by four per cent. So why do that? Life is all a bit risky. I will opt for the slam dunk hormone therapy.

I share this story with you because with my friends, far too many woman friends, they all benefitted from early detection by mammogram… and they all lead reasonably fit lives, and we are all foodies and eat the right stuff… BUT, am I ever going to be an advocate for screening, and not worry about the dirty t-shirt and perhaps dirty finger nails.

I find it quite remarkable and somewhat uncanny that I live in a small town yet know of at least six women out here who all had breast cancer detected by mammogram screenings. Are the stats wrong? Why is it I know of what feels like so many? And this is only in the last two-and-a-half months.

Before September of this year I knew zip about breast cancer, other than we are all to keep looking for lumps, and maybe if you find one get it cut out. End of story.  I had no idea breast cancer was so dangerous feeding other cancers elsewhere in your body either through the blood or lymph systems. The lump part is the least of your worries.

I’m 68, and the learning curve for me is steep, but I can’t believe how lucky I am that this was caught… we could say early, but it was not early enough to stop the cancer cells from “getting away” beyond the breast. Two years ago there was nothing in the breast. Now two years later its already stage three. Huh?

One more thing  — I will never use words like  “why me,” or refer to it as a  “battle” with cancer. I am going to be positive, accepting and carry on with a healthy lifestyle which I think are the most important steps to being responsible… the rest should come fairly easy.

Phoebe Dunbar

Sooke