25 years of mammograms: a personal story

The incredible advances in breast cancer detection, treatment, and care since my mom’s and aunts’ diagnoses have only been possible because of our research animals. I’ve spent my entire career making sure our research animals have the best possible care. Having watched my mother and all of her sisters fight – and ultimately succumb to – breast cancer in the 1970s, I feel like this is my way of giving back. This blog post isn’t about a particular research study. It’s about my own personal experience.

Because of my high risk, I’ve been having mammograms since I was 25 years old. I’ve also had ultrasounds, MRIs, and of course I do self exams! And, when genetic testing became available, I had that, too. This year, I celebrated my 25th year of mammograms. Over these years, I’ve had to go back for re-screening, usually because the films just didn’t show what the radiologist needed. But this year was different. A few days after my annual mammogram (in October, of course!), I received a call from the Breast Center letting me know that there were suspicious areas in both breasts and that I needed to come back for more diagnostics. Talk about making my blood run cold. Waiting for the appointment date, I played all the worst-case scenarios I could think of. The day of my appointment, I was a nervous wreck sitting there in that robe waiting.

As I sat there pondering all the ramifications of a malignancy diagnosis, I thought about the surgery, the chemotherapy, the radiation that I might be facing. Losing my hair. Losing weight (yes, I want to – but not that way!). Crushing fatigue. Toxicity. Nausea. Burns from radiation. Pain. More pain. All the things I watched my mom and aunts go through. Once I got into the mammography room, though, it occurred to me that I was surrounded by the technology, treatments, and skills made possible by my beloved research animals.

Cancer research isn’t just finding ways to detect specific cancer cells. Cancer research advances include pain management, targeted radiation therapy to reduce damage to healthy tissue, gene therapy to specifically target my body’s disease, reductions in drug toxicity, fatigue management, side effect management, nutrition, and even behavioral management. There are even studies to figure out how to prevent hair follicle death which results in baldness – the most visible side effect of cancer chemotherapy.

Fortunately, after many (!) mammo views and followup ultrasound, one of my breasts was declared ok. There is a spot on the other side that was marked for comparison tracking in future mammograms, but I was cleared to return to my normal annual mammograms. So this year, my story had a happy ending. But, if down the road I do get that dreaded diagnosis, I can be confident that my experience will be very different from what my mom and aunts had to endure. In the 1970s, the 10 year survival rate for breast cancer was about 40%.  Thanks to animals and biomedical research, the 10 year survival rate today is over 77%!