Preventive screening for breast cancer is an abstract thought for many. While we all know it’s important, many of us mentally put that task on an imaginary “to-do” list for the future. We wear pink and support the efforts of others every October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month– but often leave out the action steps. I did that myself for many years, putting off genetic testing for the BRCA gene, a strong indicator of breast cancer risk.
While genetic testing is right for some, the best preventive tool for early breast cancer detection is a yearly mammogram. I want to share the story of my dear friend, Patricia Luchsinger, and how her focus on preventive health saved her life.
As a healthy, later-mid-life professional — and a long-time TODAY Show producer — Patricia is a great believer (as am I) that “good health is its own reward.” Not only a healthy eater and regular exerciser, she has done all of the recommended lifestyle boosts regularly for years – getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-rich diet, managing stress, and engaging with friends and family. For Patricia, this also includes regular medical and dental check-ups, and for breast health, monthly self-exams. She also schedules a yearly check up with her gynecologist, which includes a breast exam. As always, since age 40, Patricia also went for her annual mammogram.
In 2017, at the age of 63, Patricia got her yearly mammogram and she was shocked at the result. The mammogram showed a tumor deep in her breast tissue – not detectable by physical exam by either Patricia (who knows her breasts best) or her breast surgeon. As her doctor explained, the tumor was too deep for anyone to detect it from “feel” alone.
After a nerve-wracking wait to determine if the tumor was malignant, Patricia got the news: cancer, and one that is more aggressive that typically seen for women her age.
“I was on vacation in a hotel room when I got the call. [Doctors said] ‘Yes, you have cancer and you will need to be treated,’” Patricia recounted. “I went into producer mode and I started calling doctors and friends to get a recommendation for the best place to go for treatment … By the time I got home a week later, I had an appointment to see Elisa Port, MD, a breast surgeon at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I was very lucky to land in such good hands.”
Always the empowered patient, my friend endured surgery and grueling chemotherapy and radiation – learning all she could about her disease, her treatments, and how she could best contribute to her recovery. As a single mom, she was grateful to have the love and support of her daughter who had just graduated from college and moved back home, as well as friends and family in NYC and across the country.
And she always maintained the healthiest lifestyle she could during her treatments– still eating well, walking every day, and keeping a positive outlook. She took advantage of the yoga, pilates, meditation, and nutrition classes being offered where she was treated.
The best news of all is that Patricia is fully recovered and cancer free for nearly three years. She schedules follow-ups regularly with her oncologist and keeps taking her medication — despite the tough physical side effects — to greatly reduce the risk of a potential recurrence.
“I had already gone 15 months between mammograms [before my diagnosis],” Patricia told me. “My diagnosis was stage 1 breast cancer, and since the type of cancer was aggressive, my treatment and outcome could have been quite different had I waited longer to get that mammogram. Know your risk. Schedule your mammogram. Take care of yourself.”
My dear friend is back to all of her activities and is living life as she always anticipated. I am grateful to Patricia for sharing her story, hoping her experience will personalize the concept many have of a mammogram — a cold machine painfully squishing your breast, then waiting anxiously for the result — for the life-saving tool that it is.
Madelyn Fernstrom is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.