When I was in college, about 20 years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 72 years old.
The lump was found during a mammogram, a followup to one six months earlier, which obviously showed something doctors wanted to watch.
About five years later, in her early 80s, her cancer was back and it was in her bones. This time she did the chemo and the radiation and took all kinds of drugs. She lived with bone cancer, often a very aggressive cancer, for another five years. She died five years ago in 2007, a couple months before my wedding.
I remember my parents saying way back then that the bone cancer probably came from the breast cancer, but there's really no way to know. Nor does it matter.
I watched my grandmother fight and fight and fight until the end. She never let cancer stop her from doing what she wanted to do. She was a remarkably strong woman who put on a brave face every day.
It was tough to watch at the end, but fortunately it came quickly – she was only really, really sick for a few months. Until then, she was bearably sick.
Her breast cancer scared me. Now it was in my family, and since she had it, I was more at risk. Yes, she was 72 when she was first diagnosed, and I was 22, but the idea that I had a greater shot at getting the disease was worrisome.
I didn't want to wait until I was 40 to have my first mammogram. So at 35, right after she died, I had my first one, on the basis that breast cancer ran in my family. And I'm glad I did. The mammogram showed something, which led to an ultrasound, and I was ultimately told I had a fybroid cyst. It was nothing to worry about, but it had to be watched with a followup mammogram and ultrasound in six months.
Because I was pregnant and/or nursing my kids for the next four years or so, I didn't have the followup mammogram, but I did have an ultrasound, which showed minuscule changes in the cyst. Again, nothing to worry about.
So now I'm 40, and it's time for me to have regular mammograms, and that first one at 40 (my second overall) is in the books. I haven't gotten the results, but I don't get worried about the results until someone gives me something to worry about. I'm sure everything is fine.
Because of my family history, and because a cyst was found when I was 35, you can bet that getting a regular mammogram will be high on my priority list. Does it hurt? No. It's awkward and uncomfortable but it's a quick and easy process. Ten minutes, tops.
I've known too many young, young women who have died from breast cancer. They were moms with young children and husbands. They, too, lived with the disease for many years, fighting until their bodies just couldn't fight anymore. They were so brave, and so inspiring.
I can only hope that, God forbid, I were ever fighting the same battle, I could show half the courage they did.
Hopefully, though, by getting regular mammograms, if I do develop breast cancer it will be caught early enough that I can beat it.
In 2011, there were more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., according to the Harford County Health Department.
"If all women age 40 and older took advantage of these breast cancer screening methods, that is, clinical breast exam and mammogram, breast cancer death rates would decline considerably more," Wendy Richard, Breast and Cervical Cancer Program coordinator for the health department, said in a press release.
In recognition of October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, see your doctor about getting a mammogram, especially if you're 40 or older or you have a family history. It could save your life.