Breast Cancer Survivor Advocates for Mammograms

We've been talking a lot this month about breast cancer and how to detect it early. Mammograms, while not foolproof, are still the gold standard when it comes to early detection of the disease, but a lot of women avoid screenings. Chris Pauling was never one to turn her back on reality. For her, reality meant breast cancer. Her mother battled the disease in her early 50s. And Chris had her first mammogram when she was just in her 20s.

(Chris Pauling, St. Alexius Breast Cancer Survivor):  "I noticed a discharge from a nipple so I had a baseline.”

(Monica):  She says after the birth of her third child, she felt something just wasn't right.

(Chris):  "I felt a lump, but the doctor wasn't really worried. It went away, but six months later it came back. They did a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, and they found out it was a very aggressive type of cancer, already at stage 2.”

(Monica):  And characteristically, Chris tackled the problem head on.

(Chris):  "My nursing side came out, and I thought, 'Let's fix it.' I never cried. If you catch it early enough, it's very doable." In Chris's case, that meant a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy and chemotherapy.

(Chris):  "It's not fun, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."

(Monica):  And that's a message she wants to pass on. She's a strong advocate for early detection and early treatment.

(Chris):  "There are many different treatment options. If they even think there's a chance, get tested.”

Julie Jeske heeds that advice. She's very faithful to her annual mammogram. So far, so good.

(Julie Jeske, St. Alexius Mammogram Patient):  "All my mammograms have come back good.”

(Monica):  Not everybody takes the approach that Julie has taken. The Susan G. Komen Foundation says fewer than half of women aged 40 to 85 get an annual mammogram, even if they have insurance that will cover it.  Researchers believe the main reason women avoid their annual mammogram is fear. So, we asked the experts to talk in real terms about what really happens, to try to put that fear to rest. Fear number one is pain.

(Pam Borchers,  St. Alexius Mammography Technician):  "A lot of people say, 'My neighbor says it really hurts.”

(Monica):  There's no question that a mammogram involves a moment or two of discomfort, but the experts say, put it in perspective.

(Pam):  "It might be uncomfortable, but it only takes 10 minutes, if that, and I release it right away.”

(Julie):  "It's really not very painful. I know some people describe it as that, but I don't.”

(Monica):  The reality is that mammograms do pinch the breast and some people are more sensitive than others. But that discomfort lasts just a few moments.  Fear number 2 -- What if it's cancer?

(Jeske):  "Anytime you go in there's that fear that they might find something.”

(Monica):  As strange as it may seem, some women put off the test, thinking, 'Right now I'm fine, I'm happy. But, if they find cancer my life will change. I just don't want to know.'

(Dr. Doug Peterson, St. Alexius Radiologist):  "Why would you be afraid to find a cancer early when there's a best chance of a cure?"

(Monica):  And then there's that wait to hear the results. Even worse, is that call back to have the test redone. Dr. Peterson says if there's something concerning, you'll likely hear very quickly, so in this case, no news is good news. But even when there's a call back, the statistics are in your favor.

(Dr. Peterson):  "I think between 20 and 30 percent result in a revisit for further imaging. Of those, between five and ten percent turn out to be something to worry about.”

(Monica):  A small percentage. You may say to yourself, 'I do self-breast exams and I don't feel anything, so I'm pretty sure I'm fine.' You probably are. The trouble is, doctors say by the time you can actually feel a breast cancer, it tends to be more advanced, and your chances of beating it go down. Mammography can catch a cancer long before you can feel it, when it's really just specks. The American Cancer Society recommends women begin getting regular mammograms starting at age 40. That number has been somewhat controversial recently, but Julie and Chris agree, better safe, than sorry.

Monica Hannan, Reporting