49-year-old Amy Mason knows how to find the bright side of any situation. But it’s not hard to see the silver lining in this particular cloud. If breast cancer screening guidelines had advised her to start getting checked at 50 instead of 40, her cancer wouldn’t have been detected until at least a year later.
As it was, however, doctors were able to see the change in her tissue between her two latest 3D mammograms and know that something wasn’t quite right. The single mother of three got her diagnosis in time, and her condition is very treatable. If she had waited, the aggressive triple-negative cancer might have progressed much further without her knowledge.
How early and how often women should get mammograms has been a widely debated topic in recent years, with some experts recommending yearly mammograms, while others suggest bi-yearly screening, and some guidelines suggesting a starting age of 40 while others say 50. The American Society of Breast Surgeons currently believes 40 is the optimal age to start getting mammograms, and that recommendation may have saved Amy Mason’s life.
“If I would have waited, it probably would have had metastasized to other places and been a very sick person,” she says.
That, of course, doesn’t change the shock that any cancer diagnosis will give you. “It’s like a punch. A hard punch. You can’t breathe,” recalls Amy.
Once a week, Amy travels from North Carolina to the VCU Massey Cancer Center in Virginia for her chemotherapy treatment. Now that the shock of the diagnosis has worn off, Amy has continued to find humor in just about everything, including the wig she got after losing her hair to cancer treatment. She calls it Leslie and treats it more or less like a member of the family.
“We’ll be getting ready to go and I’ll say ‘Somebody go get Leslie. She’s got to go with us,'” says Amy. “I have a great wig.”
For those interested in the American Society of Breast Surgeons‘s guidelines on breast cancer screening, here are the main points:
1. Women over 25 should undergo a formal risk assessment for breast cancer.
2. Women with an average risk of breast cancer should initiate yearly screening mammography at age 40.
3. Women with a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer should undergo yearly screening mammography and be offered yearly supplemental imaging; this screening should be initiated at a risk-based age.
4. Screening mammography should cease when life expectancy is less than 10 years.
Dr. Kandace McGuire, chief of breast surgery at Massey, says the new guidelines have resulted in a 15 percent reduction in mortality. She still stresses, however, that deciding which set of guidelines to follow is a patient’s choice and can be very personal.
Amy is still battling stage III breast cancer and has more chemo and surgery ahead of her, but she’s grateful for her life and is doing her best to have fun, no matter what happens. “Enjoy every moment and appreciate the little things,” she says.
Check out the video below to learn more about Amy’s spectacularly positive attitude and how the guidelines from the American Society of Breast Surgeons changed her life.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?